The four-yearly Festival of Pacific Arts has just finished in Pago Pago, American Samoa; it is the largest Pacific arts event in the world, bringing together more than 20 countries to celebrate all things Pacific and arts, from the culinary arts to fashion, from healing arts to tattoo – and everything in between. This festival is über-multi-disciplinary: creativity and artistic expression is certainly not defined by institutions, galleries and academia in the Pacific. Here, the Pacific arts are eaten, smelt, heard, absorbed… analysed, recorded and written about, and for many, marked permanently in skin.
I travelled with the hundred plus Aotearoa delegation which was a tasty mix of tangata whenua and diasporic Pacific artists, lead by Te Waka Toi, the Maori arts board of Creative New Zealand, the New Zealand Arts Council. For twelve days, the country’s vocational polytechnic was our home, affectionately named ‘Te Kura o Tafuna’. Nestled between the prison and some car yards, behind the ANZ bank and down the road from McDonalds, our accommodation faced the almighty Pacific Ocean and sat at the foot of the majestic mountainscape of Tutuila Island. Surrounded by musicians, performers, artists and storytellers, there was always jamming, the gentle buzzing of tattoo machines, dress rehearsals, singing and much laughter. With probably one digital camera per person, the trip was being documented from a hundred perspectives, archived almost in real time on Bebo and Facebook.
The Aotearoa fashion show presented the best of Maori fashion design, expertly choreographed by Iosefa Enari and curated by Suzanne Tamaki. Models from the delegation gave themselves fully proudly, passionately: the outcome was outstanding. Taki Rua Productions presented Strange Resting Places written by Rob Mokaraka and Paolo Rotondo, and together with Dianna Fuemana’s significantly site-specific work, Falemalama, Aotearoa’s theatrical offerings were moving and loaded.
The culinary arts were represented in two areas: a large cool cafeteria where different countries would prepare national foods, all day, most days, fresh and free to the public (a great find); and the other, down on Utulei beach where the earth ovens were laid. Here, the smells of earth cooking and roasting pigs was incredible but queuing and clawing for scraps was less than appealing.
The filmic component of the Festival, although inadequately organised, gave voice to many concerns affecting Pacific people. Amongst DIY documentaries, diaspora dramas and animation was a refreshing short film by Brett Wagner called The Chief, filmed entirely on the island of Oahu, Hawaii and officially selected for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Truly impressive filmic craftsmanship had the audience whole heartedly engaged with this realistically informed depiction of the Pacific of the 21st century.
The various versions of the programme of this Festival, taking place over ten venues, was changed daily, making most written information frustratingly inaccurate. As such, much of my experience was right-place-right-time, but much was missed. Whilst catching the Solomon Island rock band, Black Rose from Fiji and a young Tongan rapper perform in the Jam House and being thoroughly moved by the short film Suffering without Suffrage from Guam, as a young dancefloor fiend from south Auckland, finding the Bowling Club had to be a beautiful highlight of this journey.
We found the Bowling Club on our first night on the island. Hearing a muffled club sound, we scaled a small wall, passed a group of fa’afafines and followed the dim red light to a secluded back entrance. Inside it was all Corona, hot bodies, brown skin and staunch eyes… and the dancefloor was hot! Raw rhythm infused with hot-sex-hip-pop, sweat and beautiful, comfortable Polynesians… it was like-wow. When Usher’s “Love in this Club” came on, the steam was visible… women with so much swagger… grinding that made me blush, dancers with towels: this was serious shit and I loved it! Saturday nights were pumping, and week nights provided many with a cold beer and relief from a day of stressful hot sun venue hopping and rude MC’s. Gradually the Bowling Club became a hot spot for the Fijian and Solomon Island delegations and the second home of much of ‘Te Kura o Tafuna’. The Bowling Club was always on time, never unfriendly, had doors on their toilets (unlike many American Samoan toilets) and became a way to experience American Samoa without the drama and pretence of the Festival programme.
Overall, great friendships were formed, good networking was performed, no diseases were contracted, I didn’t lose much, and I definitely didn’t starve: I had my first taste of the all-encompassing American presence in the Pacific, and much about Pacific Arts, Aotearoa, curatorship and community was clarified and contextualised.