By Ema Tavola
VASU: Pacific Women of Power exhibition catalogue | University of the South Pacific

Women artists have been largely absent from the contemporary visual arts scene in Fiji. Whilst not completely invisible, women have been outnumbered and thus the development of this sector is skewed toward a male truth and a male gaze.

Contemporary art in Fiji has evolved from the success and sales generated by artists, many of whom have emerged from the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific. These artists established a foundation: their aesthetic and conceptual approach prescribed a ‘norm’, a benchmark, and an economic model. The commercialisation of contemporary art in Fiji is a consequence of socio-economic realities. This situation has stunted the growth of the movement, to some extent, as art that doesn’t have a proven or marketable aesthetic can be seen as an economic risk and thus is less likely to be exhibited, written about and appreciated.

As such, an aesthetic of success has evolved. Whilst not limited to these parameters, much contemporary art produced and sold in Fiji features an earthy palette and complex maps of curves, pattern and symbols, depicting bold native stories of myths and legends, love and war. They are noble and romantic, rhythmic, didactic and accessible. They are often visibly labour intensive: as a high end marketable product, this is an indication of skill and workmanship and money well spent.

Art defined by economics has created a polarising effect. If good art is defined by that which sells, all art that doesn’t measure up against the established benchmark can and is undervalued and missing from what contemporary visual arts represents of Fiji’s complex socio-cultural landscape.

Much artwork made by women, non-Fijian and other artists from the margins of society speaks boldly of present day realities. These realities are not informed by nostalgia and memory but by survival, and often gritty urbanity. Artistic responses to issues such as abuse, oppression, incest and violence are often as hard to look at as the issues themselves are to process. This art is not easy. Politically, aesthetically and conceptually, this work disrupts and confronts.

Artwork made by women has often been labelled by male critics as ‘too personal’. Without primary commercial agendas, often women’s art is created as a psychological release, facilitating healing and self-development. It is profoundly personal, deeply political and always relevant. The context of its creation, the boldness of its presence and what is said without words combine to form a poetry of beauty and purpose.

This measure of beauty and depth is on a completely different page to that which has been established by the aesthetics of success. On this page, the hierarchy of palatability and skill is not measured by a model designed by male artists who have gone before. Indeed much women’s art often doesn’t even subscribe to the Western high art currency of oil and canvas. Artwork created using materials found in domestic surroundings is as loaded and valuable as a traditional framed canvas masterpiece.

Whilst there may be a market for frangipani paintings and imagery that matches lounge suites and beautifies board rooms, the international visual arts industry values honesty, authenticity and visual integrity. The fierceness of what Fiji women artists depict about their lived experience is art world currency. Fiji women artists need to be valued at a local and national level: in many ways they will strengthen Fiji’s international profile for all Fiji Islanders.

Women artists should not be economically disadvantaged. Their unique styles and approach need to be respectfully brought from the margins to the centre. To accept and acknowledge the difference that women artists bring is a paradigm shift that will have a transformative effect on the sector and beyond for Fiji’s emerging creative economy. For women’s art to be fully integrated into the contemporary landscape, participation is essential at all levels of the work’s transmission from private to public. Women artists will benefit hugely if their work is responded to by women writers and made accessible to women curators, audiences and commentators.

This exhibition should act as a catalyst to encourage the country’s leading contemporary visual arts institution to not be limited by the commercial market for contemporary art in Fiji, and to embrace difference, risk and new ideas with passion and gusto. This exhibition should inspire leaders of the sector to trust the integrity and validity of women’s artwork, in all its forms, without judgement and comparison.

Contemporary visual art by women of the Pacific is part of the development of our region, and our people. Without it, we are only telling half of our story.

Equality is not merely political correctness: equality is excellence.


“What do your tattoos mean?”
By Ema Tavola
Tattoo – Respond-Response #2 | Catalogue Essay

Tattoo – Respond-Response #2 invited people to contribute images of tattoos, and the stories, words and thoughts associated with them. Collated into a catalogue the project has in a way culminated in a story book (based on fact), with pictures and words abstractly linked by skin and ink. The nature of the story has developed organically by the project’s participants; the publication’s narrative represents the project’s physical and web-based interaction with the tattooed community.

Social sculpture is a genre of art making where people and communities partake in identified activities and processes toward an outcome which has one foot embedded in ‘art’ and the other in more direct transformative social development. This project has been initiated by two Auckland artists, interested in participatory art making. Respond-Response projects have explored connectivity of people with jewellery, and people with tattoos. The outcomes have formed charming narratives, exposing personal stories; they are both private and public.  

Inviting images of tattoos and skin potentially isolates the tattoo from the face, body and context of its beholder: the emphasis is on the image and its symbolism. A similar visual language is found in photos on walls of tattoo parlours: skin and ink is glistening and tender, puffed up and proud. In this project, the image is an abstraction of the beholder, loaded not only in its direct visual language (its suggestion, association and meaning), but in the context of its permanence, its locality and its placement on the body.

In New Zealand, tattoos within a Pacific context are often confident displays of cultural identity, affiliation and connection revealing layers of meaning for the beholder of the tattoo, and the viewer. Whilst tattooed skin largely disrupts the standard conventions of beauty in the West, in the 21st century within a Pacific New Zealand context, a tattoo can stand in between an objectified body and a dominant Eurocentric gaze, symbolising resistance, consciousness and commitment. Today in New Zealand, cultural richness is a valued asset.

A common question posed to me as a tattooed person is, “what do your tattoos mean?” Whilst I have a collection of stock answers, for various life changing reasons, my tattoos mark moments in time captured in an instant of creative confidence. These moments are private and non-verbal, translating them into bite sized digestible statements for the sake of enquiring eyes can only communicate so much of the greater drive to tattoo one’s skin. Yet, given the opportunity to express the meaning behind a tattoo in text, without constraint, this project poses the question without the social stigma of potentially imposing enquiry.

Unlike publications depicting the beauty and complexity of the tattoo artform, and unlike the promotion of the work of a tattoo artist or studio, this publication depicts a story of engagement where each participant has responded to a call for response. There is little knowledge of each other but an historical outcome has formed in the process of publishing this collection of skin, ink and stories: it represents people and culture, nationhood, ideas and values.  

Ema Tavola is a visual artist, writer and curator currently managing Fresh Gallery Otara as Pacific Arts Co-ordinator for Manukau City Council. www.ColourMeFiji.wordpress.com

Social Sculpture Research Unit, Oxford Brookes University (www.social-sculpture.org)

Hardin, Michael, ‘Mar(k)ing the Objected Body: A Reading of Contemporary Female Tattooing’, The Journal of Fashion Theory (Volume 3, Issue 1, 1999) pp. 81-108

Fecteau, Uili; Mallon, Sean, ‘Tatau-ed: Polynesian Tatau in Aotearoa’, Pacific Art Niu Sila (Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2002) pp. 20-37


Fiji: To you. For you. About you. Catalogue Essay, Kurunavanua – Solo Exhibition by Torika Bolatagici, 23 November – 6 December 2007, Collingwood Gallery, Melbourne, Australia

Torika Bolatagici is a kailoma Fijian Australian. 

This body of work is an investigation of Pacific Island masculinity, Fiji and the economy of war. It speaks to the diversity of globalised contemporary Fijian experience and to the arts as an important outlet and platform for discussion and interpretation of Fiji and Fijians.

Conceptually and visually, Bolatagici’s work seeks to create awareness for localised concerns in response to global issues. Her juxtapositions and photographic narrative inform and invite viewers to consider their position to this 21st century Pacific reality, exposed and cross-examined.

Since Fiji’s independence in 1970, the army has increasingly provided employment opportunities for Fijian men. Military training equips them with the necessary skills to access the employment opportunities afforded by global conflict, thus generating foreign currency in the form of considerable remittances invested back to families, communities and Fijian society.

Four coup d’etat since 1987 have shaken Fiji’s economy significantly. Increased economic pressure combined with increased employment opportunities in global conflict have seen Fiji’s ‘war economy’ described in recent times as a “discount-soldier surplus store” . It is tragic and upsetting that economic needs make the risks associated with this industry justifiable; it is arguably a blatant and targeted form of legalised exploitation.

Fiji’s political climate in the past two decades has exposed the increasing role and power of the Fijian Military Forces. The seemingly paradoxical culture of Fijian coups has positioned the Military as both threat and protector, exposing alliances and economic beneficiaries of conflict and power struggle. The coup of December 2006 led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama was justified as to be correcting what was not ‘fixed’ about the May 2000 civilian coup led by George Speight and ironically was undertaken in the name of good governance.

Fiji’s military and political power struggles have become global news fodder for the past two decades. Representations of Fiji and Fijians in global media often reference either: a) coups, b) rugby or c) a stereotypical tourist paradise. For Fijians living in the diaspora, Fiji and Pacific issues within an Australian and New Zealand context are completely marginalised unless there is some peripheral interest to the international scene.

Bolatagici’s research exposes mainstream Australia’s token engagement with Pacific people and communities in an analysis of photographic and media representations. Her findings reveal that the references to the physicality of the black body and the ‘warrior’ cultural stereotype is often seen as justification for the disproportionate numbers of Pacific Island men involved in both crime and rugby. This superficial understanding of Pacific people and cultures is symbolic of the neo-colonial Euro-American hegemony which frames so much of the diasporic Pacific experience.

Bolatagici’s work exposes subtleties and critically engages simultaneously with Fijian and Australian histories. This work is important for Fiji as it documents the lives and times of Fiji Islanders in the 21st century: Its creation will be recorded and referenced, its message remembered, particularly in documenting the current zeitgeist of the Australia / New Zealand Pacific diaspora.

Contemporary Pacific Art is experiencing global recognition; internationally exhibiting artists such as Ani O’Neill (Cook Islands) and Filipe Tohi (Tonga) are at the forefront of translating Pacific visual languages into site-specific fine art forms. Pacific photographers such as John Lake (Fiji) and Greg Semu (Samoa) re-address the colonial gaze with new perspectives on documentation of Pacific lives.

Bolatagici’s artistic shift from explorations of personal identity to topics of Fijian national concern is refreshing. This work speaks for social change. In light of the current climate of control and suppression of expression in Fiji, this work is necessary and confronting.

Through the artist’s web presence, Kurunavanua is of global significance for the Fijian and Pacific diaspora and for the wider community.


Of mixed Fijian and European ancestry.

Copetas, A. Craig ‘Discount of war fuel military boom’, New Zealand Herald (31/10/07)

Institutionalised Racism [Free-Flow], Sweet Magazine (Substance Books, South Africa) 

Institutionalised racism… introduced fantastic misunderstanding (in the club sweating, moving, bass, teeth, tongues, Traps, trap, Suva, Fiji, the Republic?) sega na leqa lewa (Io, bula, 26 Pasvali Street, off Wailoku road, you know? Vinaka driver) URO. Rights and wrongs and discourse. Workshops and parties. Taki taki! Full moon Rarotonga: clouds bliss and solitude. Kali-kali-moonshine. Fantastic reality, parking is free. On the outside / stuck on the inside. Guerrilla warfare… warzone, “a crisis of a different order” 1 Winston Peters (you…!), ko Ema Rosemary Vasemaca Tavola ahau… (juma mada!) Character, character criticism, karak’tass-ass-i-nation… in Panama Jamaica, Italy-Hackney-Kraainem-Dalston-SoHo-Okoladi-Pukapuka-Kandallah-Hargreaves Street-Papeete-Naqumu Place-Flagstaff-Bidwill Street. Freakish preferentialism (smolman-sin-drome) personal agenda for selfish self-promotion. Wisdom pushes through. Pain and discomfort. {…kefe…} . fresh fruit fancy fatigue…. kaiviti power, lewa, io, kaiviti. Na yavu Natavasara, na yavu 26 Pasvali Street. Dreamtime, breeze block haven, clouds away from danger, diversion, sabotage attempts. A direct challenge… “symbolic violence”. 2 Affirmations, blasphermations, coco bottle nausea, fatigue… unbearable uncomfortable radicalised systematic axes and knives and axes and knives. {carob stallion} “Hunted down, captured and killed” 3 ? “Meet the Prick” meet the disappointment. Supposed egalitarian…. fire (fire, fire in belly) Knowledge is power… tubu mada {spirit mana fire soul}. Extinguished. Faith in change. Irnasctiistmuetviiodneanitihseerde. Advocacy advocate-(peace)-change, understanding assimilation homogeneity, kiwi fire? Fabulous fu.. but I won’t GE there. Three or two? Seven. Seven! “Who are you talking to?? Fleshy. And soft. Lightly… pressure… the second best… in fact, third. Now you go! Humane rights. black panthers because they only attack in defense. Radicals Ridiculed. Recognising the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now? United Nations Declaration? Disguised as something? Full to the brim, loyal to the bone. Burebusaga (cannibalistic tendencies, ancestral blood lines)….. “I’m just looking for the right temptation”. 4 Haz-ard Ahead. Damudamu seed searching cliffs of downy softness, village and sky reef and ocean, grass and sky, earth and sun. Dissolving complexity with daily bread. The land is one. Oceanic Neverland. Illegal humiliation. Taxi man, Suva please. Blurred neverness wind and time floating on time… but I got caught in a rip. Fathoms and dignity games. Dignity. 5 Escapism, escapology, houdini-outta-hia. Anyway, any pleasure, any place any time. Hong Kong, Manila, Palau. Palau-Jerusalem-you-go-Yugoslavian. Literally experience it. Long ago, I was living somewhere far far away from this little island at the bottom of the great Pacific Ocean. But my passbook said I was a Fijian. Mythical Pacific islands… blissful serenity edge of the world therapy overwhelming calmness and contemplation. Soul and soil, skin and sand, mind and ocean. Evolved and involved. Charter a plane to Rotuma immediately! Have you ever been the minority? Shift, move, mobile tectonic surface. Political tsunami, aggressive / passive, aggressor mentality, protector protectorate, dependent on fallacy. Hiding holes in the soil with rocks and bottles. Sacrifice (those dirty remarks) follow the path, climb 59 step, exhale. Are you in that place? Now inhale…. 2… 3….. reeeedemmmmsshhhaaannnn…. and exhale. Fall OUT! Cut out, slap it then kick it. Passionate about passion food fertilised soils red ink and black satin, Gucci Time Piece, Louis Vuitton mutton bones, black, black hair. Calfskin handbag, mutton strap frock, $10 from New Delhi. Fortunate appreciation for planes, tickets, escapism. To journey or not to journey: just to Navua, or maybe Nakelo (‘be aware of the risk of leptospirosis when swimming in Fiji’s rivers’) Veisari-river-pocket-of-the-edge-of-the-earth. Safe but ambiguous, never bitten by a tiger shark though. Papalagi paranoia. Le fale, na vale, te whare… lock the doors and escape, escape. Escape to infinite time and space. Stretching space, wall-less paradise. Almighty effort, fathoms and dignity games. Fall OUT! Whatever you’re missing, I’ll find it… because it’s alright you know. Ofa lahi atu na kaitoga. Maciu Waqanisau & Kaliopate Tavola. Knowledge as power, as immeasurable power. Migratory mind genetics. Nomadic bones. Junction, Spot Check, Fail, Fall OUT, never ending toil and burden, “women are party to an oppressive macho status quo” 6 Still can’t fight the system, people power; overturn the system, people power. Filipino History Politics History Politics History Politics. {… I will be treated equally …} . Peace and vengeance. Peace and power. Kin-kin was adopted by the SPCA in Walu Bay. Hibiscus tree suicide (Oliver).Fanatical unrequited love. Forks and knives. Carve it up till there’s nothing left. Mark it, scar it, burn it. Reject its presence. Man Made Land.


1.George W. Bush
2.Coco Fusco
3.George W. Bush
6.Grace Mere Molisa


Postcard from Fiji, Tautai Trust Newsletter (February 2004)

Having spent six idyllic days in the Polynesian-tiare-scented island of Rarotonga, I find myself back in my hometown of Suva city with its familiar and unique urbanity. Being off the beaten tourist track, the smell of fresh roti and curry is infused with diesel bus fumes and rotting mango seeds – and man, mango season has well and truly set in! I actually missed the muggy humidity and torrential downpours… you see, in Suva we are “blessed” with the daily dousings that refresh the senses and cleanse the mind, or so I like to think.Void of resorts, Suva is a melting pot of the Pacific with its embassies, regional organisations, tertiary institutions and thriving commercial centres. But somehow, the big city hustle bustle doesn’t really fit the landscape of this peninsula city. Downtown, the streets throbbing with boom-box-taxi-cabs playing Bombay hits fade east into a backdrop of karmic ocean against quiet mountains and west towards Nukulau – Suva’s ‘Alcatraz’.As appealing as Raro’s vibrant tourist hangouts were, I find rummaging through the age-old racks of Suva’s Lace Bazaar like hunting for hidden treasure. And of Suva’s bustling streets – a visual melee of Indo-Fijians, Fijians, Chinese and those with bit of all-sorts, intermingling and hyena-style laughing – I can sit and watch all day – under the big tree in Sukuna Park or relaxing on the sea-wall.

Contradicting the concept of ‘Fiji Time’, I can hardly keep up with the pace of Suva’s development: buildings mushrooming to the sun, hire purchase for everyone! Birkenstocks and hipsters, text messaging and skinny-milk-latte – internet for just eight cents per minute! Bubbling with opportunity, Suva provides an inspiration to the creative mind.

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