Pacific Sisters – ‘Asian Art News’


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Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera

Fashion Activists at Auckland Art Gallery

In the 1990s, a group of Pacific and Maori artists in Auckland collaborated to make a series of happenings— performances in warehouses and art galleries that brought together art, music, fashion, design, and film. Their outrageous energetic shows electrified conservative Auckland and threw a spotlight on a whole new generation of urban-dwelling Pacific artists in New Zealand.

Known as the Pacific Sisters, these groundbreaking artists described themselves as embodying a Polynesian version of Andy Warhol’s The Factory—a collective that collaborated to make exciting multi-media performances. Many of the artists, such as Lisa Reihana, Rosanna Raymond, Ani O’Neill, Suzanne Tamaki, Selina Haami, Niwhai Tupaea, Feeonaa Wall, and Jaunnie ‘Ilolahia, have gone on to pursue highly successful individual careers as artists, designers, and filmmakers.

A retrospective of the vibrant multi-dimensional work of the Pacific Sisters features filmed performances, costumes, and photographic portraits of all the women who were involved in this dynamic artistic wave. The exhibition maintains some of the anarchic force of the early performances. A frenetic soundtrack and videos recording the artists strutting the catwalk in their signature waistcoats, outrageous wigs, and bodywear accompanies the comprehensive display of some of their flamboyant costumes.

Their original ‘pan-Pacific’ style combined organic materials, op-shop finds, and futuristic costumes. The Pacific Sisters’ fashion activism began with street style. In the early 1990s, they sold bespoke accessories and vintage clothes from a street stall in central Auckland; they also styled passers-by on the spot. Then the group expanded into multi-media performances in various venues—from galleries to nightclubs.

From the mid-1990s, the Pacific Sisters’ fashion extravaganzas broadened into art performances. These took audiences on a multi-sensory journey through costume, dance, live music, video projections, and the spoken word. Many of the shows were inspired by Pacific storytelling, dance, and music.

Their performances often incorporated traditional Pacific dances, such as kappa haka (Maori performing arts) and ura pa’u (Cook Island drum dancing), as well as the occasional kitsch 1950s Hawaiian-style song.

Through colorful interpretations, the Pacific Sisters brought these orthodox forms into a contemporary context. The group formed part of a much-larger 1990s movement known as Urban Pasifika—a melting pot of traditional and contemporary culture, which culminated in the landmark Pasifika fashion show; the first major showcase for Pacific fashion in New Zealand.

These activists often worked with drag queens and fafafine (Samoan cross-gender men) as well. The film clips show how they subverted the mainstream fashion world, where there had been a dearth of mult-cultural faces. These women were influential in making brown faces seen in the popular culture of New Zealand. They were keen to combat dominant stereotypes about Polynesian New Zealanders and to subvert the white cultural majority.

As artist Rosanna Raymond said in 2014:

“We were trying to find a voice within a society that did not want to recognize us, or didn’t know how to recognize us.”

The costumes on display reveal their interest in multilayering garments and combine ancestral and futuristic designs. Like urban Polynesian street wear, they combine natural fibers with industrial and found materials—crop tops and shorts made from tapa cloths, hula skirts construed from old video tape. Their philosophy of recycling and ‘upcycling’ also reflected their interest in sustainability, combining found materials from op shops, plastic refuse, and sweet wrappers collected at the roadside, as well as shells and feathers combed from nearby beaches. Their waistcoats, neck ornaments, headwear, and jewelry are extraordinary fusions of natural forms such as shells and bones and urban found materials. The style could loosely be described as a post-Punk tribal aesthetic.

In their statement for this exhibition, the group declared:

“We get our inspiration from our immediate environment. We don’t stare at coconut trees— we stare at motorways.”

Together they created an empowering model of The 21st Sentry Cyber Sister, who is the guardian to their whare (Maori hut or house). In 2007, the group wrote in a statement that she is “Dedicated to the preservation of our tribal culture and our struggle towards self-determination. We recycle resources from our urban environment, traditional and contemporary fibers, to produce distressed, deconstructed wearable art pieces that express our uniqueness as an urban tribe, while still following the paths created by our Ancestors. We are united in the cycle where our past meets our futures.”

As feminists they also wanted to combat the image of the Dusky Maiden in art— the history paintings of nubile, brown-skinned Polynesian beauties semi-clad in the works of European painters such as William Hodges, John Webber, and, most prominently, Paul Gauguin. These women instead recall the powerful female figures of Polynesia prior to colonization. The artists state, “When the missionaries took away our rituals, they took away the need for costumes. We’ve created rituals. A lot of our costumes tell stories.”

The mythological ancestors include Maori figures of Nafanua, a Samoan warrior, and Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. The signature uniform of the artists was the waistcoat, with shells and beads crossed over the torso, making them appear like female warriors. Today’s studio portraits of the artists show them wearing these adornments and staring out with bold defiant gazes.

In 2007, the artist Niwhai Tupaea wrote of waistcoat,

“I kept thinking of an invisible cloak, an extension of skin and spirit … Metaphorically [the waistcoat] is your tupuna [ancestors] protecting you from harm’s way. The design reflects our backbone, heart and spirit. The uniformity reinforces collective strength … and the individual style of each sister is celebrated by their interpretation of the waistcoat design.”

The group also reflected a migration in the 1990s of Maori and Pacific Islanders from rural areas into the cities; these new urban Polynesians started an undercurrent of a new creative boom in the arts. Unfortunately, as there were few formal exhibitions shown by the collective, little has been written or recorded about the group. This retrospective exhibition hopes to correct some of these blind spots in New Zealand’s cultural history.

In 2018 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern first opened Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists at Te Papa Museum in Wellington among much pomp and ceremony. She was led into the exhibition by prominent Pacific artist Ani ONeill, resplendent in a white costume with shell-encrusted headwear. The Sisters, all dressed in their own designs, presented the Prime Minister with ceremonial leis for herself and her unborn child. Finally, it seems like the Pacific Sisters may have entered the mainstream.

Sydney Art writer and editor, Victoria Hynes

Arts article in Asian Art News
Arts article in Asian Art News