A Digital Tausala
November 11 2022, by Etanah Falagā Talapā
In Pasifika cultures, it's a no-brainer to call up your aunties, uncles, cousins, family members and friends to help with fundraisers. Rallying together is what we DO and do well. In Samoan culture there is a type of community fundraiser often hosted by schools, villages and churches called a tausala.
I remember as a kid, my parents dressing in their best la’ei (dress clothes , adornments) Mum adding her favourite Elizabeth Taylor Red Door perfume and gold bands, while Dad clean-shaved his beard and slicked his hair back with gel. Mum would tell me to gather all the coins around the house, as she went down to the nearest eftpos machine to cash out fives, tens and twenty dollar notes. Getting prepped for a church or school tausala was a family highlight.
Bass music blasting as cars pull up to the church hall. Aunties, uncles, cousins all wearing their best la’ei, smiles as they load the feast into the kitchen. The MC calls in everyone, acknowledging all in the room—elders, parents, youth and children. All colourful and vibrant. The MC rolls through call outs for villages and families to perform, and their dancing and songs ooze out into the souls of our elders. Elders get up and join, becoming a part of the entertainment. The community laughs and smiles, surprises here and there as elders who have knee or back problems every other day are suddenly healed in this moment of fiafia (happiness). The MC hypes the community, thanking them for the flow of monetary offerings. There’s a table on the side where a couple of men quickly add the money as the next group goes up. One performance after another, bellies get full, laughs fill the whole room, pockets start getting lighter and everyone’s having a good sweat!
In October 2021, The Arts Foundation Te Timu Toi fundraising platform Boosted invited Pasifika creatives to present projects with a positive community impact for Boosted x Moana, a chance to crowd-fund with dollar-for-dollar matching from Boosted. This opportunity couldn't be missed, and my proposal to curate a Moana Group show for 2022 at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space was accepted to go live as one of 15 projects from communty shakers and shapers.
But when it came to an online fundraiser, it all felt like an upside-down-backwards procedure of a tausala. Relying on instant trust from people with the promise to the community of a group exhibition in a year’s time? A year to shape and organise an unnamed exhibition with an as yet empty artist line-up? Angling the spotlight on my (often quiet natured) self and my own curatorial practice and aspirations?
Vitally, this past year and the Boosted x Moana initiative has enabled me to foster new connections with Moana artists for our exhibition Ocean of Whispers on at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space this November to February. Elsie Andrewes, Jimmy Ma'ia'i, Natasha Ratuva, Jasmine Tuiā and Kasi Valu come from all walks of salt water, with ancestral ties casting as far out as the South Pacific Ocean. Navigating relationships for this show came down to intuition and the hope that these artists I wanted to work with would find the themes I was following relevant to their lives and work.
Getting to know Natasha Ratuva was like meeting a distant family member. A familiar presence, our paths never quite crossed until a cool night in Porirua centre. A mutual friend connected us through a shared love—making art at their studio. Heading up a flight of narrow stairs into a secret level, opening at the top to a large room filled with art plinths and paint sheets. Charcoal, and paints all over the floor and tables, people laughing and snacking on food while waiting for the session to start. RnB and Hip Hop jams playing in the background and only a couple of low-lit lamps to set the vibe. Being in a space like this felt like home. We were told to draw the person across from ourselves. There was Natasha, looking litty with a silk pink wrap around her head, a hot pink hoodie and a warm smile. With an eye nod we accepted our fate and started drawing each other. The rest was history.
Couple years earlier, I was studying at College of Creative Arts Massey University when a Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust tour group of students from Tāmaki Makaurau came through. I briefly met Jasmine Tuiā, a soft spoken and quiet natured girl at the time. I love that I can identify her personality in her contemporary siapo. The earthy marks and colourful threads stitching into floral shapes—her process reminds me that slow is powerful, slow is necessary in this time right now. Watching Jasmine put her work and process out there on Instagram and in live stories her nature prevails alongside her strong self-belief and dedication.
COVID-19 lockdowns further pushed Moana creatives to use of social media platforms to share their craft. Seeing an artist’s work online before seeing it in real-life is a bonus when you're isolated and living in separate cities. It was online that I connected with Jimmy Ma'ia'i, Elsie Andrewes, and Kasi Valu.
A friend of mine showed me Instagram pics of Jimmy’s badass Samoanite and Friends exhibition from the 2020 Unitec Gradshow. Cutting and stripping the oversized check bags we know in Samoan culture as ‘saiga plastic bags’ Jimmy reworked them into a mass canvas of frills, evoking pure joy in me and offering up a massive shoutout to every migrated ‘aiga and village who’ve used these bags to move their precious belongings. Our later zoom conversations highlighted to me how our communities’ relationship to plastic is much deeper than we think. Lightweight, durable and readily available, plastic holds memories and easily provides for us when it comes to mass gatherings.
In late 2021 Elsie, Kasi and I were in the same Tautai Fale-ship residency. The Fale-ship was an immediate response to the 2020 lockdowns, supporting artists to create from the comfort of their homes over two weeks. I'm not usually the forward type who just 'slides into the DMs', but now I had to put my anxiety aside and go for it. While sending fire and heart eye emojis in response to their stories, I eagerly waited for their responses, biding my time to suggest collaboration. Thankfully they both pulled up and the conversations we've all had since then have been māfanafana (warm).
Elsie’s illustrations of floating fale created during the Fale-ship were mesmerising. Her use of purples and pinks took me to the future of Moana islands. I was surprised how similar our paths were, both guided to imagine floating worlds in space, though for different reasons. While Elsie’s drawings grew from memories of past homes in Fiji, mine attempted to mash-up my two homes, Awakairangi/Hutt Valley and Afega village in Samoa. Distanced reactions and affirmations while mutually sounding each other out online have grown into full-on, warm chats about our childhoods, our dreams for the future, and the best print shops in Poneke for designers to print from. Colour correction is everything!
Kasi Valu is all round creative at heart, acting, performing, directing threatre, and writing scripts. I met him through his words first. The memories Kasi shared of his Nena and their bond caught my emotions as I thought about my late grandmother Fala and her warm embrace. Meeting in person came during the summer 2021 turned into 2022, at Carlucci Land mini golf, where a mutual friend hosted a BBQ and hangout. COVID-19 traffic light systems were in place, we were socially distanced and mentally exhausted by ever changing protocols and plans. I was six months pregnant, feeling pressure and uncertainty. Was going out really OK? Outside when the sun set, the bonfire lit up, music played, and we all learnt how to enjoy each other’s company and laugh again.
Looking back I see a running thread that's pulled all of us together like a web. Through our one-on-one conversations, coffee hangouts and zoom calls, a Samoan saying comes to mind, 'o le mana'oga e fia fai mea lelei'. Within these artists is a deep desire, a thirst, a hunger to do things right and well, not only in their creative work but in every aspect of their lives.
Comparing putting together Ocean of Whispers to a back-to-front tausala, I’m incredibly excited for the other half to arrive. From the front seat I’ve experienced the joy of seeing Elsie, Jimmy, Jasmine, Natasha and Kasi’s ideas grow and develop over time. I’m proud of them all. Last year I was overwhelmed by the generosity shown to our Boosted x Moana crowdfund and affirmed in the knowledge that the community believed in this exhibition. Now it’s time for all our supporters to come together with the artists and their family and friends at Enjoy for the dancing, the conversations, the warm laughter and meaningful exchanges that will unfurl this summer. You’ve already made the paper flow, now come for the joy!
😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥 😍🔥😍🔥