Tanu Gago is one of 12 adopted siblings brought up by his Maori Irish mother in South Auckland. A provocative and political visual artist whose work features in next month’s festival of photography, he first met his biological father when he was 27.
1. How old were you when you were adopted?
I was just 2 or 3 months old. My current mother was married to my biological uncle, and they came to Samoa together on holiday and adopted me and my first cousin. My mum describes it as "rescuing me from the flies and humidity" but I think there was no one around to watch us. I'm not sure how old my [biological] father was, but quite young. I don't know much about my [biological] mother other than that she passed in 1998. Mum says she wanted a boy in the family and when she saw me she couldn't resist. I like that version of the story.
2. Was Gago your adoptive family name?
No, we all got given a chance when we were younger to keep our biological surnames or to take on my mother's name. She is Mary McCormick and I was the only sibling who didn't take it. I thought my name was the only thing my biological parents had given me and so I would keep it. We were like this group of undesirable children who my mother had the burden of having to look after but it never felt like that to us. We felt very loved. There were Tongan, Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island, Maori and European children in our family and my mum had one biological child of her own, too, but was told she couldn't have kids after that. So she adopted.
3. Did you all get along?
We get along like most modern families. The only notable difference to other families is having a singular cultural identity. We all kind of identified as Kiwis, whatever that means. There were things I hated in my childhood like the constant cold showers and negotiating the one bathroom with nine sisters. You'd no sooner get in there than Mum would bang on the door saying "get out".
4. Why did you wait until you were 27 to go back to Samoa?
I guess I was scared. It's a bit cliche but like most adopted kids I worried that my biological family would reject me. And I didn't want to alienate my mother. But our parents have always been transparent about our adoptions and so accessing our cultural heritage has very much been a personal and individual journey we've all taken with their blessing and support.
5. Did it work out with your Samoan family?
I always felt that the day I met my father I would know exactly who he was. And when I walked into his fale in a really poor village in Samoa I looked at this man who was an identical version of myself and it was freaky. There were translation problems because I couldn't speak Samoan and he couldn't speak English so his wife had to translate. It was challenging but so emotional. We both broke down and for the longest time we couldn't look at each other.
6. What is the most hidden aspect of Samoan life in New Zealand?
I don't know about hidden but there are things that are just not talked about. Sex and sexuality are two of those things. I was lucky in that my mother was very liberal and supportive about me coming out. She just asked me when I was about 18 whether I liked boys or girls, and I said boys. And the second question was "do you know what sex is" and I was like "stop right there". I was lucky not to have the pressure or shame that so many young Pacific people do. In Samoan culture, fa'afafine is an accepted identity, embedded in the culture, but there is no discussion of being a queer man or woman.There's no words for it. That's worse than any kind of derogatory terms for homosexuality. It's like they just don't exist.
7. Have you found it difficult to be a gay Samoan man?
No, I've been lucky. But I just don't fit any of the stereotypes. My sister thought I would be this fun gay uncle and take the kids shopping and that. But I don't have good fashion sense. I don't think I'm much fun.
8. How did you become an artist?
I went to film school for five years but just didn't feel like fighting for a job in that world, climbing the ladder. I didn't have the energy for it. I wanted to find my own visual voice first.
I spent a lot of time in the fringes of the arts community and the first exhibition I ever went to was a Marti Friedlander show. I saw these beautiful pictures of Grey Lynn in the 1960s and thought "there's an entire community of people who will never see these images".
Art is so inaccessible to Pacific people and there's no system within Pacific Island culture that places that art as valuable.
I wanted to make art that spoke to the new generations of Pacific peoples. Young urban people. People with a whole new way of seeing the world and with new value systems.
9. Has success come easily?
My first photographs were exhibited at the City Gallery in Wellington and since then I've been in other galleries. It's been difficult to get my work seen by Pacific people, though. Only the Fresh gallery in Otara has shown my work.
10. Why is that?
I don't know exactly. My work hasn't always received positive reactions from the broader Pacific community.
I sold a work called Jerry the Fa'afafine which was in the Mangere arts facility and it was there for two years before these women came into the centre and made a formal complaint about it.
They said it was disgusting and should be taken down ... there's a lot of moral outrage in Pacific communities. They love that stuff. Shame and guilt is a cultural currency.
11. Is Auckland really the Pacific city it purports to be, in your opinion?
I personally feel like our presence is played up for the convenience of reflecting diversity. We have very little political power. Pacific issues are rarely of national news interest and outside of seasonal events like Pasifika Festival and Poly Fest our communities remain marginally invisible. You hardly ever see depictions of real Pacific life integrated into the New Zealand identity despite almost four generations of New Zealand-born Pacific people living here.
12. What does family mean to you?
Family to me are people who know you best and love you the most.
Tanu Gago's new body of work, commissioned by Sacred Hill for the Auckland Festival of Photography, is in Silo 6 at Silo Park, from June 4.