Artist Rosanna Raymond has hand-picked Pacific dance costumes from Auckland Museum's collection for the exhibition Fa'aliga: Beyond The Grass Skirt at this month's Pacific Dance Festival.

1 What do you think people will enjoy about this exhibition?

The opportunity to have a good close look at how the costumes have been made; the fibres, the detail, the hours of work. It's not all hula skirts and coconut bras; we're showing a mix of historic costumes from the museum and contemporary costumes from festival groups. We've got a diverse range of islands represented including the Solomons, Kiribati, Fiji and our Māori cousins too.

2 What are the challenges of displaying museum objects in the Māngere Arts Centre?

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The museum has a lot of specialist requirements; security; low lighting to conserve the objects; no fresh paint because the fumes will affect the fibres in the costumes. We have to adhere to museum protocols and at the same time offer a community that maybe wouldn't come to the museum a chance to see their ancestral objects.

3 As an artist, you've worked in some of the world's most prestigious museums including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did that happen?

I had moved to London with my husband for his job and was thinking, "Here I am in Babylon with the colonial past right in my face" when I bumped into an anthropologist friend, Nick Thomas, who asked me to help move all the tapa cloths from the Museum of Mankind to the British Museum. That was fascinating to me because as a Pacific artist you lay the past in front of you. During that three month re-cataloguing process I was able to share with museum staff my knowledge about what's happening in tapa-making today.

4 So you were educating British Museum staff on contemporary Pacific cultural practice?

Yes. We also worked on new protocols for how museums deal with Pacific people. In the past the relationship has been that they are the "experts" and we're the "source community" that they extract information from in order to write their books and make some money while we go back to our grass huts or whatever. Finally we're seeing museums start to open up to communities and artists like myself who are becoming the bridge between the past and the contemporary.

5 You then co-curated the ground breaking Style Pasifika exhibition at Cambridge University Museum with Amelia Salmond. What were you aiming to do?

We wanted to create a platform where artists could respond to the past and bring it into the present by reinvigorating these cultural treasures. If they're locked away in vaults then it really is a crime. Museums need to build reciprocal relationships with the living to make the legacy dynamic and alive.

6 Do you think museums should repatriate Pacific artefacts?

It's difficult because where are they going to go "back" to? If they go from one museum to another have you actually achieved anything? I've asked Samoan elders if they'd want some of these things back but they've got other priorities like building roads, schools and hospitals. Museums around the world now are trying to re-establish their relationships with communities and improve access. That's why a lot are digitising their collections. To me their responsibility to these artefacts is as kaitiaki, or guardians, rather than owners.

Artist Rosanna Raymond at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo / Doug Sherring
Artist Rosanna Raymond at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo / Doug Sherring

7 What responses do you get when you take artefacts out of museums and into the community?

There's a huge variety of responses. Māori are much more connected with their taonga. The Pacific Island community don't see their cultural treasures in a positive light and are reluctant to see them. They were taught by Christian missionaries that their culture is negative and has no place in the modern world. Everything from hula dancing to the art of tattoo and the wearing of flowers was banned. With this show we're hoping to find common ground so they realise that it's not against Christianity.

8 What is the importance of dance in Pacific cultures?

Dance is a vital art form in the Pacific; I call it our google. Dancers are story-tellers who transfer knowledge by dancing our histories. In the Pacific, oratory is the highest art form; dance is used to uphold the mana of the words. It's a direct link to the Atua (Gods), a form of prayer. Dance is used in times of ceremony, celebration and war. It weaves its way through all aspects of our lives.

9 You started modelling at age 18. What did you think of the fashion industry?

I may have been part of it but I didn't respect it and it certainly didn't respect me. You're just a coathanger. It's a very dehumanising space and I like being human. A lot of my artwork deals with the body, especially the ageing body which the fashion industry has absolutely no room for. When I came back home and reconnected with my culture I was a lot happier in terms of the mana that's given to older women. A body that's had babies and has strength is a positive thing.

10 Your SaVAge K'lub collective invent imagined costumes. What are you saying with these creations?

Our Pacific Sisters collective used fashion as an everyday tool to look at identity politics. SaVAge Klub asks the same questions; 'What is savage and who defines that?' We explore how Pacific culture is articulated here in Aotearoa. Back in the '70s it was hard for our Pacific mamas to access the natural fibres from home so they used plastic raffia which has the same swishing sound and comes in pretty colours. So it's natural for my generation to use plastics but we also have a hunger for the natural fibres and materials like shark jaw and pig tusk which are hard to use legitimately in times of environmental degradation.

11 The costumes in the movie Black Panther were like an African version of your Pacific creations. Did you like them?

I loved them. I love the fact that they had such an immense tradition they could draw from especially with all the different tribes; the way they merged the past into the present, and honoured their natural resources. They had fun. I was very jealous.

12 You started the very first Pacific fashion show, now called Style Pasifika. Are you proud of that legacy?

I've always been really proud of that show because it was the first time a lot of people had access to an urban, New Zealand-born Pacific culture. Two thousand people turned up for our first show. They'd never been exposed to anything like it because Pacific culture had always been presented as historic rather than the vital, dynamic culture it is.

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