When a spirited art collective called the Pacific Sisters formed 26 years ago, its rebellious and creative members would never have dreamed one of them, Lisa Reihana, would become an art superstar representing New Zealand at the Venice Biennale, while another, Rosanna Raymond, would earn an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and that the group’s eclectic work would be displayed at Cambridge University in England.
To top these achievements off, this month there is an expansive exhibition opening at Te Papa called Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists. Rosanna recently returned from Wellington where she and her artistic siblings dressed more than 20 mannequins at Te Papa, using a mash-up of materials including recycled plastic, turkey feathers, shark teeth, pig tusks, shells and hibiscus fibre.
“When I heard Te Papa was interested in showing a retrospective of our work, I thought, ‘Hey, we’re not dead yet’,” laughs Rosanna from her colourful studio at the Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson.
Rosanna recognises the female curator of the Te Papa show, Nina Tonga, as being instrumental in drawing attention to the group’s work.
“In the past, no white male curator would have thought to approach us. They probably think we’re a crafty bunch of women,” she laughs. “So it’s great to see a female curator with a Pacific, historic and cultural lens, shining a light on Pacific Island women.”
Rosanna reclines on her graffiti-painted sofa with a sigh and admits she’s grumpy today. She’s swamped with emails concerning her range of artistic projects and some days just don’t start the way you want them to. But surrounded by a myriad of decorative tools, she seems in her element.
Colourful costumes are draped over mannequins, shell necklaces adorn the walls, crocheted objects sit on shelves and the stacks of boxes lining the room, containing retro island fabrics, seeds, shells, teeth and weavings, hint to her craft.
Rosanna too is adorned. Her body displays traditional Samoan tattoos, called malu. They run up her legs and arms, and recently across her stomach, she tells me, wincing. They are striking symbols of her heritage this type of tattooing is a 3000-year-old Samoan cultural practice and she has embraced this art, along with her traditional Maori tattoos.
While Rosanna’s skills include performance art and body adornment craft, the Pacific Sisters’ members come from varied artistic backgrounds there’s digital artist Lisa Reihana, heritage artist Ani O’Neill, fibre artist Suzanne Tamaki, dressmaker and designer Selina Haami, body adornment artist Niwhai Tupaea, songwriter and performer Henry Ah-Foo Taripo, dancer and costume maker Feeonaa Wall and events and film producer Jaunnie ‘Ilolahia.
“We met in nightclubs, at warehouse parties, on film sets and fashion shoots,” says Rosanna. They once described themselves as being akin to the Polynesian version of Andy Warhol’s Factory an evolving collective of artists banding together to create art, music, fashion and film.
Although they had fun together, there was a cultural fight to battle and a stick to stake in the ground. Rosanna’s experience as a model and later as a stylist, producer and live performer exposed her to the realities of racism and marginalisation.
“I felt like the token brown person in the modelling world,” she says, and that was something she wanted to change. “Only the alternative magazines, such as Planet magazine and Stamp magazine, would ever dream of using brown faces in fashion shoots.”
As a result, Rosanna developed a “healthy disrespect for fashion magazines”, and she set out to articulate the bodies (not your typical size eight) and faces she wanted to see in mainstream media by styling and producing fashion shows and photo shoots that represented the people she saw in her community. This led Rosanna to produce the first Style Pasifika, a festival designed to represent a powerful image of New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders.
Rosanna believes the cultural landscape has changed somewhat, but still feels the modelling industry, in particular, is not representative of “brown faces”.
However, she encourages small victories: for example, the black and white images printed in this article for the first time, styled by the Pacific Sisters and photographed by Vivenne Haldane, which also feature in the Te Papa show, were too taboo to be printed 25 years ago. “When these were shot, no magazine would print them, they were too strong and the models too brown,” she says.
The sisters set out to challenge these ideas and they found strength in their cultural diversity. With heritages hailing from Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, they found commonality in mythology; craft techniques such as weaving, garment and jewellery making; and language.
“We all come from different skill bases. Lisa has an art school background, I come from fashion and modelling, Suzanne from a fibre arts background. By working on projects together, we are trying to rewrite our own cultural history. We aren’t trying to be Pasifika necessarily, we are urbanites trying to find our identity within a white settler, marginalised Pacific Island community. Art is a way we can articulate our stories.”
Rosanna is an Auckland-born Samoan with a Maori brother, so she has always questioned where she fits into her melting pot urban environment, away from her cultural roots. Then there were the feminist questions like how her womanhood had been defined by geography and history.
“The Pacific female body had been framed by Western ideals. We had been disempowered politically and culturally by the classic Victorian framework: the woman stays at home and looks after the man. We had been written out; the Pacific women we knew had disappeared and become dancing girls in grass skirts, selling holidays to tourists.”
On the contrary, the Pacific women she knew were anything but. “We call it mana wahine. We are strong women, we are leaders, we are active and generous in our community and we pass valuable knowledge to our youth.” And through their art making, the sisters set out to revive the image of the Pacific woman in New Zealand.
Rosanna describes the garments created for the exhibition as layers of history. Each mannequin has a character; one is Pacific Wave, a free spirit who dances hula to hip-hop and wears a wild, blue outfit. But her favourite is Cyber Sister, a fierce female warrior adorned with red feathers and a skirt made from old videotapes. The idea behind this character is she guards the door to the whare, determining who should enter. Inside there is no room for racism.
The materials used to make each costume reflect the sisters’ kaupapa (philosophy) of using natural materials and upcycled ones, such as plastic raffia skirting and faux pearls.
Pacific Sister Ani O’Neill, adds: “For me, Pacific Sisters is a safe space to push boundaries. We might seem a bit hardcore and serious to some, but we have a lot of fun we like to laugh and play with words as well as frocks. This is just a reminder to the world not to forget about your cool, Poly-fabulous aunties!”
Forgetful is certainly not the impression I’m left with when I hug Rosanna goodbye. If anything, she has made me think how I could be a better sister to all the women in my life and to have a bit of fun while doing it.
• Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists, Level 4, Toi Art Gallery at Te Papa, from March 17-July 8, 2018