Umi tufala shea: sharing stories from the Festival of Pacific Arts

This is the third day of the Festival and there are way too many things and sights to properly explain. I can only give samples and highlights, and even these are too numerous to do it justice. The NZ delegation has jumped into action, performing and creating. The Festival village is buzzing with all the whare heaving with artists, customary and contemporary practitioners, curious visitors, booming music from the Pasifika stage, percussive sounds of toki carving into wood everywhere – and the occasional buzz of a chainsaw – its modern day stand-in.

To recount my best moment so far though….the festival opening started extra early on Monday morning. We had a 4am alarm and blearily jumped on to buses and headed into darkness to a beach (which I don’t know the name of, I apologise). A drizzly, warm morning, the beach was jam packed with people, all dressed in traditional fibre kakahu, lavalava, or bright polo shirt uniforms; a vast array of different bodies and appearances, there must have been at least 1000 people on that beach. Maybe more. We were treated to a fireworks display, the first since 1972 in Honiara, and a gift giving ceremony. There was an expectant feel in the air, and everyone seemed to be focused on the water rather than the official stage on shore.

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Impatient because I couldn’t see anything, I wormed my way through the crowd to the shoreline, and I am so glad I did. Before me, in the dawn light, were seven magnificent double hulled waka called waka hourua, anchored several hundred meters out to sea. Added to this, were about 8 small Solomon Island waka, with at least 15 men in each. The scene behind me was a cacophony of sound but out in the ocean, it seemed silent.

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I was speechless and embarrassingly emotional (sookie lala is how my family would describe it). The sight of the waka was overwhelming and for a long moment, I wondered if this was the sight that the ancient Tūpuna of the Pacific saw, when voyagers from afar visited their islands. Unable to compute what I was seeing, I just stood and gawped and had a bit of a tangi.

An amusing break in the emotion of the moment were the smaller waka from the Solomons, which raced up and down the shore performing what I can only describe as boy racer waka burnouts. They whizzed into shore, stealing a person and taking them out to sea. Only to speed back to the shore again at speed, water braking on the beach. Very funny and fabulous to watch.

The silent waka hourua stayed further out and maintained their impressive appearance. They are part of a monumental undertaking called the Pacific Voyagers project where seven replica waka are sailing through the Pacific Ocean, retracing ancestral links and drawing the world’s attention to the health of our oceans. Populated with crews from around the world, these seven waka have travelled as a fleet since early last year. There are two Māori waka in this whanau: Haunui captained by Hoturoa Kerr of Tainui; and Te Matau a Maui captained by Frank Kawe of Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Kahungunu (and he’s from my kainga tūturu – Tauranga!). Their voyage has been immense and breathtaking. You can read more about it here.

The waka slowly made their way closer to shore, and as they did so and the morning light grew brighter, the people on the beach began to sing, chant, wave and call out. The NZ delegation raced to greet the Māori waka Haunui and Te Matau with karakia, mihi and haka pohiri, to which the waka crews responded in kind.

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It was an awesome morning which only got better when members of the delegation were invited on to the waka to sail to their mooring, about two hours sail along the coast. I clambered aboard Te Matau, and again was shamelessly emotional (I blame the early start).

The generosity and then the stories shared by the crew and by other manuhiri aboard the waka was wonderful. As well as some of the crew, I met two lovely women from Hawaii, and one beautiful lady from Tahiti who had sailed on one of the waka. They shared their own voyaging and cultural stories with me, as I did with them. It was a peaceful few hours and my definite highlight of the festival so far. I didn’t want to get off!

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Holding hands across the water – 11th Festival of Pacific Arts, Honiara Solomon Islands

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Every four years, an enormous event called the Festival of Pacific Arts is held in a different part of the Pacific. It is one of the most significant pan-Pacific gatherings where island nations from across Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia meet to share their arts – customary and contemporary – and renew the ancestral links that bind the people who share the Pacific.

Over 100 New Zealand artists – of Maori, Pacific, and Pakeha descent – have been selected by Te Waka Toi to attend this year’s Festival and join over 20 different island nations, from Hawaii to Guam, Australia to Rapanui. The original purpose of the festival was to prevent the erosion of traditional arts throughout the Pacific; erosion from the encroachment of modern living and the reprioritisation of values that this sometimes brings. From the first festival in 1972 (held in Fiji) however, the festival has grown into more than an urgent response to the perceived threat of cultural erosion. It has become a place to present exemplary practitioners of various customary artforms, to allow a space for sharing and reconnection, and to showcase the ongoing development, adaptation and maintenance of cultural practices, in avenues adopted by Pacific artists, in disciplines such as contemporary dance and music, sculpture, and puppetry – to name a few.

I find myself lucky to be at my second Pacific festival (in 2008 I travelled to Pagopago in American Samoa). And this year, I’ve come to the Solomon Islands at the invitation of Creative New Zealand and Te Waka Toi, and with the support of Te Papa which has allowed me time to come away to Honiara and join the large New Zealand delegation. I’ve come wearing two hats, one as part of the assisting operations crew to help look after the delegation; and one as a curator to present at a symposium next week and to observe the artists and festival goings on.

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After arriving here on an RNZAF boeing on Monday and with a wonderful welcome reception by the people of Honiara, the delegation has been acclimatizing to the 70% humidity and 30 degree heat. The logistical practicalities of bringing so many artists to a developing country with a particularly voracious form of malaria and infrastructure limitations has been well thought out and planned by the Creative New Zealand and especially by the Project Manager, Jon Tamihere. It is a well-supported project!

On Sunday the festival formalities begin. It starts with a church service and then an opening ceremony on Monday. And for the next two weeks, we will inhabit a specially built whare alongside the other Pacific islands, as part of the beautiful festival village. Customary and contemporary musicians, actors, puppeteers, kapa haka, haka theatre, sculptors, carvers, weavers, and clay workers, all sharing with each other and with our Pacific whanaunga.

A very special event. I’ll be writing more as the festival unfolds. But in the meantime, follow NZ at the Festival of Pacific Arts on Facebook for more images and reflections.

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