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How the Protest Art of The Pacific Sisters Forged a Space in a City of Outsiders

Nearly thirty years after they formed in Auckland, The Pacific Sisters come home.
February 22, 2019, 12:12am

The Pacific Sisters were born on the streets of Auckland’s discontent. A group of women hailing from all over Moana Oceania came together in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. The art collective’s members were young when they met, fresh or only a few years out of school. They were ready to be seen. Moana Oceania was—and still is—suffering the effects of colonisation, and we, the children of Moana, still struggle to see ourselves reflected back in the media. The birth of Pacific Sisters was a blessing for myself, and for future generations of artists who hail from across the Pacific.


The Sisters are visual artists whose main medium is body adornment, an art that can be traced through the history of all islands in Moana Oceania. The Sisters reclaimed this art and shaped it to fit their unique experiences of living in Aotearoa as either diaspora or tangata whenua. Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera | Fashion Activists, opens tomorrow and runs to July 14 at the Auckland Art Gallery. Prepare yourself for an extensive look back at the work and the fashion that began to electrify the streets of Tāmaki Makaurau over 20 years ago.

I spoke with both Suzanne Tamaki (Tūhoe, Te Arawa, Ngāti Maniapoto) and Niwhai Tupaea (Ngāti Katoa), two founding members of the Pacific Sisters. While speaking and corresponding with these women, the energy of their work was palpable to me, they spoke of their early days in Auckland with a nostalgia that cut through the phone line.


Vivienne Haldane 1993 © Part of Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera |Fashion Activists developed and toured by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Image supplied

Most people of Moana Oceania growing up in Aotearoa live in a society that at large makes them feel unwanted and inadequate. The Pacific Sisters found their union in this shared experience. According to Niwhai, the women started sharing their stories. “It became a korero, a woven story, and I think that’s when it became political, through our conversations.” Suzanne spoke similarly of the group’s genesis, and its success: “Māori and Pacific people went from being second-class citizens to dominating the Auckland scene.”

"It was a long time overdue and you could feel it. We were like that first drop in a waterfall.”

Auckland needed the Pacific Sisters. They opened the gates for the many artists of Moana Oceania to follow. Suzanne compared it to a tidal wave. “Once it started more and more people got on board and did even bigger and better things than us. It was a long time overdue and you could feel it. We were like that first drop in a waterfall.”

Niwhai grew up in the Hawke’s Bay, but on moving to Tāmaki Makaurau she instantly met Suzanne Tamaki and Selina Forsyth—and these three women were the beginning of the Pacific Sisters. Niwhai described how they met. “We all got together through the warehouse space, all making fashion. Galatos Theatre just off K Road, open once a month for open mic, and anybody could do anything there; Che Fu was there when he just started becoming big… I have never met a group of people who have believed in each other that much. I’ve been away for 20 years and now I’ve come back and it feels like I have been the missing link.”


The Pacific Sisters were creating art and growing in a society that had only just come out of the other side of the Dawn Raids, the period in New Zealand history when Pacific Islanders were targeted and harassed in their own homes. The Pacific Sisters were responding to a society that didn’t value their voices, Suzanne told me. “Everything was so not Aotearoa. White models, European and American fashion, American music. We wanted brown faces on the covers of magazines, on television, in films; we wanted to hear our music being played on the radio… We wanted people to have pride in who they are, where they come from, what they represent.”


Vivienne Haldane 1993 © Part of Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera |Fashion Activists developed and toured by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Image supplied

And when those things didn’t come easily, the Pacific Sisters were all about fighting harder. “We were pushing boundaries, having doors closed on us, being excluded because of our staunch attitudes, which made us even more determined. When a door closes, kick it down or jump in though the window. Or find a bigger, more fabulous house that loves what you're doing. In our case, the rest of the world.”

This attitude of no compromise spread through all aspects of their lives. I asked Niwhai about her time studying fashion in Auckland and her struggle to work within an institution: “At times design school was challenging for me as they required a very Pākehā approach in terms of the methodology of doing things. I create through feeling—the hands do the talking—because when you create with your hands it’s not a taught thing, anyone can be taught but for an artist it’s a gift that is passed down spiritually. Throughout my life I have been an autodidact. I’ll pick up something, see an image in my head and think 'okay I’m going to create that,' and when I am done I wonder where I got the idea from.”

"It is about the footsteps of my grandmother and continuing those forward.”

Still practising in this way, Niwhai creates work from found items, pushing western notions of success aside and opting instead for an ever-growing knowledge: “Making work isn’t about monetary or commercial success for me, it is about the footsteps of my grandmother and continuing those forward.”

Niwhai has recently returned to Hawke’s Bay after years overseas and is immersing herself in family life. In the process of creating a new piece for the upcoming exhibition, Niwhai was making it a family affair. “I was just speaking to my nephew about this the other day, I’ve never made work in the house I was brought up in; I’ve never had my family get involved with my mahi so this piece has become deeply personal to me and I have decided to dedicate it to my mum and the [Pacific] Sisters. My family has been helping me plait the raffia and all sorts. It has been very special. Mum feels like she has a sense of purpose through creating this work with me. She is 75 years old and I would love to trigger something that is dormant in her to allow her to create something amazing.”


Vivienne Haldane 1993 © Part of Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera |Fashion Activists developed and toured by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Image supplied

Suzanne, although still an artist, now also works with the Wellington City Council Arts and Events team. “I'm moving in a different political arena. I still get to do some kick-ass shows with the support of an entire organisation. I feel we can make more change from the inside. Change for the better.” I asked her about the work Pacific Sisters made and whether it was purposely political or inescapably so. “I would have to say both,” she said. “It is a conscious choice but it's also in response to the political and cultural climate in Aotearoa. To quote Taika Waititi, ‘NZ is racist as fuck.’”

Each of the Sisters still has their own role in upholding and facilitating a strong community of prospering Moana Oceania artists. Rosanna Raymond was recently elected onto the board of the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust and Ani O’Neill and Lisa Reihana continue to be active participants in the local art scene, as well as finding international success. The participation of the Pacific Sisters in Tāmaki Makaurau and beyond has been a massive milestone in the growth of the Moana Oceania diaspora and tangata whenua art. They have laid a template for future artists to become inspired from and given us space to be seen and heard. The Pacific Sisters challenged the notion of modern Aotearoa, while also challenging tradition: the Sisters were, and remain, radical visionaries of art and life in Moana Oceania.

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'Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera | Fashion Activists', runs from February 23 to July 14 at the Auckland Art Gallery. For more information, see here.