These Shapeshifting Photos Reclaim Power for Gender-Diverse Pacific Peoples

Pati Solomona's series "Fāgogo" reconnects LGBTQ Pacific Islanders with their precolonial roots, elevating gender-diverse people to positions of power and cultural force.

by Anthony Byrt; photos by Pati Solomona Tyrell
May 3 2018, 4:29am

This article originally appeared on VICE New Zealand.

Pati Tyrell has had a meteoric eighteen months. In 2016, the co-founder of LGBTQI Pacific collective FAFSWAG submitted his video Fāgogo for his visual art degree at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand. By June 2017, it was exhibited as the centerpiece of his first post-art school solo exhibition at Auckland’s St Paul Street Gallery. And in March 2018, it was announced that Fāgogo had been selected as a finalist for New Zealand’s most prestigious art award, the Walters Prize.

Fāgogo is an elaborate film that crosses between the spiritual and physical worlds as it winds across the Pacific Ocean, connecting Tonga, Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji and Aotearoa. Its figures are by turns confrontational and shapeshifting, tapping into the fluidity of the water that links them, as well as their fluid gender and sexual identities. It’s a journey to the underworld and beyond that reconnects LGBTQ Pacific Islanders with their precolonial roots; stripping back the damage done by Christianity’s oppressive morality to elevate gender diverse people to positions of spiritual power and cultural force.

I caught up with Tyrell to talk about Fāgogo, collaboration, science fiction, and how Auckland’s Pacific queer scene are contributing to global conversations about a black future.

Eleele Sāmoa, Fāgogo, 2016

VICE: Let’s start with the title of your exhibition. What is Fāgogo?
Pati Tyrell: "Fāgogo" is a Samoan term for "fable." It’s something that’s practiced at home; a way of teaching myths and stories to younger generations. It’s a way of learning history. My entire practice is about storytelling. So in this work I’m the key storyteller, but I guess I share that role with all the artists who are in it. It’s a collaborative work between me and 13 other young Pacific queer artists within Auckland. It’s a way for all of us to share something important to us, which is reconnecting to indigenous spiritual practices and indigenous knowledge.

Why is that so important for you? And what’s happened to sever that connection?
Obviously, the big thing is colonization. There’s a big movement within New Zealand to try to regain all of that [precolonial] knowledge that was lost. For those of us who grew up in Christian families, and it never really sat well with us, it’s a way to access our spirituality that isn’t a white man’s idea of how that should happen.

Kelekele Niue, Fāgogo, 2016

The film Fāgogo is obviously the centerpiece of the exhibition that was nominated for the Walters Prize. But you also showed photographs with it—which included portraits of several FAFSWAG members. You’ve also started to establish a reputation as an editorial photographer in magazines like Paperboy. How does photography currently fit into your thinking?
I’ve been documenting our community here in Auckland for the past five years. I see all those series of photographs as stories. Again, collaboration is important—it’s about finding the middle-ground between you and the person in the photo. The thing about my photos is I’m always trying to capture the people in them in a state of power, and with status—because those are things that are never given to us. We’re born into shit straight away, as brown people, as queer people. So when I talk about giving power back, that runs through my entire practice. And I think you feel it when you come to the exhibition, and all these brown faces are staring back at you.

Tā Aotearoa, Fāgogo, 2016

I’m interested in the suggestion that your work seeks to return sexually diverse Pacific identities to their “oracle” status. What do you mean by that?
In [pre-Christian] Samoan cultural practice, fa’afafine and fa'atama were considered people who were able to navigate gendered space as well as the space between the spiritual and physical worlds. I wanted to give that power back. When I started making Fāgogo, I was thinking about where we sit in Samoan culture and society, and where we sit as gender-diverse people. I feel like we’re kind of at the bottom, with no power. So I wanted to reverse that, and bring that power back.

Vai Cook Island, Fāgogo 2016

An oracle is someone who sees what’s coming. What’s the future your oracles are looking towards?
I feel my work tries to paint a future where our people aren’t struggling anymore; where they’re confident and strong and no longer afraid to be themselves. Strong in terms of their culture and their identity. I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s what it is.

You co-founded FAFSWAG, which has had an enormous impact on New Zealand’s cultural life over the past 18 months: as theatre, as art, as activism and debate, even as an app. How does the collective’s work feed into your practice as a solo artist?
FAFSWAG is like a village. When we’re doing our events, yeah we’re all working together. But it also links to our solo practices. Whether it’s me or any other FAFSWAG artist, we’re always there as “hands,” working on whatever the other artists need help with. So when I’m doing my own work, FAFSWAG becomes an extension of myself—whether it’s critiquing the work, or actually creating it. It’s great to have that group of friends behind me.

Wai Fiji, Fāgogo 2016

These ideas of the oracle and looking to the future while connecting to myth have real resonances with Afro-futurism and the kinds of queer and queered imagery that are emerging in black film and music. How much do you feel your practice is part of global conversations about black and LGBT culture?
As part of the Fāgogo exhibition FAFSWAG threw a vogue ball, and the theme was “Pacific Futurism.” We’re definitely interested in global conversations that help us re-imagine ourselves in the future. There’s not much Pacific sci-fi or horror, so that’s definitely something we’re trying to contribute to. That’s why I really like movies like Black Panther; they give a wider scope of what our people can be. I want to see a Pacific Island alien, you know? To me, it’s all about finding new forms of storytelling.

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WATCH: Check out our documentary with FAFSWAG and Auckland's underground vogue scene.