“We have challenged ourselves to think about how we reflect Aotearoa, and our place in the Pacific, as well as the way in which we reflect the Pacific to the world. I think that this kaupapa is embodied in the exhibition "Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists" and acknowledges how the Pacific Sisters have been doing this for over 25 years.
I think it also honours the sisters’ bravery in being unapologetically political and pushing beyond the white cube of the gallery to incorporate indigenous art forms of dress, music, oratory and performance. For new audiences, the exhibition will be an exciting discovery that represents the work of an influential art collective that championed art as a means of empowerment, inspiration and transformation..”
- Nina Tonga curator ‘Pacific Sisters- Fashion Activists” Toi Art Te Papa.
It was the birth of the 90s - Ponsonby was still ruled by the Samoan KCs, late night shopping on Krd was the most exciting place your island parents could take you on Thurs nights, Ema Paki was system virtuous, Pacific street style was suddenly hot, and the Pacific Sisters star was on the rise.
In this pivotal period of Nesian history in Aotearoa - 3 significant movements were being born around the country.
Pacific Underground formed themselves into a fledgling theatre group with Oscar Kightley and Erolia Ifopo at the helm, and the co-joint muso arm including Ladi 6 and cuzzies Tyra Hammond in Sheelaroc, and Scribe Luafutu who had started the scribbling that eventually sees him take out the charts for an unprecedented 46 weeks.
Up in Auckland we were a buzz with the beats of ‘Urban Pasifika’ and the notorious road trip of the legendary Fuemana clan, Erman and Dei Hamo that were the first commercial stirrings of the Poly hip hop sound that was to take over the nation. Pauly Fuemana with his Las Vegas lounge style cool was telling us ‘How Bizarre’ and Sista Sina got funky with her Afro out wild.
Whilst clubs like Cause Celeb, De Brett's and the short lived Escape bar pulsed to these new local sounds and a Pacific MC identity, another group we're making their mark on the fashion scene.
Late 80s pioneering Pasifika model Rosanna Raymond returned home from Europe aghast at the fact there were still no brown faces on the acting modeling scene in Aotearoa and she kick started an agency to herd the brown, cool and beautiful onto the pages of magazines like ‘Planet’ and ‘Rip it Up’.
“We were sick and tired of the Dusky Maiden trope….sick and tired of the European beauty aesthetic…we weren’t prepared to be invisible any more because we believed in the beauty and power of our nesian bodies…our urban nesianness. There was no REAL representation in the media except broken arse negative reports, finally I found a group of women who I related to…kick arse, funny intelligent ..woke and like me NZ born” - Rosanna Raymond, Pacific Sisters
Suddenly the milk and honey looked decidedly coconut and caramel, with the most exciting looking and sounding people in popular culture were wearing a kind of Nesian street Mad Max - meets - muumuu - mama’s hybrid of Pacific urban warrior adornments. This explosion of brown tribal cool would show their fro from high st, to the magazine pages - in ads for Streetlife, to the catwalks of the newly formed style Pasifika fashion catwalk.
The Pacific sisters - a collective of like minded 2nd and 3rd gen kiwi Pacific artists and designers, started making statement shows that spoke of a political Pacific urban displacement and identity, and the warrior armory of Island style body adornment.
Shown in clubs and street arcades more than traditional fashion runways, the works of the sistahs slayed up and down the country in a new breath of fresh air that re-visioned what had been 'Pacific fashion' up until then.
Never before had we seen such cutting edge cool Polys that lead the way in the street style stakes of the nation.
On the radio, on the tele, in fashion pages and on the streets there was an explosion of the loud proud brownness that made you ache to be a part of.
Pacific sisters turned the dusky maiden on its head with their performative shows to the beats of local urban brown music, making for some of the first non earnest type interdisciplinary shows that were riotous fun, riding on the energy of some of the brown urban anthems that formed the solid ground on which todays brown hip hop thrives.
And crochet mama’s dresses, island style warrior wear and photo montage imagery on the wall suddenly brought the street and the Island living room into the white cube gallery spaces.
‘Full tusk Maiden’, ‘Samoan Sass’ and ‘Mika's cloak’, mixed media and materials old and new in ways that were startling and sexy, in some of the first instances of elevating the street to the echelons of high art.
It was also probably the first high impact visual resistance to the idea of Island woman as the languishing Pacific odalisque, the welcoming tourist dusky maiden, the coy emblem of a jolly Poly.
Sia Figel wrote -‘Gauguin is Dead there is no paradise’ and the Pacific Sisters reimagined paradise as Nesian street culture, with the brown female body armoured, adorned to confront and please the eye of the brown sista not the palagi mista.
Now 20 years on the sisters work is re-born, in a retrospective to an era where they kicked the door open and strutted in on a sea of siapo, pulu seeds and sinnet.
“We need to show the diversity in our artistic communities both in the actual art works and gafa of our group …relationships are important, collective power is important …. showing that protest is not just about placards and petitions, it’s in the very action of a DOING, art is an amazing tool of expression. You can take your anger, your rejection, your fears, your inspirations and turn them into a positive experience for you and those around you…. art and the creative industry has a lot to offer in healing and sharing our histories …I hope the next gen can walk away from the show and reflect on the many ways you can express your culture…” says Raymond.
In Te Papa’s stunning new ballroom-like Toi Art space, the exhibition is a celebration of the work of these women who had made marked ground in their own right as individual artists, bringing their unique talents together under the Sisters umbrella.
The exhibition isn’t just a showcase of the product of an era gone by, but an important synergy between Pacific female artists and a Pacific female curator, being the brainchild of Te Papa’s Nina Tonga.
And it extends the idea of agency to the eye of the beholder. In the same way that so many Pacific works speak to a specifically Nesian audience, these pieces talk to Island women as the viewer - she will understand the use of the crochet, the irony in the refashioned colonial mu’umu’u, the tourist shell leis- eternal symbol of welcome being repurposed as body armour.
In this way it makes a long overdue and increasingly relevant statement from Pasifika women in this so-far vanila marking of 125 years of women’s suffrage in NZ.
It feels like this work, that illustrates a time when kiwi Pacific women were finally developing a voice, an autonomy and a sense of agency, has now been given its due.
It's also a celebration of a time and place in Aotearoa, where Polys poked their heads up and realised we were the sizzle that literally spiced up land of the bland with their coco creativity.
The Pacific sisters retrospective works reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of so many who weren't afraid to bring their Islandness to the fore in fun and freaky ways, on the backs of those who were laughed at in the white Sunday ofu, socks and jandals and Pacific kitsh.
“The Pacific Sisters retrospective is a formal induction for our youth, and a reintroduction to our practice for people here in Aotearoa & the Pacific. We went from city streets to catwalks, fashion shows to art galleries. The art books are open but not enough people read them, so lets share our story with the world through Te Papa.” - Ani O’Neill
Archival photos various sources including the work of photographer Kerry Brown.