Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists

The review was first published by ArtAsiaPacific magazine about the exhibition "Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists He Toa Tāera" at Te Papa, 17 March–18 July 2018.

To accompany the exhibition “Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists (He Toa Tāera)” at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Rosanna Raymond, a member of the Pacific Sisters collective, had put together a Spotify playlist that includes tracks by hip hop and pop musicians CheFu, Sisters Underground, and OMC. For me, these songs are nostalgic of growing up in Hamilton in the 1990s, a decade of New Zealand’s more immediate art history that has been little exhibited and discussed but, as powerfully illustrated by this show, was a time in which a network of important cultural changes were playing out across Aotearoa.

The Pacific Sisters are a loose collective of Māori and Pacific Island women (and some men), who came together in Auckland in 1992 to make music, fashion, art, performance and film. Each member has their own practice in one or many of these fields, and “Fashion Activists” captured the efflorescence of creativity that was the result of their collaboration: layered fashion designs; dance, video, music, and fashion shows; and photography. Through all of these art forms, the Sisters asserted their place within the dominant Pākehā (Māori for New Zealanders of European descent) visual culture of Aotearoa, while simultaneously subverting it. In the snappy video work Hyper Girls(1998), for example, Ani O’Neill and Lisa Reihana flamboyantly strut in wigs and waistcoats, signature pieces of the Sisters’ adornment. Against a frenetic soundtrack of zips opening and closing, the artists deliberately play up the conventions of a fashion world that is not inclusive of “brown faces.”

In addition to the legacy of colonialism, “Fashion Activists” showcased the lineages of a number of contemporary concerns in New Zealand art. The Sisters frequently worked with drag queens and fa’afafine (Samoan men who exhibit feminine gender traits) on the design and construction of garments as well as performances. In Motu Tangata, a massive multimedia fashion show first staged in 1996, the Sisters and their collaborators parade and dance on a runway, dressed in their own multilayered designs. In the clip of this event shown in the exhibition, an elegant man dances en pointe in black ballet shoes and a short skirt. The manner in which gender was destabilised at their shows is a precursor to the work of Auckland’s similarly performative FAFSWAGcollective. Further, the Sisters’ ever-evolving collaborative method of making work and redeployment of traditional Pacific Island materials—tapa, coconut shell, feathers, and pig tusks—in designs such as RePATCHtriation (1999–2013) and Motu Tagata (1996), have since become prevalent modes of working for contemporary artists. Or perhaps it’s just that these modes are now more recognized by Aotearoa’s art institutions.

The Sisters’ antipathy to these institutions was illustrated in a 1997 interview for ArtAsiaPacific, where Raymond said, “I have this term: ‘art blah blah.’ They all come in and take a slice, over-intellectualize blah blah blah. This has no relation to the way we work…The moment and the experience is what’s important…” Raymond’s resistance to critical response was perhaps because of the exclusivity of the art world: a realm of Pākehā writers and curators who just didn’t get it. Significantly, this impressive show was curated by Nina Tonga (whose role, curator of Pacific art, was only recently created by Te Papa, in 2017), and extensive reviews have been written by Ane Tonga for Art New Zealand and by Ioana Gordon-Smith for the Pantograph Punch—all women of Pacific heritage. The exhibition therefore not only celebrated the art of the Pacific Sisters, but its curation and subsequent critique also showcased a new generation of Pacific women curators and art critics.

The opening night of “Fashion Activists” included a performative “activation of Toi Art” by the Sisters, who, wearing their own designs, led Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, into their exhibition and presented her with two lei, one for her and one for her soon-to-be-born baby. In some of the resulting photos, you can see Tonga also following closely behind. What do these images show us? A moment of twinned political and artistic power? A disruption of entrenched hierarchies? A vision, perhaps, of a feminine future?

Thomasin Sleigh