Dion takes a closer look at the Festival of Pacific Arts Village and reveals some extraordinary people, experiences and treasures...

The Village

“The village is so expansive!” is the first thing that comes to mind when taking in the festival. So, I decided to peg-back my expectations for the day, and just calmly encounter the colour, sound, and sensations from each village as I passed by. My first encounter, would likely be something very familiar and playful; the Chooky Dancers.

According to a brochure provided by the Australian Council for the Arts, come from Elcho Island, a remote community in North East Arnhem Land, The Chooky Dancers have been acclaimed for their show Wrong skin. They gained popularity on Australia’s got talent, and through the film ‘Bran Nue Dae.’ This said they had the crowd in the palm of their hands, as the performance was thoroughly entertaining and light-hearted. I can’t wait to see them again during the festival program.

Rennell and Bellona

As I make my way towards what could possibly be called the Melanesian zone, I come across an unusual building structure with superior carvings at its entrance; this was the fale of the Rennell and Bellona. On lowering my head to gain entry to the interior, my eyes widened as I glanced the amazing carved statues depicting totems and ancestors coupled with some of the finest contemporary weaving and basketry of this province. I have always had a genuine interest for this Solomon Islands province, due to their having a deep social, cultural, linguistic connection to Polynesian culture and society.

NZ Anthropologist, Dr Patu Hohepa, has written extensively on the similarities of the cultures, speaking from the point of view as a Maori decendant. This was made clear to me when I started to speak to Namona Makaua, A master carver from Bellona, he asked in his native tongue, ”tou ingoa?” And my reply was, “ ko Dion Peita toku ingoa.” Meaning, “what is your name? My name is Dion Peita: Solidifying the linguistic similarities that both Maori from NZ, and peoples from Rennell and Bellona share.

Dream weaving

The tightly woven strands of the basketry are truly complex; as a novice weaver, I can appreciate the amount of preparation that it would take to produce such an exquisite bag. I ask Mary Makaua, a weaver of many years and mother to Namona, what is her inspiration for weaving? Her reply is “that this craft keeps her young!” I answer “you don’t look a day over 35.” She smiles. Mary explains that the patterns depict natural phenomena, whereas other motifs are handed down generation to generation.  They explain the connection between land, people and sea. Whereby other baskets reveal a more playful, yet masterfully modern idea or message.

Atoll of Fakaofo, Tokelau

Tokelau comprises three atolls, Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu, and lays approximately 600 kms North of Samoa - they are in a free association with NZ. The representatives from Tokelau here for the festival are primarily from the atoll of Fakaofo where the majority of the population lives, however many Diaspora now flourish in both Australia and New Zealand. Tokelau is known for its unique weaving, carving, dancing and oratory.

Of particular interest to me is the connection of people to the sea, and how this manifests into local arts practice. I start a conversation with one of the weavers and I ask her about the production of the beautiful fans, or ili as they are called in Tokelau, she explains to me that there is much work needed to prepare the kiekie, pandanus for weaving. The result is impressive, and one which I will source for developing resources for the Museums program to work with marginalised Pacific Youth. Although a simple item,. the fan tells an interesting story of durability, connection and cultural pride.

Culture in harmony with Nature is a theme I will continue to interrogate whilst visiting the diverse Pacific nations in attendance. Harmony I noticed while watching a very senior member of the Tokelauan contingent prepare, cut and shape parts of a model vaka (canoe). Although his fingers were nimble he continued to lash and dress the vaka as if it were part of his own body. This to me is Culture in harmony with Nature, as it provides a vehicle for the transmission of culture for the next generation.

The Festival of the Pacific Arts is the largest gathering in which Pacific peoples unite to gain respect for, and appreciation of, one another within the context of the changing Pacific. Dion will be strengthening Pacific networks, exploring resources for the Australian Museum's social inclusion project that assists marginalised Pacific youth in NSW, and presenting a paper at the Pacific Youth forum to be held during this period.

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