Pacific Women Artists Balance Art and Family

A couple of months ago Radio New Zealand posted an article about Pacific women artists who work hard to balance their art and family life that I have been meaning to share…

Pacific visual artist Janet Lilo is a mother on a mission to create art and explore indigenous feminism but also raise good feminist men.”I want to bring it back to the bare bones,” said Janet Lilo, a Māori-Samoan-Niuean visual artist, and a mother.

Family is important to Ngāpuhi, Samoa and Niuean cultures which Ms Lilo draws upon when it comes to raising her boys, who she wants to raise feminist. “I am trying to be an artist, but I also want to be a good mum. I want my sons to realize in the contemporary world we live in right now that we are all equal. And that counts with gender equality. Being accepting of other races and differences,” she said.

Artist, curator and writer Ane Tonga said female empowerment was not new in a Pacific context and others have been doing it before them.”We had the late Teresia Teaiwa who wrote about the militarization in Fiji and so it is a much broader discussion beyond art,” she said. Ms Tonga said it was also hard to believe there were only nine Pacific women represented by gallery dealers in Aotearoa (New Zealand), including traditional weavers. “This was not a quick sweep of gallery dealers either,” she said. “When I say nine, keep in mind it is not the whole story. We need to think about the ecology of that, and what we could do more of to support.”

She firmly believes art tells important Pacific histories and for Tongans it is important, as are family connections. “Absolutely. When I think about women in art, I always think about my grandmother who brings out her ngatu (tapa cloth) every year to repaint it. That is a woman’s art, how women express their creativity,” she said.

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Fijian Women Art Expo, 2018

Ms Tonga said while women’s art is key, men also have an integral role to play. “Well I wrote about the Pacific sisters recently, eight sisters, who have done incredible work in the arts but then they have had men who have helped them and played a role in their collective. To me there is no distinction between men women and even the LGBT community.”

Ms Lilo said Pacific traditional artists need more visibility and recognition and that is where the art dealers come in. “There are many practitioners who do make traditional crafts but I think it is getting more visibility in the arts world,” said Lilo who did not realize that the role of art dealers were essential to getting their arts work sold when she first started out.

Ms Lilo says the digital age has really made arts more accessible and this avenue could be better utilized. “You could be rural couldn’t you and yet people anywhere can still access your work. And I think sometimes with too much info on the internet, can also stop people from getting out and leaving the house and seeing something for yourself or meeting people,” she said. Lilo also added, “It is about finding that balance between the digital and physical world and as humans we need to find a balance of those things.”

This year New Zealand celebrates the 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage and both artists took part in a women in arts talk series at the Auckland Art Gallery this month. The series celebrates the contribution of a range of different women to the arts. “I think it is a really new development for the Auckland City Art Gallery and a sign of good things to come? Maybe it is about the 125th year of Women’s suffrage, but maybe it is about time for these discussions with more sisters here,” said Lilo.

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