This article about Vunilagi Vou’s February 2020 programme, #FATFEB, was originally published in ARTalk (Issue 17), Fiji’s independent online art magazine edited by Peter Sipeli.
In February, Vunilagi Vou embarked on a month-long programme about radical fat positivity. What began as a dreamy idea to host a fat babe pool party, an idea pitched by local South Auckland-based artist and activist, Lissy Cole, the month of February turned into #FATFEB.
It became abundantly clear that the word ‘fat’ quickly filled a conversation with fear, loathing, conditioning, tragedy and morality. The word – three lowercase letters – the word, was intoxicatingly powerful. An underlying agenda of our programme was the unpack the word, rethink it as a descriptor and confront our own socialised attachments to what fat actually means to us.
Unintentionally, the #FATFEB programme became a mini-festival; we hosted an exhibition in our gallery, held workshops and discussion events, and at the heart, a pool party that centralised the fat body, as powerful, beautiful, valid… present.
Curating an exhibition about fat positivity felt like being exposed. The concept too personal, too embodied; for me, curating doesn’t usually feel like this. From the earliest communication with the artists, the topic and journey of fat acceptance revealed a depth of experience so rarely vocalised, and so sincerely personal. The artists made and showed work in photography and fashion, digital composition, installation, video and illustration. The exhibition spilled out of the gallery and into the arcade, shared by three other Pacific Island owned businesses, filling our environment, momentarily with fat conviction, fantasy and unapologetic fat body presence.
Fat bodies have been cast into the shadows of Eurocentric capitalist messaging and globalised conditioning, forced to hide in baggy clothes. But those in our exhibition were bodies of resistance, not ‘brave’ in the sense that fat is defined by its proximity to thinness, but courageous in their liberation.
The exhibition was confronting and mesmerising. South Auckland-based couturier Amy Lautogo of Infamy Apparel created a mini-collection catwalk show for the opening, which generated some of the most exuberant photography to come out of Vunilagi Vou, thanks to models Ria Hiroki, Tangaroa Paul, Lavina Williams and Bron Laufiso, captured by local photographers Raymond Sagapolutele and Pati Solomona Tyrell. The exhibition framed the #FATFEB programme, providing a point of discussion and focus for the workshops delivered in the adjacent VV Studio space.
The Fat Babe Pool Party, was a radiating beacon of an event. A purely non-discriminatory space, which felt visually and emotionally like an oasis. The event was always going to be deliciously chill, and our local Mount Richmond Hotel offered the perfect poolside setting for what was quite an experimental event. Lissy Cole dressed the space with a jaw-dropping technicolour feast of textiles, bunting, lanterns, sculptures and embellishments. It felt literally magical. A panel discussion with fashion blogger and artist, Meagan Kerr, fat studies scholar Dr Cat Pausé and rapper/writer/creative alchemist, Jessicoco Hansell inspired reflection and respect. They spoke truth to their experiences, their own fat politics and their rationales for speaking up / for / about fat bodies. Sitting poolside, facilitating this discussion in my size 24 leopard print bikini, I looked out at the audience, listening intensely to this conversation, and it occurred to me that we were all witnessing something pretty phenomenal.
The #FATFEB programme got more mainstream media (MSM) interest in New Zealand than most exhibitions at Vunilagi Vou. Whilst explicitly Pacific content in the arts sometimes get culturally specific media interest (mostly radio), and Pacific arts production presented in traditionally white fields like theatre often piques the interest of white audiences and thus MSM, the topic of fat brokered new ground for an arts driven event featuring exclusively Māori and Pacific creative perspectives.
Interestingly, even with broad audience awareness through MSM and significant traction through social media networks, the exhibition’s visitor numbers were notably low. This felt like a very clear indication how confronting the idea of fat is. The terrain of a gallerist is to discuss and unpack the artwork and ideas of an artist, so discussions within the exhibition would often become conversations about fat phobia, discrimination and the murky space of ‘concern culture’. These interactions can and did expose deep layers of fat phobic conditioning, the very layers that are defused by the concept of fat positivity. These were not easy conversations to hold!
Visitor numbers aside, the audience who were impacted the most throughout #FATFEB was our fat community, particularly women. There was a profound sense of validation in foregrounding the representation of the fat body and its unapologetic politics. It was a month of being seen, being heard and being respected. But it became clearer and clearer throughout February, how rare this is on a day-to-day basis.
February left me on a high. To make exhibitions that can affect the change I want to see in society, is the highest reward. The exhibition was unique, a point in time snapshot produced collectively be nine excellent creatives. Creating space to have hard conversations is not an easy road, but I commend everyone who ventured into this territory.
If Vunilagi Vou survives 2020, #FATFEB is most definitely on the cards for February 2021!
Other media coverage of #FATFEB:
- Fat activism in Aotearoa is having a moment by Elizabeth Heritage, The Spinoff
- How to stop being afraid of the word ‘fat’ by Arwen Sommer, Re:News
- Thick As: A glowing response to FAT by Lana Lopesi, The Pantograph Punch
- FAT exhibition in South Auckland celebrating the fat experience, TP+ (Tagata Pasifika)