Fiji Day and na gauna vou – a new beginning

Last month was Fiji Day – the anniversary of Fiji’s independence from British colonial rule celebrated on October 10th. In Aotearoa, the government advocates for Pacific Island language weeks to raise awareness and promote language learning, retention and the role of our Pacific languages in the ways that culture is practiced, sustained and celebrated. Fijian Language Week happens in the week surrounding Fiji Day, and Fijian cultural practices and basic vocabulary is used enthusiastically across schools, organisations and media platforms that care about the inclusion and visibility of Fijian language, culture and Fijian communities in Aotearoa.

Fijian Language Week has been a week-long programme of celebrations and events that I’ve been involved in for many years. It’s a way to use the added visibility and awareness to put a spotlight on important issues and kaupapa raised by Fijian artists. But there are frustrations with the tokenism inevitable with a week-long burst of attention and care. For many communities involved in promoting resilience for Pacific language, culture and arts, the work happens all year long, and whilst a week of spotlighting has some benefits, it feels almost counter-productive sometimes to filter all efforts into a week of celebration where popular attention quickly diverts to the next language in focus.

The short timeframe of week-long celebrations of Pacific language also means that the vocabulary popularly shared rarely expands beyond basic beginner level communication, and thus the depth of understanding – year on year – doesn’t seem to evolve much.

Thirsty for more depth, this year, with Fijian Language Week falling in the week of Aotearoa’s General Election, Vunilagi Vou published a series of daily Fijian language concepts developed with Vunilagi Vou Co-Director, Kaliopate Tavola. The vocabulary and phrasing were developed in relation to the political climate, concepts of leadership and Vunilagi Vou’s imminent new beginnings. For each concept, an image was selected from Vunilagi Vou’s archive and library of Fijian titles.

This iconic image shows Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara wearing the traditional Fijian dress for the vakataraisulu (lifting of mourning) ceremonies for Adi Arieta Koila at Lakeba, 1955. The image has found a new popularity on the Internet, but was borrowed here from The Pacific Way: A Memoir by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, published by University Hawai’i Press (1997).

This image is me (Ema) in-between my siblings – Mereia and George – in London in the 1980s when my sister performed a meke (traditional dance performance) at Buckingham Palace. Here, we thought about the family unit as a microcosm of leadership, a process of inter-dependent independence.

Hope was a heavy theme in the week approaching Election Day. This image is from the Dravuni: Sivia yani na Vunilagi – Beyond the Horizon project that my father and I co-curated in 2016 for the New Zealand Maritime Museum. It shows my father facilitating one of the drawing workshops (designed by Leilani Kake) with children from Dravuni, our island in Kadavu, Fiji.

This image is of an oil painting by my sister, Mereia Carling, depicting Bulou Rokowati, our protector ancestor as she imagines her, “sitting on the shores of Dravuni island, below the shade of the breadfruit trees, draped in rich brown masi (barkcloth), our manumanu (bird), [the] secala (kingfisher) appearing, with her two ketekete (woven baskets) resting nearby.” This painting was made in Wellington, but lives part time with my parents in Paekākāriki, and part-time with me in South Auckland. Bulou’s protective gaze has extended over three Dravuni households.

The final image speaks directly to Vunilagi Vou’s inspiration – the vunilagi (horizon) as seen from Dravuni island. The rising and setting of the sun became the central concept of Vunilagi Vou; the idea that exhibitions, projects, and actual galleries, have a beginning and an end. Here, time is circular, and after death there is always re-birth.

Next month, after four years and 19 exhibitions, Vunilagi Vou’s gallery – the public programming side of the business – will close. With more time and energy for other parts of Vunilagi Vou’s work, 2024 is looking like an exciting year of art making, writing, research and advocacy.

I am looking forward to Vunilagi Vou’s new beginning – na gauna vou.

vinaka vakalevu