Vanya Taule'alo – Artist in Samoa


Looking Forward Looking Back

(Twenty four years in Samoa)

Written in 1998 by Vanya Taule’alo[1]

Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. You experience intense nostalgia, hark back to an earlier stage in your life, or see a serious mistake…What makes the whole experience vivid, and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past..(Paul Theroux ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania’)

My journey into another culture began twenty four years ago when I went on a trip to visit my husband’s country, the small Pacific Island of Western Samoa[2]. I began the voyage from a point of complete ignorance, and shamefully admit that prior to this visit, I had shown little curiosity about his country of origin, nor made any attempt to inquire about his culture or way of life. We were living in New Zealand where he had had to adjust to the dominant Anglo culture and my lack of imagination had led me to believe my own values were shared by him. I did not realise that there were depths to him that I had not even begun to understand.

Sheltered by the security of my own cultural background and upbringing, I did not have to confront the wide range of cultural differences that were to manifest themselves when I arrived in Samoa.  For the first time in my life I understood what it was like to be on the outside, to be the minority; to stand out immediately as different because of the colour of my skin; to be bombarded daily with language I could not understand.  I was an object of fascination, intrigue and derision, because of my differences. I realised immediately that my values and opinions were not universal. So began a lot of soul searching which continues over the years as I come to terms with another culture. Each time I go in and out of that culture I have to adjust to different scenarios as I try to find a place of peace, comfort, acceptance and resolution. I have come to learn a lot about myself and others, to be more open and less judgmental about people, yet at times I am unable to compromise on issues that are deep set and fundamental to my being. I have found both immense satisfaction and joy and I have also had to experience such isolation, loneliness and despair that ‘throwing in the towel’ was a real possibility.

As I disembarked from the plane the evening of 3 December 1974 I will never forget the assault of hot air that hit me in the face. Wet with sweat I trudged across the tarmac to the sound of strange words and smells. Welcome to Samoa, the Heart of the Polynesia – a place that would bewilder me, fascinate me, outrage me, make me laugh and cry; a place that grabbed hold of my heart so tightly that I would work for its people with such commitment and drive as would never be possible back in my own country; and a place that over the years began to accept facets of me and allowed me to be artistically inspired and productive.

That first night as we were driven away from the airport[3] towards the capital Apia, I shall never forget the sights before me. Dotted along the pot holed road were many fale (traditional houses} and on the pavement walked or sat men, women and children. There were no walls to the fale and so the lives of the inhabitants were visible to all. Mosquito nets hung ghost-like from the poles to the floor; each one contained flax mats, pillows and a number of sleeping bodies. Older people outside the nets were playing suipi (local card game) with the aid of a hurricane lamp.

The fale were scantily furnished. Beds were for storing fine mats under the kapok mattresses, which were deemed too hot to sleep on. If present, wooden chairs were arranged formally around the perimeter of the fale and people preferred to sit cross legged on the floor. Apart from that a family may have a trunk for keeping clothes in, a cupboard for linen with the mirror carefully curtained off to keep the aitu (spirits) away, a safe for plates and a shelf for the family bible and hymn books. The more fortunate families had television sets receiving American programmes form neighbouring Pagopago[4]. But the general lack of electricity in the villages meant that modern luxuries were in fact rarely used except in some villages with generators but only for a few hours at night. The owner of a TV would allow other villagers to come and watch it for the small cost of a coconut to feed his pigs. I slept in a fale on my first night in Samoa, under the same mosquito net as my mother in law.

Starting unprepared and not forewarned I was to travel to my husband, Ieti’s, village the next day to be ‘formally’ married. The Greyhound bus took us to where his father and before him his grandfather had been church ministers. The bus was locally built on top of a truck chasse and had open windows and wooden seats. It was filled with people, coconut baskets of food and even live pigs. The 60-kilometre trip[5] wound for four hours over muddy tracks through pretty villages and over a treacherous mud-covered mountain pass. The bus groaned its way up the mountain pass revealing the most amazing tropical forests and vertical peaks that looked like soft-serve ice cream that someone had taken a lick out of. As a sign of respect for me the palagi (white person) I was allowed to stay in the bus as all the other passengers pushed it around corners and out of muddy ruts. When I arrived in the village so many hours later I was dirty and exhausted. After a sleep we went to swim in the part of the river that had a beautiful waterfall and then I dressed in a simple caftan. With wet hair and sandals we went into the church and were married just before darkness made reading the ceremony impossible for Ieti’s father. Inside the church there were only five of us – Ieti and myself, his father (the minister), mother and brother and a rather bewildered neighbour who was the third witness. But outside the church straining to see through the glass windows I saw dozens of curious village eyes.

After this a small feast was prepared including taro (favourite Samoan root crop), palusami (taro leaves cooked in coconut cream), chickens piglet and sapasui (Samoan version of the Chinese chop suey). The kitchen or falekuka (cook house) is a smaller and shabbier constructed fale which is detached at the back of the main fale. Here the food is cooked on the open fire and houses the stones and necessary leaves and paraphernalia for making the umu (traditional Samoan oven for roasting food in hot stones). I wandered around the falekuka, watched the food preparations and witnessed the pigs return to their enclosure for their evening feed and the chickens and roosters jump up into the breadfruit trees for the night. It seemed that each animal was programmed to know its own family and respond to the feeding cry of its owner. I suddenly felt what intelligent beasts they were. This was indeed a very different world from the one I came from.

As the day rapidly became night, where was the twilight I was so used to? The hurricane lanterns were lit and the aiga (family) showered and prepared for the evening lotu (prayers). After this the table was laid and the younger family members served the older people food and waited until after the adults had eaten and then they passed each adult a basin of water to wash their hands. Then they sat down for their meal. My husband always recalls how he hated unexpected visitors being invited for a meal as it always meant the children would miss out on the choice food as it is polite to give the richest pickings to the visitors.

I stayed in the village for two months. I was the center of fascination for the children who would follow me everywhere. I felt like the Pied Piper. My husband was mildly embarrassed with the curiosity I created and I think he would have preferred me to have hidden away for the time I was in the village. Nevertheless I tried to move around and all the time my actions were carefully monitored by large brown curious eyes.

At the same time re-entry into my own culture in Australia, firstly in 1989 and again in 1993 was traumatic. I cried for the first two weeks. People were cold. The homeless, the visible alcoholics on the street and the non-caring pedestrians astounded and depressed me. Apart from the shop keepers no one spoke to you – you were alone. But the muchness of Sydney and its vulgar materialism seduced me, the museums and galleries stimulated me. Over time I was able to ignore people as I walked down the street, I loved the busyness of the streets and the smell of coffee and cakes as I walked down the village street of the inner city suburb of Balmain. I began to feel in charge of my own life, to be able to deal publicly and professionally independently. It was a feeling of empowerment; I was in control of my life.

When I returned to Samoa in 1991, and even more so in 1997 it was very difficult indeed. I was saddened by the filth and poverty that surrounded me, food was expensive and our salaries were still pitiful. I wondered why I had wanted to come ‘home’. Sadly we had to leave our two older sons overseas to continue their tertiary studies. With limited educational opportunities in Samoa they had little choice in the matter. I have often asked why I had wanted to come back to Samoa as I grieved for my sons now separated for educational reasons.

What are the psychological changes that I become aware of as I move from a traditional society to a modern Western society, and back and forth? As a feminist I have always been aware of somewhat standing out, and yet I was determined to be myself while at the same time not being too confrontational. One of the most difficult things to lose was my sense of independence. I depended on my husband to deal with my administrative and bureaucratic problems. I was back in a land where you are not treated as equal. You have no status and respect unless people know who you are and how well-respected your family is in the eyes of the community. This is a country ruled by chiefly titles and a rigid adherence to social status. The right genealogy and family connections still mean so much. I felt  politically, professionally and socially impotent.

Although there are numerous educated women in Samoa they still have to fight for the top jobs. Out of the 43 government departments and corporations, the heads of only 6 are women. I was glad I saw my life becoming more solitary and spent in the studio so these issues would not matter for me in the long run, yet I felt sad for my very able female colleagues who were always losing out on the best jobs to a male. With a very large educated female population[6], Samoa will have to take better care of its female citizens.

The physical and social changes I saw were not always for the best. When faced with the reality of change and the effects of both natural disasters and political incompetence over recent years I felt angry and let down. I have come back to a country that has modernised somewhat since my first exposure to it. Yet not all development has been carefully planned or implemented. I question the physical impact on the environment of much that has been done.

There are many more European style houses around, the new middle class is expanding, the fortune of individuals and families changing. The demand for freehold land has grown. I, for instance, no longer live in the middle of the forest as I used to only a few years back with development all around me. With these come the displaced peoples looking for jobs or trying to exist on small unproductive lots of land. On these new freehold sub-divisions[7] little provisions were provided for public space such as parks and playgrounds or allowed for community facilities such as schools and health centres. Development seems to be ill-conceived and haphazard.

The main roads are sealed throughout the country and many villages have moved their dwellings to these road sites which allows easier access to transportation. Ugly quarries have gouged out the landscape leaving scars and boulders on the roadside. The rock walls built to protect the coastal roads are more likely to destroy the beaches with scattered boulders during storms and high seas while the roads are still at risk of being destroyed. Some villages such as Lepa where I was married have become ‘ghost towns’ as many of the villagers have left either for the promised lands of New Zealand and Australia or moved to Apia urban area. Many people applaud the new roads as the trip around the island is a quarter of what it used to be. But the benefits will have to be judged against the costs of village relocation, the coastal and environmental damage and the loss of life due to dangerous and fast driving on the better roads.

Apia has become a town of contrasts – the highrise government building in the town centre and the poor shanty houses at the swamps near the produce market; the well-dressed government workers and the shabby street vendors competing for customers. It is dirty, congested, expensive and the quality of goods is poor If you go into Apia you must be prepared to shove and push as if you were in a rugby scrum or you will simply be left standing on the outside. I used to boast that every one was looked after in Samoan society, but now school age children roam the streets during the day trying to sell lemons, fans, brooms, or whatever will bring a little money to feed the family. The beggars have multiplied as have the insane. The town is no longer the pretty back water it used to be. People have been seduced to think that progress means 5-storey buildings, American rap culture and dress styles, and that The Golden Arch of Macdonald’s means you have passed from the stone age into civilisation.

Returning to Samoa I see a prevalence for the showy things of the outside world, the craving for materialism and all that it brings and with that a stress and tension in people that was not there before. Crime has worsened, there is widespread unemployment in town and yet fertile lands around the islands remain untouched. Political vulgarity in satisfying peoples desire for progress has dominated at the expense of educational and health issues that desperately need addressing. Corruption seems to be widely tolerated in traditional Samoan although on a minute scale compared to many countries in Asia and Africa. Educationally Samoa seems to be going backwards with large investments in tertiary education while primary and secondary schools are virtually ignored. The hospital is badly understaffed and equipped although many qualified Samoan doctors staff the Pagopago public hospital where they are paid considerably more. There is a deep-set sadness at returning to such a place you see filled with such a wide range of problems.

What is happening to Samoan culture ? Are we really losing sight of what is important? I ask myself these question daily and I try to address these concerns constantly in my art works – change / tradition / tradition and change – where is the fine line that makes development possible without losing the essential things that have kept Samoan culture intact and whole?

Samoan culture provided Samoans for thousands of years with a model by which to live. Migration and outside influences have now begun to impact on that model bringing with it much confusion and many changes. No longer is there a collective cultural identity. Much of that social and psychological security Samoans had in the past is being eroded with young people being born or trained overseas and returning with different values and influences from other societies. A generation of young Samoans are growing up less prepared to take chiefly authority without questioning it. Youth suicides are among the highest in the world. Cultural conflict hits head on.

While modernisation is inevitable it is both positive and negative. Economic and social development should be based on Samoan cultural values and must be seen from the perspective of the people involved. Traditions must not be ignored but at the same time the immovable obstacles should not be placed in the way of certain changes. Essentially Samoans are at a cross roads where they must define and determine their own way and I feel frequently it is not my place to do much more than sit and watch and blend very much into the background.

It is in traditional situations where I see the fa’a-Samoa (Samoan way) that I feel truly blessed to have been allowed to participate in this society. I have been able to witness the ceremony at the completion of the tattooing, I have joined in prayers and singing when a work colleague dies and witnessed the support given by students and friends on such occasions. I have smiled as elderly women dignitaries dance at weddings wreathed in flowers and with such grace and dignity. I have participated in my husband’s saofa’i (title bestowing ceremony) where he received his father’s family chiefly title and watched ancient ritual come alive once more. Once again I feel at peace, for although I am the outsider at these occasions with language difficulties, I see and feel once again the soul and spirit of a nation which has something special and unique that differentiates them from all other people on the planet.

As I gradually re-settled back into my adopted country I realise how much the simple things in life matter to me. I slowly let go of the glitzy things found in a big city and look for other things that give me a meditative calm. Samoa is physically breathlessly beautiful. I have a deep love of the natural lushness, the splendour of the mountains and the treasures found under the turquoise waters of the lagoon. Politically I feel a huge change is necessary as presently greed and self interest have dominated the political arena, along with the increase of authoritarian dictatorial political attitudes that seem to be eating away at individual freedom and creativity.

Looking back, I am no longer the New Zealander that came here 24 years ago. I am a hybrid, blessed with insights into two cultures, given access to and understanding of two very different worlds, and with that rich gift comes the suffering of never really feeling again I can belong in either one of those worlds entirely. Looking forward, I have a vast resource of life experiences which feed me spiritually and artistically. I would still have taken that path if offered to me again.

Published in German for the Talofa samoa exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany.

Aus-und Ruckblicke. 24 Jahre in Samoa, In Talofa Samoa, sudsee. Ansichten und Einsichten, Museum fur Volkerkunde, Frankfurt,am main. 1998


[1]     The author is a professional artist who teaches visual arts at the National University of Samoa

[2] Samoa (Western Samoa up to 1997), has a population of about 165,000 living on two larger islands (Upolu and Savaii) and two smaller islands (Manono and Apolima).

[3] Faleolo International Airport is located on Upolu’s north coast about 32 kilometres west of the capital Apia.

[4] Capital of American Samoa, the eastern part of the Samoan Island group and a territory of the United States.

[5] The trip was about 25 kilometres along Upolu’s north coast, east of Apia, then crossed over the Lemafa Pass to the South Coast and to my husband’s village, Lepa. With the road in far better conditions today, the same trip only takes about one hour.

[6] For example, the 1997 enrolment at  Samoa’s top secondary school, Samoa College, was 500 females out of a 700 total.

[7] All the new major subdivisions of freehold land were former government trust estate land that were once German plantation lands



  1. Hi Vanya – I seem to have lost every scrap of contact details, and finally found your blog – hope you get this. I’ve been watching the disaster in Samoa and sincerely hope you and family are safe and well. My heart really goes out to those people affected. My own life hasn’t been without disaster – I spent most of the past year fighting for my life after a botched cancer operation. Anyway, it’s alsways been a matter of regret that our contact has stopped – Looks like your art is forging ahead. Well done. Please give my regards to Ieti. My best regards
    – graham

    Comment by Graham Lang — October 6, 2009 @ 2:11 am

    • Graham,
      You have no idea how great it is to hear from you. Are you still at Newcastle Uni? Use my personal email address in my contact page so we can catch up in depth. I want to know how you are and what on earth happened last year. How shocking and are you okay now?
      Ieti and I are starting a small consultancy Taule’alo & Associates and currently I am writing the primary visual arts curriculum, not enough time, money the same old story. It’s taking longer than I would like. Also a bit of teaching in an American Reahab/school here which I am really enjoying and I intend for much more time in my studio. So email me on and lets chat.
      Cheers Vanya

      Comment by vanyataulealo — October 22, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: