Old Traditions Define New Identities
by Vanya Taule’alo[*]
Globally only about five percent of the world’s population identifies with an indigenous culture, finding common roots in history, language, myth and memory, attaching it to one place1. While an estimated five thousand indigenous cultures are asserting their cultural identity and traditions, it is evident that their extraordinary visions of life are being lost on a vortex of change2. We are in the throes of a major transformation of cultures, a tectonic shift of habits and dreams called globalisation3. Brought about by vastly accelerated migration, travel, technology, politics, education, business, entertainment and the media, old ideologies are being dislodged and secure ways of life being overthrown by a whole new range of ideas and wants.
Loss of traditional cultures means a loss of knowledge and the world becomes a less fascinating place as these cultures disappear. This global phenomenon has serious implications for small societies who must secure some balance between adapting to the modern world and retaining core aspects of their heritage and culture. Adaptation and change have been a part of Samoan life for centuries, making it what it is today. Once settled in their island groups, Samoan people developed their traditions and social system without undue external influence. However for this small traditional society the last twenty years have seen enormous influences that could permanently alter the society, changing many fundamental aspects that make it an intriguing and unique country. In Samoa globalisation often runs against the traditional belief systems and challenges the individuals and communities sense of identity. Many feel that they are losing the world they grew up in and what is replacing it is unrecognisable physically, spiritually and culturally.
How people and nations feel about globalisation and its impact on their culture depends on the individual and the society’s ability to deal with change and diversity within the existing social and political structures. In reality, cultures change, people change, values and ideas change; demonstrating how society is unpredictable and yet resourceful and resilient. However change on a grand scale, can be very threatening to those who view the world as they know it disappearing. The impact of globalisation in Samoa is of concern, especially its effects on the language, village and family life and values, and rituals and traditions. Today perhaps more than ever, smaller nations such as Samoa, seem more vulnerable and at risk of relinquishing their life styles, culture and identity. There is a real danger that in a decade or two all the social and cultural diversity that took thousands of years to develop will become homogenised with globalisation4.
What are the implications for Samoan society with globalisation creating pressures on traditions and cultural identity? How do we create and maintain our unique identity in a modern and sometimes unfamiliar world? How do we keep traditions and rituals alive? Are we at risk of sacrificing those very things that make us distinct, make us Samoan? Can we safeguard and protect those traditions that are embedded in our history and be able to pass them on to future generations?
Through my art works I demonstrate the linkages between ancient culture and modernity. I explore the meaning of historic traditions and symbols and create connections so myths and rituals can be validated and appreciated5. I work on themes that are both social and environmental, focusing attention on the importance of the past, ritual, tradition and heritage, injecting them with something contemporary. I offer glimpses of the fundamental quintessence of Samoan culture, while raising issues that belong to the present.
Using visual imagery and word, I strive to awaken the imagination of the viewer and provide spiritual and cultural sustenance from my works6. I make ties between the past, present and the future. I hope to create a strong sense of pride and identity as linking the individual to the past, while helping him to move forward. I express my concerns through my images and the oratory relating to selected themes. I examine issues such as: colonialism and de-colonisation; traditions, religions and rituals; identity; globalisation, social and political injustices; nationalism; migration; women’s roles in a patriarchal society, human rights and the environment.
I weave abstracted Samoan tapa and tattooing symbols through my paintings creating my own symbolic iconography, incorporating oratory as an integral part of my imagery. I want to create an immediate intimacy with my Samoan audience, to be able to identify with my work through word and form. At the same time, when I exhibit overseas, I am inviting other cultures into the belief system of the Samoan people. I coerce others to realise that here is a rich culture with a vibrant sense of character, not a picture paradise but a real place with current problems as well as future potential.
My latest series of works draws inspiration from the concept of va tapuia7, the sacred covenant that governs relationships in Samoa. The va tapuia is at the heart of the faa Samoa (Samoan way). An appreciation of the va tapuia is essential for Samoan society, as these covenants of mutual respect for one another give us spiritual nourishment. Holistically the va tapuia is the relationship between man and all things. It is the relationship between: brother and sister; parents and offspring; male and female; male and male; female and female; host and guest; matai (holder of Samoan traditional title) and tautua (someone who serves); the living and the dead; man and his environment, the created and the Creator8. Samoan behaviour is therefore bound by the va tapuia and all social interactions are in some way influenced by this ancient code of protocol and practice.
I have explored four aspects of traditional va tapuia; the va tapuia between man and his culture; male and female; man and the ocean and man and the land. The painting called Va tapuia (see Figure 1) honours the sacred covenant between man and his culture and traditions. The large canvas is a mass of inter-connected and isolated tapa and tattooing designs, abstracted on a large beige space. It is a fusion of the traditional and the new. I utilise tapa designs and tattooing symbols to demonstrate the links between the past and present. I utilise these patterns as they symbolise tradition and the ancient spiritual concepts. Both the male and female symbols used refer to a desire for support, protection and tranquility. At the same time they acknowledge the cosmos and the many voyages we take in life. Many of these symbols find their origin in shards of pottery in the Pacific from the Lapita culture. The Lapita period spans from 1500 BC to around the time of Christ and ancestral to the peoples of Polynesia, eastern Melanesia and central Micronesia9. Many of these marks are universal and seen in many ancient cultures where their design elements originated from stylised objects found in the natural environment.
Our va tapuia with the ocean is captured in O le tai faga’e (the changing of tide from low to high), where I use words to reference the ebb and flow of the ocean tides (see Figure 2). It is a metaphor to describe the changing nature of our existence. I am reminding man that he has a divine role to play in the balance of our existence with the ocean. In the past, we lived in harmony with nature. Small canoes and inner-reef fishing maintained a balance between what grew and what was collected from the ocean. Today, that balance is challenged due to over-exploitation. We are pillaging the very source that sustains, we should maintain that ancient respect for the ocean.
The mask in the painting refers to both past and present, our role on the planet, our inter-connected relationship with the ocean. The symbols are ancient tapa and tattooing designs relating to sea life, finding their inspiration in simplified trochus shells, symbolising protection. The symbol of the bird print, the faagogo (like terns) refers to journeys we take in life. Black diamond shaped Hawaiian tattoo symbols emerge from a blue background to the right of the painting. This references Polynesian mythology where the turtle is reverenced, as the supporter of the world and the carrier of knowledge. The fetu (star) symbolises hope, hope that we can regain some balance in the way we utilise the ocean and its life-giving creatures.
Amongst siblings the sister and brother relationship is defined by the feagaiga (sacred covenant to protect and honour). The brothers are obliged to provide their sister with all her worldly needs and to protect her from all harm, even with their lives. Her opinion is respected, and she acts as a mediator for family disputes. This relationship also follows certain modes of respect and reverence where, for instance, the sister would always eat first and the brothers would eat their meals facing away from her. The sister is treated like a princess and when she marries her husband is also treated with great respect10. Because of the feagaiga, it is common for the married sister to live with her immediate family where her privileged status is maintained.
Similarly in the Samoan aiga (extended family) the relationship between the female and male lines is also defined by the feagaiga. It determines the nature of family interactions, which is passed down from generation to generation. Collectively, the members of the female line command respect and receive the best food, fine mats and other objects of customary exchange. The female line represents authority within the aiga and has a major influence in all its major decisions. While traditionally the matai is chosen from the male lines, all the privileges are reserved for the female line.
In the painting Feagaiga (see Figure 3), I pay tribute to the va tapuia between people – brother and sister, man and wife, child and parent, male and male; female and female, men and women. In the painting, male and female figures guard the sides of the painting. They are the ancestral custodians of this covenant. Within the painting aspects of male female relationship are depicted, embracing male/female, male/male and female/female relationships per se. To the centre is a large malu (traditional female body tattoo) symbol. Representing the spiritual eye, a watchful spiritual essence, it can also be read as the symbolic representation of the female genitalia. In ancient times this symbol, which is located behind the knee, acted as an allurement and a symbol of the onset of womanhood, a rites of passage signifier. While she was still a virgin the malu was given only to high chiefs’ daughters and signified both her high rank and mature womanly status. The malu was visible only when the girl danced, and this was regarded as attractive and enticing11. The malu therefore in this picture is a reference to ancient practices and becomes a symbol of great respect. The fusi (border), represented by the brick like black rectangles at the bottom of the painting, is a sign of protection. It is painted around the fetu sign on the bottom left hand corner, symbolising hope.
Fanua tapu (sacred land) acknowledges the va tapuia between man and the land (see Figure 4). Genealogy links the individual to the land and knowledge of lineage is the blood arteries of Samoan society12. In Samoa your identity is connected to your family land, the ownership of which is passed down from one generation to the next. The image of the guardian statues is to symbolically protect the land. Oral histories can link you to the gods and are passionately guarded for they carry with them a wealth of titles and land. We are what we are now because of what has come before us. The central triangles of the image form the simplified mountain range of the island of Upolu. They can also be read as tapa signs of protection finding their origin in simplified trochus shells. The turtle sign is placed within the small planet symbol. The turtle symbol in Polynesian mythology is the carrier of the world, the container and carrier of knowledge. The small figurines along the top of the painting represent mankind, their hands outstretched holding up the world. Man is governed by his va tapuia with the planet.
How then do I relate these images to globalisation and make visual statements about the pressures on Samoan society. Over the last 26 years while living in Samoa I have noticed many changes13 and while I accept that some are inevitable and at times desirable, I also see negative changes that threaten Samoa’s cultural diversity. The painting Ava fatafata (understanding based on mutual respect) represents the holistic relationship between man and his physical and cultural world (see cover). Such consideration offers strategies to help people deal with globalisation, which, like a new wave of colonialism, is equally destructive14 of a people’s way of life as it was in the past. While acknowledging the difficulties Samoa faces today it is important, however, to maintain our identity in a modern and sometimes unfamiliar world. With the erosion of our cultural diversity we are developing into a society that imitates the worst aspects of western life. How recognisable it will be in fifty years will depend on the collective energy of those who are willing to adapt to a modern world while treasuring and valuing those aspects of their heritage that make them distinctly Samoan. The future lies in the fusion of the old and the new.
My images are part of this fusion, as I make reference to ancient myths, oratory, traditions and practices, presenting them in a contemporary way, thereby giving them new life. In this respect, the va tapuia series plays a role in bringing ancient covenants back into people’s consciousness, and hopefully provides them with a basis from which to build their own sense of identity and pride in their traditions. Giving life to these traditions offers Samoans a pride in their heritage as they strive to develop a sense of identity in today’s world. The art works therefore connect ancient traditions and new identities. They demonstrate how ancient wisdom and modernity can blend to create something contemporary, while being essentially rooted in the Samoan culture.
1 Tjibaou, J. M. Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Agence de Development de la culture Kayak, ADCK, 1998, p. 5.
2 Davis, W. ‘Vanishing cultures’. National Geographic. 196(2), 1999. pp. 64-66.
3 Zwingli, E. ‘A world together’. National Geographic, 196(2), 1999, p. 12.
4 Friedman, T. The Lexus and the olive tree. Harper Collins, 1999.
5 Taule’alo, V. ‘Ua sii le matalalaga: creating new patterns in Pacific art’. Australian Art Monthly, No. 121, July 1999. pp 13-16.
6 Taule’alo, V. ‘E gase a ala lauvao: Samoan contemporary art at the crossroads’. Samoan Environment Forum. No. 1, 2000, pp 27-31.
7 Tagaloa, T.S. ‘Va tapuia: an environmental vision’. Samoan Environment Forum. No. 1, 2000, pp. 2-3.
8 Vaai, S. Samoa faamatai and the rule of the law. The National University of Samoa, Apia. 1999. p. 54
9 Pietrusewsky, M. ‘Lapita origins: an osteological perspective’. In Dark, P. and Rose, G. (eds.) Artistic heritage in a changing Pacific. Crawford House Press, Australia, 1993, p. 15.
10 Kramer, A. The Samoa Islands. Vol 2. Polynesian Press, Auckland. 1901. (English translation by Verharren, T. 1995. p. 63).
11 Taule’alo, V. ‘Eternal symbols: the Samoan art of body tattooing’. Master of Visual Art research paper. Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. 1997. (unpub.)
12 Vaai, p. 37.
13 Taule’alo, V. ‘Aus-und ruckblicke, 24 jahre in Samoa’. In Von Herausgegeben, Kroeber-Wolf, G. and Messenholler, P. (eds.) Talofa Samoa Sudsee. Frankfurt: Museum fur Volkerkunde, 1998, pp. 93-104.
14 Davis, p. 76.
[*]Dr Vanya Taule’alo is a professional artist and Senior Lecturer at the National University of Samoa