I am the adopted and illegitimate child of the sea
Jacki Leota, photo courtesy of the Oceania Centre, University of the South Pacific, Fiji
I first met Jacki Leota when I first proposed an exhibition called Dolly Mix (W)rapper: 28 Samoan contemporary women artists to Waikato Museum in 2001. She was the recently appointed Curator Pasifika (a shared role with Ariana Sheehan, Curator Tangata Whenua) at Waikato Museum. Her previous work at Te Papa Tongarewa as Pacific Collections Manager meant time spent in collections storage with no company but the taonga. This was a period that consolidated her academic knowledge whilst rehousing the Solomons and relocating the Pacific collection. The growing sense of urgency and duty to begin to free Pasifika knowledge and arts from the grip of the Western gaze made this relationship with these taonga even more significant.
It was actually due to her tenacity at the time that the exhibition went ahead. We ended up co-curating the exhibition with some sage advice from the late, warmly acerbic, Jim Vivieaere. She managed to employ the dulcet Pacific voices of the Yandall Sisters, wrapped up in the voice of Lole Usoali’i , in collaboration with Shelaroc (late 90s all-girl Polynesian rap group, Ladi6 - Karoline Tamati, Sarah Tamaira and Tyra Hammond aka Voodoo Child). This collaboration became the re-release of the 70s hit song Sweet Inspiration on the occasion of the exhibition Dolly Mix (W) rapper.
The Sweet Inspiration CD, produced by Sista Records and Shelaroc on the occasion of Dolly Mix (W)rapper exhibition, held at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato in 2002
Leota (then known as Jakki Leota-Ete) was and remains as a pivotal figure in the world of Pacific curation outside of the work that was being done by Vivieaere and Te Papa’s, Sean Mallon.
Music and theatre plays an intrinsic role in the living cultures of the Pacific, so this component was integral to the hybrid nature of the art on display. Her research about Pacific identities in the fashion and material cultures of today focused on some of the early inter-disciplinary works occurring in contemporary Pacific art, music and performing arts.
This was to be a defining time for me too as an artist and curator. Leota’s work in re-appropriation and synthesising of Pasifikan material cultures and Western methodologies enabled a vacillation between the Pacific arts and the white cube in a way unseen since Jim Vivieaere’s curation of Bottled Ocean. In doing this specific kind of work, she helped to use her knowledge as one of a small group of Pacific peoples who trained as anthropologists, in the slow but sure dismantling of the dominion of the white cube. Not an outright rejection of, but a renegotiation of the terms of Pacific indigeneity’s engagement in the realm of the arts. In an email I read earlier today, Leota writes:
“We are wan solwara – Papuan pidgin for one salt water… one ocean. We are many, but we are one.”
Leafa Wilson interviews Jacki Leota:
Leafa Wilson: Your work is primarily with Pasifika populations, what compels you to work for your peoples?
Jackie Leota: I am Pasifika. I am Oceanian. I am Wan solwara. I am an illegitimate and adopted child of the sea. Without her, I would have died many years ago.
LW: Which university did you attend and what did you study?
JL: I attended Victoria University of Wellington and completed a BA Hons, in anthropology, ethnomusicology and Maori art, followed by a PG diploma in Museum Studies from Massey Uni, then an MA in Pacific studies from the University of the South Pacific. Last year I also did a post graduate certificate in tertiary teaching from USP, which helps align all of the above lol with the teaching and my creative practice.
LW: What body of work are you most proud of and why?
JL: Malaga. 16 years old and still going strong lol. I love the songs. Loved the collaboration – with Igelese Ete, but also with church and community elders/leaders and students who contributed to the work over many years. My ‘libretto’ title stems from this experience. Didn’t even know what libretto was until my cousin told me this is what I did.
About Malaga: Malaga was written and produced by Jacki Leota and her then husband, Igelese Ete. It was a theatrical and oratorio production of the Pacific diasporas and their navigation across time and the Pacific Ocean to create what is currently known as Polynesia. Each performance of Malaga employed the communities within which the show was being performed and required major networking with church and community elders and the local talent. Its resonance with every single Polynesian community was through the strong sense of sovereignty and pride in being uncompromisingly Pasifika.
LW: Which writers, philosophers, elders inform your work mostly?
JL: Epeli Hau’ofa, Albert Wendt, Konai Helu Thaman, Elise Huffer – I think this is why USP appealed so much to me; Teresia Teaiwa’s feminism with Pacific edginess, her ‘articulation’ mantra, her enormous creativity. Teresia also has USP roots. But I can’t forget my roots; Aotearoa and Jim Vivieaere’s Bottled Ocean, Galumalemana Hunkin and the work he did for Samoan language maintenance (much is lost now with all this island hopping!) Janet Davidson from Te Papa along with Sean Mallon. I will never forget Ann Chowning who was an anthropology teacher at Victoria. She wore flip flops through cold Wellington winters. I never understood this, until now. Fereni Ete, who gave me a job at Aoga Amata when I was broke as; there are heaps. My grandmother stayed with Mum for a brief period before she passed to the next heaven. I used to observe her tenaciousness, her hard work and determination. Fixing things, recycling ethos, using her hands. She was 90 years old, and would spend her days making leis out of old newspapers, circulars… anything that came through the mailbox. Our nights were filled with games of Dominos!
LW: What is your current focus within the academic field?
JL: Almost entirely teaching. There are four compulsory papers here at the University of the South Pacific that all students must do before they graduate, UU204 Pacific Worlds is one of them. Our numbers are huge. I have been teaching into this programme since it started in 2012. It is fully online in Semesters, but face to face in flexi schools during summer and winter periods at campuses throughout the region. I love teaching in both modes.
LW: What do you consider to be your point of difference when it comes to being a Pasifika academic? Are there many whose work encompasses the area which you are teaching?
JL: No point of difference. We pinch a little bit of this and that from many places. The programme from Prof Vilsoni Hereniko, Dr. Regina Rudrud, from the University of Hawaii, Matai (from Akamai) with gratitude from Dr. Teresia Teaiwa, USP flavour from Dr. Frank Thomas (UU204 Course Coordinator). I am not an academic as such, so a lot of my learning activities have been described as ‘fun.’ I try to integrate a little ‘culture’ with an urban ‘c’ or TV hahaha J E.g. Amazing Race, Bingo/Housie (Have you to thank for that one lool
LW: What influence, if any, did your heritage and your family of origin have on your academic leaning?
JL: Immense! I was raised by my grandmother then mother. My uncles and aunties in Wellington – Strathmore and Miramar; Aotearoa/Samoan roots are therefore stronger than ‘others.’ Working class to the core lol! When I tell my students my mum was a bus driver they are amazed! Because there are NO women bus drivers in Fiji lol.
LW: What do you consider to be the major differences (if any) of the Pasifika students in Niu Sila as opposed those in the actual Pacific Islands and what kind of impact does this have on your approach to teaching?
JL: No difference. Students from urban localities are sometimes just as disconnected from historical homelands as Pasifika students are … The diaspora in Fiji are of Indian descent (Girmit), but also Tuvalu (Kioa Is), Solomon Is (Black birding descendants) and Kiribati (Rabi Is). Themes resonate, I love that!
LW: What significance do you perceive Pacific peoples have in the global and in the local sense? (Wide world: Pacific Islands/ Australia /NZ?)
JL: Locally – ethical development (re: Dr. David Gegeo – current director of the Oceania Centre) – drawing upon ancient indigenous knowledge and wisdom to live sustainably again on land/sea. Rather than transplanting models from continents… it is looking within, but then also combining these with the best innovations for the 21st century… (global?) Being cognisant of our incredible diversity; our incredible creativity to confound the structures/colonial and more that continue to exert influence/power in local lives… looking outside nation-hood… to a more Pacific conscious ethic until all Oceania is free… (Hence West Papua focus>….)
LW: What are some preconceived notions that Pasifika peoples tend to hold and that you aim to shift or change?
JL: Many of our student’s ultimate dream is to migrate to ‘greener pastures.’ When I share my struggles… the hope is they think twice about it. Wherever we go, I remind students that a respect for indigeneity is vital! Love of land/sea. We are Oceania’s protectors/guardians… we must care for her… It’s not all about the money… hope that students look beyond accumulation, consumption ‘growth’…
LW: What is the message you want the world to know about the voice of the Pacific?
JL: There are many voices. Some have been muted or silenced. Ignored. Suppressed. We share our stories. Some stories so painful, so tapu… but need to be told… There has been much written about, by those outside the Pacific. We encourage each other to tell our stories to redress the imbalance. Often there is resentment even of Pasifika artists/academics (NZ/Aust), which represent those from ‘actual Pacific Islands’ in international arenas without ‘us.’ But we are one aye. Epeli reminds us that we are all connected.
There is a gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands’. The first emphasises dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. When you focus this way you stress the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships.
Epeli Hau’ofa ‘Our Sea of Islands’, p.7 A New Oceania (1993)