Exploring Pacific queer identity through a kaleidoscopic series of moving imagery has earned recent Manukau Institute of Technology graduate Pati Solomona Tyrell a nomination for New Zealand’s most prestigious contemporary art award, The Walters Prize
I am not an individual; I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies. I am not an individual, because I share a tofi (inheritance) with my family, my village and my nation. I belong to my family and my family belongs to me. I belong to my village and my village belongs to me. I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me. This is the essence of my sense of belonging. — Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, Head of State of Samoa
Look beyond the fetishized and stereotypical visual narratives of Polynesia, explore deeper than the exoticism shaped by the Western lens, rebuke the clichéd representations of Pacific identity, and you begin to get a taste of the distinctive, contemporary imagery of Pati Solomona Tyrell.
His art practice spans photography, video, and performance. They are the three strands of visual communication that, when woven together, tell his full story. Examining the intersections and spaces in between, Pati’s work brings attention to Pacific queerness and living as diaspora.
“My practice is me, figuring myself out,” he shares.
Born and raised in Hamilton, the 25-year-old traces his heritage back to the villages of Faleasi’u and Fagali’i in Samoa. When he finished high school, he couldn’t see a future in the Waikato that nurtured his creativity, so he relocated to Auckland and settled at Otara’s Manukau Institute of Technology to complete a degree in visual arts. Here, his interest in photography was piqued.
“Photography was the fastest and easiest way to get the image in my head created,” he says.
Pati drew inspiration from the sexiness and power of the glossy, slick aesthetic of photographers like David LaChapelle, where subversive ideas dominate a surreal style. Through his art, Pati began to create his own counter-narratives, blending symbolism with layers of historical reference and urban Pacific LGBTQI culture.
“I wanted to give other brown queer kids something to see,” he explains. “Growing up, it was hard to find examples role modelling my full identity. It was hard to find Pacific people in spaces occupied by the mainstream. I wanted to push for more representation.”
In Auckland, he created his own aiga away from home, co-founding the Pacific queer arts collective FAFSWAG with partner Tanu Gago. They have quickly become an exciting contributor to the region’s contemporary art scene.
Now made up of 13 members, both practising artists and supporters, each features in Pati’s work as both subject and collaborator.
“Coming together in this way allows us to have that talanoa [an inclusive and transparent dialogue] about where the lines in our relationship are and how we can work with that to make an image. It is really important to capture their mana and portray their identity honestly.
“Collaboration also helps change direction and weed out the bad ideas quickly,” he says with a laugh.
The recent graduate created all his exhibited bodies of work during his studies. They have been shown nationally and abroad, as far afield as Canada. From his Aitu FAFSWAG series, exhibited as part of Ata Te Tangata in The Pingyao International Photography Festival, to the assertive exploration of femininity and masculinity in his self-portrait series Masculine Me Tender (recently acquired for the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki collection), each piece has been self-funded.
Pati’s debut solo exhibition, Fāgogo, was shown at Auckland’s St Paul St Gallery in 2017. Due to the level of detail in production and costuming, it was the most expensive of his creations. Thanks to huge family support, close to $6K was fundraised through a FAFSWAG Vogue Ball and by selling 300 plates of food — all cooked by his mum.
With themes that reimagine spiritual practices before colonization, returning oracle status to people of gender and sexually diverse identities, Fāgogo has earned the artist a nomination for the 2018 Walters Prize.
In Samoan, fāgogo refers to fables that are told in a shared context. Pati’s nine-minute moving image is the ultimate collaboration in costuming, performance, and visual production. The artwork echos its cultural origin, with the responsibility of storytelling shared by contributors, drawing from their own cultural heritage.
“I was questioning where gender diverse people fit in terms of the hierarchy of Samoan society,” says Pati. “I felt like we were at the bottom, like we had no power. I wanted to flip that and show these bodies in a way that gives them mana and status.
“We start off in Tonga, looking at afi, the element of fire. We explore the space where effigies were burnt and use that to talk about the way Pacific queer bodies were seen. Then we move to Aotearoa and look into Te Kore, the nothingness. What happens after death and a new breath of life.”
Psychedelic, shape-shifting bodies move rhythmically, imitating ritual and dance as the image transitions to Samoa and the story of combusting energy, to create land. Niuean and the Cook Islands’ dance and movement then represent a nurturing of sexually diverse bodies, femininity and fluidity in water, gender and sexuality.
In the final scene, there is a return to the Pacific underworld, which legend places in Fiji.
“I liked this idea where we navigated to these Pacific Islands and return to the underworld, to women and feminine energy. The work is a loop, forever going through this transformation. Rebirthing ourselves and relearning everything once again,” he says.
Having already won the Warwick Broadhead Memorial Award, Best in Fringe, and Best Visual or Performance Art at the Dunedin Fringe Festival 2018, Fāgogo is a strong contender against Ruth Buchanan’s BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, Jacqueline Fraser’s The Making of Mississippi Grind, and Jess Johnson’s Whol Why Wurld.
“I have never made work to win awards,” says Pati. “It was never even in my consciousness. It’s a bit of an odd experience, because I still feel like a baby in the art scene; it has been quite overwhelming.”
But the success has helped the artist infiltrate the mainstream art world with work that challenges an institutional hierarchy that has ever been dominated by Western themes.
“This all plays an integral part in the push and pull of understanding our diverse stories of the Pacific,” says Pati.