A reflection on time, space and popular culture

By Tanu Gago

FAFSWAG is an art collective that emerged in 2012 with very modest ambitions. In fact to quantify our intent as ambitious is a bit of a misrepresentation, at least in those early days. There wasn’t really any ambition and there was only really one intention, which was to state the obvious. That I identify as queer, and that I identify as Polynesian.

At the time we hadn’t considered the idea of a rainbow Pacific landscape or how that translated to a digital space. Our initial experience was a platform for sharing digital content that related to Queer people of colour. Of course the nature of sharing is about people coming together and so the trade off of life experience, some creative points of interest like arts, and an open forum for discussing Identity, culture and sexuality, generated an online community of anonymous consumers.

It became apparent that people had been looking for the means to connect with other people sharing similar interests and so from the outset we took liberties in defining what those were, using them as some guiding principles for creating an online brand. FAFSWAG went from being a colloquial phrase about Fa’afafine identity and contemporary urban style to presenting it’s self as a branded online blogging platform, adopting the tagline Queer, Pacific, Artistic, South Auckland.

Without appreciating the radical nature of a loaded political statement like “I’m a gay Samoan Male” meant that projecting my identity across the internet came with some interesting responses from those that were used to less overt intonations of sexuality and identity. The two ideas seemed almost mutually exclusive and the pairing of the two notions on an equal footing tended to evoke strong resistance from those framing the concept as morally questionable, unchristian and in some respects un-Samoan.

It seemed bizarre to me that a concept that underpinned my full identity could garner such invalidating responses from other Polynesians. Especially when the representation of that identity didn’t require their validation or consent. It has taken time and growth to appreciate the value of context and in those initial periods of FAFSWAG attempting to arrive at an audience, I quickly realised the views I had regarding my own identity are not necessarily the same views shared by our community. Over time I have come to acknowledge that distinction in the manner in which uphold and measure my own identity, values and notion of community.

Community is an interesting word. The base definition is simply put as … “A social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists”. It sounds straightforward but the complexity of utilising commonality as means of social grouping is of course deeply problematic, in that it paints indiscriminately with single brush strokes, over the varying gradients and flourishes that separate people from those same commonalities.

Often the word community is subjective to a person’s perception and in many instances subjective again to their personal experience. So while FAFSWAG was auditioning for a community it was also negating itself from other communities, merely by the inclusive and exclusive nature of collective gathering. Ultimately we have had to define what our community looks like for ourselves and parallel to real life this is a constant negotiation. Community and culture are not fixed and stagnate concepts. They are always in flux and constantly shifting. In similar respects so is the movement.

I use the term movement because when I reflect on the singular intention or as I framed it earlier “ambition” of this arts collective, I realise that it’s about upward and forward mobility. This mobility is self-determined and utilises creativity as a vehicle to propel people beyond their circumstance. It re-frames the conversation around, cultural identity and sexuality in a way that privileges the perspectives of queer and trans people of colour. It appreciates art and its full capacity as an agent for advocacy and social change. But fore mostly it affords queer people of colour a degree of power and control over the authentic representation of the experiences that constitute their reality.

When I was a photography lecturer at M.I.T’s Faculty of Creative Arts I recall telling my students that if you want to be an artist you better come correct, expressing yourself is a freedom that not every one is afforded in life and so take this time to figure out, what you want to say, why it’s important to you and who you want to say it to. In writing this essay I found myself revisiting my own words of advice.

The truth is no one asked me to speak on behalf of someone else’s struggle. I am not a mouthpiece for LGBT Poly youth and this is not Niu FM and we are not the beat of the Pacific. With that said we don’t diminish the voiceless and even though we have individual voices we acknowledge those who cant speak. In acknowledging that the views I present here are entirely my own I also acknowledge that no one here is obligated to agree with them. With that context planted firmly in the back of your mind I want you to understand that FAFSWAG means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. While it is a platform for visibility, that visibility doesn’t attempt to speak on behalf of everyone and only has relevance to those that identify with it, weather they have a voice or not.

When your art deals in human experiences you become accountable to actual human lives. The social responsibility of which becomes too great for any one individual to shoulder. Many of the artist and people associated with the collective come from underprivileged backgrounds and so recognising the responsibility to support those whose lives are impacted by your work is something each member of the team takes personally. And so the concept of community shifts and begins to mean a whole different thing. Which is where the surrounding support services play integral roles in our ability to project our identity within the broader social consciousness.

In 2014 I decided to apply for two health promotion roles within two different organisations. The first was an events management role at RainbowYOUTH, which has since been turned into a community engagement role. The second is Pacific community engagement role at the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. The motivation was based on being able to successfully bridge young people accessing the FAFSWAG forums looking for support to the appropriate channels of support. It made sense to me that working in the sector and transferring my skills and experience would broaden my networks and allow me to offer people the kinds of support I couldn’t offer as an artist.

And so here we are. It’s 2015 and FAFSWAG has grown into a very different experience from what it was 3 years ago. We have managed to maintain a collaborative approach to art that sees us now currently working in partnership with established and emerging artist, curators and arts and educational institutions within South and central Auckland.

Over the past three years we’ve had the privilege of producing and curating two group art exhibitions. The first entitled NO FRUIT WITHOUT LABOUR, was funded by GABA for the 2013 AUCKLAND PRIDE FESTIVAL and utilised an organising principle of sharing narrative and brought together queer brown artist working in isolation to share and compare their collective stories using a multitude of traditional and contemporary art genres. The second entitled Poly Typical used a similar ethos of securing public spaces for artist to unpack the notion of cultural typicality and responded to a system of stereotyping used to negatively frame the life experiences of queer and trans brown people living in Auckland. It featured ten emerging and established artist and had a robust public programme of events to generate broader community participation and engagement.

FAFSWAG is more likely to be recognised for an annual event entitled the FAFSWAG BALL that launched in 2013 under the production and guidance of former Auckland Council, Pacific Arts Coordinator, writer, activist and freelance curator – Ema Tavola as part of the joint project between Papatoetoe, Otara Local Board and the Faculty of the creative arts MIT entitled OTARAfest. The event is a live activation that brings American Underground Ball Culture to the heart of South Auckland.

We now have a committee of ten members, half of which are artist that all work toward producing public events for our people while expanding on our original digital platforms. We don’t charge for our services and so much of the collaborations are project based in which we build ideas from scratch, resource them from nothing and deliver them to our core audience mostly for free. The work that we are currently able to do is sustained through voluntary labour as well as community and arts funding grants, and meaningful creative partnership with other artist, institutions and organisations. There are no profit margins and so relying on good will and collective, skill, knowledge and experience is often what gets things of the ground.

Our agenda is simple. To every queer young person of colour in this country, I encourage you to think and speak for yourself and to speak up. Let us stop pretending that art is not a tool and that artist are not agents of positive and effective social change. Let us stop believing that the pursuit of our creative ambition is an intangible daydream situated outside of our ability to achieve and make real. Let’s stop telling young people that a creative life is a life wasted. Yes it’s hard to get a job, but that’s true for all industries and professions. So lets not pretend like Talent combined with integrity, passion and hard work isn’t going to radically transform your life the lives of those around you.

So speak… through whatever medium you feel comfortable with, writing, painting, music, drawing, dance, or just plain old speech. Speak. And if you need help then let us know cause we’d love to share our experience and knowledge. Our only condition is that you pass it on when your done.



Slides from Tanu Gago presentation Growing The Cultural Landscape for RainbowYOUTH at this years NXT15 Youth Leaders Conference

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