VEIQIA.COM at PAA XII International Symposium

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Paper presented by Luisa Tora, Fiji/New Zealand and Dulcie Stewart, Fiji/Australia at XII International Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association, Auckland, New Zealand, 14-17 March 2016. 

Abstract

This paper will discuss veiqia.com, the veiqia (Fijian female tattoo) online resource developed by visual artists and researchers of iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) heritage, Dulcie Stewart and Luisa Tora.
The website will collate, share and examine research sourced from publicly available institutional databases, and conversations with communities and institutions in Fiji, Aotearoa New Zealand and worldwide online. It will act as a conduit and repository for indigenous veiqia research driven by personal, creative, and relational connections.
There is currently no resource that comprehensively compiles and discusses veiqia knowledge from the perspective of iTaukei women. The uniqueness of this website compared to others on indigenous tattoo is that it privileges a female iTaukei perspective on a female iTaukei cultural practice. The website responds to avid community interest in Fiji and the Fijian diaspora surrounding ‘The Veiqia Project’, a creative research project that Dulcie Stewart and Luisa Tora are engaged in. This website will also provide links to the exhibition and new works resulting from ‘The Veiqia Project’ and the research undertaken as a creative female iTaukei collective.
veiqia.com is an opportunity for iTaukei communities to engage with historical and ethnographical records about veiqia and to regenerate cultural conversations about the practice amongst ourselves. veiqia.com prioritises national cultural property rights and will take advice from national cultural institutions and communities with regards to the sharing of knowledge and imagery.
veiqia.com will merge digital innovation with cultural contexts and protocols, and mainstream research ethics. It will also be a means to digitally return cultural knowledge and imagery collected by early explorers, missionaries, and colonial ethnologists currently stored in museums and other cultural repositories worldwide to their source communities.
This website and initiative asks the questions: What have we lost as iTaukei women? What can we regain from reviving the conversation amongst ourselves?

Tēnā koutou. Ni sa yadra vinaka. Dulcie and I wish to extend our respects to the vanua, all those who have gone before us and all those who will follow. Before we begin our talanoa, please join us in observing a moment of silence for all those who lost their lives in Fiji due to Tropical Cyclone Winston. Vinaka vakalevu.

Vinaka vakalevu to the PAA organisers for taking a chance on us and our bold initiative (and title). We have set ourselves ambitious targets and we thank you for allowing us the space to articulate them.

We’ve been talking about na veiqia (traditional iTaukei female tattoo) and asking people about it and looking it up in iTaukei dictionaries and institutional databases for over a decade now. As we got older and our research skills developed, our questions improved and therefore our answers.

We have spoken with women in their 70s and girls barely in their teens. The people we spoke with went home and talanoa’d with their families, specifically their mothers and grandmothers and returned with stories about their bubus who had carried the qia. The only other times we’ve cried with groups of Fijians in public places have involved cyclones, coups, and rugby.

We are very aware of our privilege. We have the professional and community networks to keep us grounded, we have the skills to navigate through databases and mine them for relevant information, and the Australian and New Zealand dollars and the bold attitude necessary to attempt this project. (I say bold intentionally because it was a 4-letter word at the Catholic high school Dulcie and I attended. “Bold girl!” We are bold. It’s true.)

Vinaka vakalevu to Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai of Auckland Museum, Sean Mallon of Te Papa Tongarewa, Derek Cleland and the First Fighter team who are helping develop the Virtual Fiji Museum, and Eleanor Kleiber of the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa Pacific Collection for sharing your thoughts on this website and intellectual property. We have access to arts funding, Creative New Zealand in my case.

We have been so blessed as members of The Veiqia Project – a creative research project inspired by iTaukei female tattoo. This is our attempt to use our powers for good. Last year we went to Fiji with The Veiqia Project for two weeks to undertake research and consultations with the iTaukei Institute of Language and Culture, Fiji Museum, National Archives of Fiji, and Paula Qerati at the USP. Following a panel discussion at the Fiji National University art school, columnist and activist, Seona Smiles said something that really resonated for us. She said, this is not verbatim, that when the Christians and colonialists covered up iTaukei women’s bodies; they made us invisible. With colonisation, the iTaukei ritual of male circumcision as a rite of passage continued but those involving girls being tattooed at puberty were halted and actively discouraged.   

In the broader sense, veiqia.com will collate, share and examine research sourced from publicly available institutional databases, and conversations with Fijian and global communities and institutions. It will act as a conduit and a repository for indigenous veiqia research driven by personal, creative, and relational connections.

As indigenous researchers, artists, and digital curators, we visualise each post and link shared as a symbolic shedding of another layer of colonial clothing from iTaukei women. There is currently no publicly available resource that comprehensively compiles and discusses na veiqia knowledge from the perspective of iTaukei women.

This website is an opportunity for iTaukei communities to engage with historical and ethnographical records about na veiqia and to regenerate cultural conversations about the practice amongst ourselves. The joy of digital information is the ease with which it can be shared amongst your online communities and the talanoa it is able to generate. This became most apparent in Fiji with the 2000 civilian coup, and recently when many Fijians shared their Tropical Cyclone Winston experiences online in real time.  

veiqia.com will also be a means to digitally return cultural knowledge and imagery collected by early European explorers, missionaries, and colonial ethnologists currently stored in museums and other cultural repositories worldwide to their source communities. This website and initiative, and The Veiqia Project, asks the questions: What have we lost as iTaukei women? What can we regain from reviving the conversation amongst ourselves?

Dulcie is one of a small number of women of iTaukei descent who have started wearing the qia markings again – these are based on drawings iTaukei women made of their own markings. This Saturday passed, Papua New Guinean-Australian artist, Julia Mage’au Gray marked two more iTaukei women, Seta and Lusia Monolagi at the Fiji Village at the Pasifika Festival, and the Thursday before she marked their mother, Fijian artist, Joana Monolagi. When we left Fiji, two young female artists had spoken with Julia about picking up the tattooing tools. The talanoa continues without us, it’s bigger than us and we’re happy to feed into it however we can.

veiqia.com is a work in progress. Dulcie has designed the template so that we can add more information and imagery as it comes to light. It provides an overview of the practice, terminology that we are aware of at this point (we hope to include more dialects with time), and we also intend to feature interviews and invite guest writers to contribute. It will also provide links to The Veiqia Project exhibition and the research undertaken as a creative female Fijian collective.

We will also seize the opportunity to right a historical wrong in that we will name the tattooed women in our photo gallery. Historically, many iTaukei women who were not of noble descent were not named in ethnographic photographs.

Write this down: veiqia.com

You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

We look forward to your feedback and input, and please feel free to share our links.

And finally, the shameless exploitation of a captive audience – The Veiqia Project exhibition opens at 6pm tomorrow at ST PAUL St Gallery Three on Wellesley Street East. This is the new gallery beneath and to the right of the AUT Marae. We hope you can join us.

On behalf of Dulcie and I, vinaka sara vakalevu.

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Dulcie Stewart received funding from the Pacific Arts Association to attend the XII International Symposium.

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