Tongan artist awarded Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust International Artist Residency 2019 no stranger to SPASIFIK

The Multi-disciplinary Tongan artist awarded Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust International Artist Residency 2019 is no stranger to SPASIFIK, Vaimoana Niumeitolu sat down with SPASIFIK in 2014. As the artist wraps up her time as Tautai's Contemporary International Artist in residence, learn a bit about Vaimoana who appeared in issue 59 of the magazine below and read an excerpt of Vaimoana’s interview with us.



Born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, raised in Hawai’i and Utah, Vaimoana lives and works in New York City.


She graduated from New York University in painting and performance, earned the Ellen Stoekel Fellowship in painting and drawing from Yale University and attended Columbia University’s Graduate Program in Acting.


Having completed 24 community murals in Australia, Kenya, Jordan, New Zealand, Palestine, South Africa and in the United States: California, New York (Brooklyn and the Bronx) and Utah, Vaimoana has travelled the worls sharing her poetry and paintings.


The Tautai International Artist Residency is offered bi-annually to Pacific artists beyond New Zealand. Provided with return airfares, accommodation and a stipend the ‘gift of time’ gives the resident artist opportunities to meet and interact with the local Pacific arts community, and to dedicate time to research and the creation of new work.


Tautai Director Courtney Sina Meredith says she is thrilled to have Vaimoana in Aotearoa during an exciting time of growth and expansion at Tautai, as Tautai continues to pursue its goals of promoting and providing profile to Pacific artists and their work.


The Trust maintains contact with the Pacific artist community and supporters through its regular communications and through personal contact.


Tautai hosts and organises events, programmes and exhibitions throughout the year, providing a wide range of support to the Pacific visual artist community based in New Zealand.


5 Minutes with Vaimoana Niumeitolu* in Issue 59 of SPASIFIK Magazine


Vaimoana Niumeitolu is an artist and educator. She is the founding member of Mahina Movement and has travelled the world sharing her poetry and paintings. Vaimoana spoke out against the US fashion designer Nanette Lepore in a highly publicised debate over the misrepresentation of Fijian tapa designs as ‘Aztec’. She talks to FALLEN TU’UGA STEVENSON


Tell us about your protest against fashion designer Nanette Lepore:


I wanted accountability, so I wrote an open letter to her. It caused a petition that dew thousands of signatures from around the world. The letter was shared by so many people. She contacted me and we met at her office in NYC. When we met I was satisfied both of us were willing to listen to each other and have a conversation. I appreciate the media coverage because it goes to show that our voices are not invisible and silenced – people are being heard.


Did you want to do something similar with Nike and their tatau designs and Turkish designer Gul Agi and her use of Maori designs?


Yes, that’s why I am organising an event for December called Passport to Action: Global Indigenous Communities and the Fashion Industry in Conversation. Fashion companies must understand how necessary it is to converse with indigenous communities. Indigenous art and culture can no longer just be seen as objects and capital. It’s a new world. We don’t have to be silent or silenced.


Why is it important for you to speak out?


Because I can and it’s what I’m here to do. For many New Yokrers (there are 8 million of us) I’m usually the first Tongan they’ve ever met. Their only reference of who we are is based on crazy stereotypes. I am here to demystify myths and stereotypes.


What inspires you?


Simple and beautiful things. Hugs. Authenticity. Nature. Connections. Love. Children. Art & Culture. Colours. My ancestors. My family and my friends. My communities. Leadership. Good food.


When did you form Mahina Movement?


I created it as a 21-year-old as a senior (undergraduate) at New York University. It’s now 13 (19 in 2019) and still performed to this day because I have used my voice to bring social awareness and change to the masses. My activism drives my art, my teaching and my lifestyle.

What’s the Pacific community like in New York?


Cosmopolitan, small yet close and very resilient. We are game changers. We want anything at anytime because you can get it in NYW (hence our impatience). We also get lonely and homesick and miss some good island food. AND we always carry our Pacific pride with us.


H ow do you survive in NYC? 


I’m a hustla baby and I want you to know… I’m living my dream of being an artist, educator, activist and a leader in NYC. That has kept my spirit alive. I’ve taught visual arts, theatre, poetry and writing and empowerment classes and workshops all over the US and NYC for years. I love this metropolis and feel honoured to be here. It can be difficult to be by yourself in this city, so I choose to create and build community. NYC is home to me.

What can we all do in our everyday lives that could have social impact?


Read. Ask questions. Spek. Have critical and meaningful conversations. Listen. Be passionate about your surroundings and your social responsibility to the world. Create. Tell someone you love them. Practice loving yourself.


*Edited/updated for brevity and clarity