O kemuni mai vei? || Where are you from?

Dulcie Stewart / O kemuni mai vei? || Where are you from? [detail]
Reclaimed family photographs, mixed media installation / The Veiqia Project, ST Pauls Street Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand, 2016. 

O kemuni mai vei? || Where are you from?

O kemuni mai vei || Where are you from? examines the content of archival materials within the context of Fijian colonial history and Dulcie Stewart’s family history. The work includes framed portraits of Fijian women from the 19th to 21st centuries in a living room setting. The photographs are sourced from the artists family’s personal collections and those found in libraries, archives, museums and private collections.

The work was developed for The Veiqia Project, a creative research project inspired by the practice of Fijian female tattooing. Five contemporary Fijian women artists were engaged in Australia and New Zealand to participate in shared research activities and museum visits to inform the development of new artwork.

The research conducted for The Veiqia Project found that the documentation of tattooing in Fiji was written from the perspective of non-Fijian authors and does not give us the voice of 19th century Fijian women themselves. Dulcie’s own family history research shows that her (mostly white) male ancestors who settled in Fiji are well documented in archival and published materials, while her Fijian female ancestors, for the most part, remain nameless and faceless.

The earliest photographs that were taken in Fiji are from 1860's, while the photographs included O kemuni mai vei || Where are you from? are from 1870's onwards. The research also didn’t find any photographs of tattooed Fijian women. This absence of photographs, and the research supports this, tells us that the practice was being stopped by the 1870's.

Photographs of indigenous women have often been understood solely as an expression of the male gaze and much can be said about the gendered and western gaze on the women embodied in the archival photographs and the way in which the historical context has been lost. This work re-imagines the past and re-claims the image making of Fijian women. It invites viewers to consider what it means to look at 19th and 20th century photographs from a different point of view - in an intimate, personal space such as a wall of family portraits. 

The archival images take on a new meaning when viewed next to Dulcie’s family photographs. In this space they play an active and integral role in lived experience, knowledge and social memory.