In Fijian society, genealogy plays an important part when meeting someone for the first time. “O kemuni mai vei? (Where are you from?)” is a question often asked, as it establishes relationships and connections. For someone of mixed race, where my connection to a paternal vanua (tribe) has been lost, that’s a difficult question.
O kemuni mai vei || Where are you from? , is an installation created for The Veiqia Project exhibition at ST PAUL St Gallery in 2016. The work examines the content of archival materials within the context of Fijian colonial history and my family history. The work includes framed portraits of Fijian women from the 19th to 21st centuries in a living room setting. The photographs were sourced from my family’s personal collections and those found in cultural institutions and private collections.
The Veiqia Project exhibitions have been a response to the rediscoveries in cultural institutions and the Fijian collective but also responses to loss. Historical 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. My own family history research shows that my male ancestors who settled in Fiji is well documented in archival and published materials, while my Fijian female ancestors, for the most part, remain nameless and faceless.
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 historical photographs and the way in which the historical context has been lost. This installation re-imagines the past and re-claims the image-making of Fijian women.
The installation 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 historical photographs take on a new meaning when viewed next to my family photographs. In this space, they play an active and integral role in lived experience, knowledge, and social memory.