Teaching Pacific Islander Art Past and Present With Pasifika Enriching Arts Of Utah (PEAU)

Story and photos by ADAM FONDREN

My heritage is who I am

It is where I come from

It is where I’ve learned

That I represent my aiga

And we represent Samoa

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Oreta Tupola sits listening to a presentation on Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

In this poem titled “My Heritage,” Oreta Tupola, a Samoan artist and member of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), writes of family (aiga means family in her native language) and standing up for her cultural preservation. For Tupola, this is representative of what being Samoan is and this is what Pacific Islander art is about: being a protector of the past and educator of the future through art.

Pasifika Enriching Arts of Utah (PEAU) is an organization that falls under the umbrella organization of PIK2AR and aims to do the very same thing: help the Utah Pacific Islander culture with its self-identity and provide outlets and options for self-improvement.

PEAU describes itself as “a Pacific Island community-based group of artists, creators, and patrons of the arts bridging across all art communities to preserve, perpetuate, empower, support, educate and promote artists and creators of Pacific Island descent and of ethnic and underserved communities, to increase income into households through the arts.”

PEAU was founded in 2014 by Alisi Maka’afi, a visual artist of Tongan and Māori heritage. She has since moved back to New Zealand and has formed PEAU New Zealand. PEAU here in Utah has grown and changed slightly to become a large part of what PIK2AR does and how it does it. The organization has about 10 full-time members covering a range of arts from visual to dance and photography along with a number of rotating artists and contributors who contribute as their time allows.

PEAU introduces the cultural storytelling aspect of its goal by holding monthly artist and creator meetups where working artists team with aspiring artists to make art and discuss art. Annual exhibits are held at the Salt Lake County Libraries and at the Sorensen Unity Center. During the annual Utah Pacific Islander Meritage Month, PEAU holds an exhibit, and also take part in the annual People of the Pacific High School Conference (POP) held at Utah Valley University.

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Bill Louis gives a presentation on street art at the People of the Pacific (POP) High School Conference at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.

According to Bill Louis, a Tongan street artist and the public art coordinator for PEAU, the organization is open to all Pacific Islanders. But much of PEAU’s efforts are directed toward underprivileged youth, leading to PEAU’s involvement with POP. POP provides an opportunity for PEAU to share its message and introduce the organization to high school age youths.

At the 2018 POP Conference, held in February, several different types of Pacific Islander art were explored. Nephi Prime, a Māori, presented on the haka or Māori traditional war dance. Bill Louis, a Tongan street artist, presented on contemporary graffiti. And Havier Tuitama, a Samoan who hosts a radio program on KRCL, taught a class on traditional dance and spoken word.

PEAU’s goal is to provide as many young Pacific Islanders as possible with an option in their life that they either haven’t considered or haven’t had the resources to explore. The resident artists and presenters from PEAU share the possibility of pursuing art as a career and not just a hobby. And members teach the continuation of the Pacific Islander narrative to remind youth of their place in the world and their ancestry.

The Pacific Islander history is rooted in exploration. Tupola spoke of how the early Pacific Islanders set out to explore the Pacific in small canoes. They couldn’t bring much in the way of possessions. As such, much of their cultural heritage is preserved in art, songs, dances, spoken anthologies, tattoo, and in how their ships were decorated. Art preserves their history. So, ensuring that the tradition of storytelling through art continues to be passed down through generations is imperative to the preservation of their culture.

The largest reason to focus on Pacific Islander youth is they need PEAU more than most to help them escape preconceived notions and the western stigma of Pacific Islander culture. They need additional avenues and experiences in their lives.

“There is more than just football and music out there,” said Louis, the Tongan street artist and PEAU Board member. Through his mentoring, he hopes to be able to influence youth and show that there is more out there, that art is a legitimate possibility in their future.

One of the main problems PEAU faces is a lack of a permanent space. Louis spoke of the efforts of PEAU to utilize everything from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to county libraries to host exhibits and events. All of this costs money and much of the organization’s financial resources are obtained either through government grants secured through PIK2AR or through the artists themselves.

“I fund my own materials if I need to pay for something for an exhibit,” Louis said when asked about how he goes about getting studio space and materials for presentations.

PEAU has a goal and is working toward it. So far, it has been successful at finding and securing what it needs to continue. The aim is to continue to grow and expand the reach with more art, more shows and more mentoring. As Louis explained, PEAU’s hope is to introduce not only Pacific Islander youth but all Pacific Islanders to their history and their future with art.