SO'OTAGA (CONNECTION) by Leilani Fuimaono
at The Outside Gallery
So’otaga (Connection) is a series of images by multi-disciplinary artist Leilani Fuimaono is a visual ‘love letter’ exchange with Fuimaono’s LGBTQIA+ Pasifika family, friends and community, exploring themes of belonging, community and connection within the Pacific Islander and Māori diaspora present in Melbourne and Melbourne’s western suburbs and invites viewers to reflect on their personal experience of community, belonging and cultural identity.
About the art
So’otaga (Connection) is an exhibition by multidisciplinary artist Leilani Fuimaono held at The Outside Gallery. So’otaga, meaning “connection” or “bond” in Sāmoan, showcases a curated selection of works taken of seven years from Fuimaono's catalogue, while also featuring new works. The portraits depict the culturally inherited elegance, grace and pride of Pāsifika & Māori LGBTQIA+ people, and the immense love and respect community members possess for their cultures, heritage and island homes. So’otaga is a rumination on both the delicate and fragile web, yet simultaneously enduring strength, of these connections. Community is central to Pāsifika peoples way of life. In diaspora, community becomes even more crucial to the wellbeing of Pāsifika & Māori people, who make up 1.3% of the population in Australia. It is essential that queer Pāsifika & Māori people foster and nurture spaces for each other. Such bonds can be a lifeline. Yet maintaining the long-term wellbeing of micro-communities that exist within the margins of the margins, is a complex task to navigate. Fuimaono reflects on these vital connections, the externalised or internalised forces that threaten them over time, and the pitfalls of attempting to create community from a singularly identity based politic. So’otaga is a love letter both to and from Fuimaono’s extended LGBTQIA+ Pāsifika family, friends and community through the medium of portraiture that invites viewers to engage with and reflect upon their own deeply personal experiences of ‘community’, ‘belonging’ and cultural identity.
About the artist
Leilani Fuimaono, born in Boorloo (Perth) on Whadjuk, Noongar, Boodjar country, is a Samoan and British multidisciplinary artist who lives and works Naarm (Melbourne), and works primarily in photography, film and sculpture. Their work often explores themes of grief, belonging/not belonging, and deconstructing notions of identity and community. Fuimaono is interested in interrogating the supposed value of, and the limitations and fragility of singularly identity-based community spaces, as well as art that is solely produced out of a singular identity based politic. Feeling disillusioned by the predominance of apolitical art with empty representation - made by non-Bla(c)k settlers living in diaspora (including Fuimaono’s own previous & current works) - lauded, sought after and commissioned by prestigious arts institutions that use these artists and their works to prop themselves up as “inclusive”, the focus of Fuimaono’s practice in 2024 will be to deepen this interrogation of apolitical non Bla(c)kness, and the co-opting and complete absence of decolonial praxis in the arts. Fuimaono is inspired by artists such as Atong Atem, Hamishi Farah, Yuki Kahara, Gordon Bennett and William Eggleston.
Eliki, a Kailoma-Fijian arts worker stands in their backyard in Footscray, dressed in grass skirt and holding a traditionally woven fan. Eliki looks directly into the lens, conveying a sense of pride, strength and contemplation. Eliki is vibrant, almost glowing in contrast to their environment. Fuimaono's repeated use of wide shot, landscape, centred composition portraiture throughout the series is quite literal in its significance; Pasifika and Maori people being the centre; witnessed and in turn bearing witness, in both closed and shared spaces with the viewer holding their unwavering gaze.
Standing atop an apartment balcony Amao, a Samoan fa’afafine, cradles a red feathered woven fan, gently against her heart. Adorned with flowers and wrapped in a brilliant red dress, Fuimaono juxtaposes Amao between two towering red brick council flats, succulents reaching up against a clouded sky, a faded echo of Amao’s presence.
Fanning herself before a deep impenetrable swath of ivy in her backyard, Australian born Fijian artist Yasbelle sits upon her parents masi pensively. In Fuimaono’s composition, Yasbelle’s parents masi elevates her off the ground, yet are sepatrated by a brightly patterned cloth. Masi is a Fijian barkcloth, sacred and integral to Fijian community such as in ceremonies of life, death, and marriage. It is known to absorb & enhance mana, & protect one wrapped in it.
The bursting brilliance of a glowing sky casts across Pauline’s face. Gunantuna, also known as Tolai, sit poised in their wheelchair, meeting our gaze through the temporally ambiguous light. Bathed in deep blues, refracting the rich black feathers in their hat, their shadow merges with the clouds.
Sitting face on, Tyson, who is Māori, leans slightly to the left, looking right through us. A woven necklace of many strings hangs upon their chest. High contrast scenes of the ocean behind them, the turquoise light softens as it meets them, merging with the red light.
Eliki, a Kailoma-Fijian (Fijian/European) arts worker, in a half kneel, resting a large woven fan upon their knee. Blue and red light suffuses the scene, permeating the blurred ocean, skyline backdrop and throwing Eliki into sharp relief. Exuding an active stillness, the ferns behind them are swept up in movement.
Amongst rolling waves in dreamlike reds, yellows and pinks, layered over a hazy sky is Fijian woman Yas. The vibrancy she looks out from is surreal, yet she draws us in. She shifts her liku, and the layered tassels and feathers cascade, reminiscent of the rippling water surrounding her.
Kalala, a Samoan-Chinese person, smiles holding a woven fan. Bathed in pink and yellow light, she is contrasted by the view from her window of dappled bokeh night lights from the Footscray shipyards beyond her apartment.
Cook Islander & Māori Tiaki is poised and projecting an air of staunchness and pride, resonant with the Native American Indigenous resistance t-shirt they wear. Traditional jewellry around their neck and wrists, their hands are clasped together. Tiaki makes direct eye contact with the viewer.
Maleini, a Samoan woman sits gracefully with a flower in her hair holding a woven fan, in front of a hand painted canvas made by herself and her daughter. The canvas encompasses symbols used in the traditional Samoan artforms of Siapo and Tatau.
Amao, perched on a rust coloured couch, subtly poised in her brilliantly red dress, reveals the printed motif of a hibiscus and the word Samoa at the centre of her red feathered fan.