Making the invisible visible

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi 

Chairman of the ‘E Leai se Gaumata’u na o le Gaualofa’ Trust 

Keynote Address, Pacific Arts Association & Samoa Arts Council Conference

National University of Samoa, Vaivase, Samoa, 28 November 2017

I wish to thank the conference organisers for the opportunity to share with you today.

My paper is about people and about values. People give meaning to values and our values are what define us as a people. I want to talk in particular about us as indigenous peoples and about our indigenous values. The arts – from painting to sculpture to music, comedy, film and dance – has, as your conference’s motto by Adrienne Kaeppler suggests, greatly assisted, and continues to assist, humanity in her drive to make the invisible visible. For indigenous peoples today, this means making our indigenous values more visible in today’s economy. 

We can interpret this motto, ‘making the invisible visible’, in two ways. 

First, the arts can help us to say, without actually saying it, the unsayable. To say out loud something pointed about those too-hard-to-talk about topics (such as abuse and corruption), which can often be just too hard.

These topics often get put to the side for fear of offending or traumatising ourselves or others. Often these topics make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, we simply don’t know or have never been taught to know how to talk about them peacefully. Perhaps we may have been condemned and silenced from merely attempting to talk about them, so we give up.

Art gives us an easy out. Art, especially good art, allows us space to ‘talk without actually talking’ about hard to talk about things. It gives us time to reflect on both meaning and our humanity. It gives us an open invitation to find our own meaning, indeed to find multiple meanings, in what we see. Here art is both critical conscience and therapy. 

Budding Samoan art therapist Avis Lamkam (2017), drawing on the work of renowned expressive art therapist Shaun McNiff (2000, 2004, 2015), talks about how art heals and about how creativity cures the soul.

Avis affirms arts’ power to productively help our Pacific peoples deal with pain and trauma. Quoting McNiff she says that art making and art therapy are processes that “corresponds to the universal forces of creation” and that it is through art making that we are able to “express the depth of feeling within our most intimate selves, allowing for both an ‘outside and inside awareness’ to be created”. This ability to make us reflective, to help us heal and be accountable for our deeds (good and bad) by exposing it all, by making it visible, is the effect, impetus and mission of the arts.

Another interpretation of the motto is that arts makes visible, at least in a felt way, the divinity and sublime mystery of creation. Talent is God-given. The origins of talent, the kind that takes our breath away, the kind that leaves us mesmerised and in awe, is beyond full explanation. This kind of talent was in great display when I watched the Oceania Dance Theatre’s and Pasifika Voices’ Moana – The Rising of the Sea performance on the 25th of June, 2015, at the ESFO conference on climate change and the Pacific in Brussels.

It was a spell-binding production that was led by some of our most preeminent Pacific artists, including Allan Alo. That kind of talent is a gift of creation. I was proud to be Samoan and a Pacific Islander that day. In order for such talent to fully shine, however, it must be nurtured, it must be allowed to breathe and grow; to be respected and cherished, and as well challenged and critiqued.

Creating this kind of talent-nurturing environment requires mature leadership. The Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga kind where there is balance between our human desires for advancement (technological or otherwise) on the one hand, and for peaceful community belonging (human ethics) on the other.

Gaining and maintaining this balance is as much a challenge for those leading the art world as it is for those ruling local, national and/or international governing bodies.

I once said: E iloa le lima lelei o le tufuga i le soofau: The mark of good statecraft is shown in blending idiosyncrasy. The fullness of meaning carried by this saying lies in its poetics. Literally the phrase translates as: The mark of a good house builder is shown by the seamless way in which he/she joins together fau timber. The fau timber is well-known in Samoa for its flexible properties.

It can bend more easily compared to other wood and so is the preferred wood type for our round Samoan fale. The saying draws on the imagery of housebuilding to make a universal point about good craftsmanship. 

In Samoan oratory, allusion, allegory, and metaphor invites an openness to meaning. Proverbs are frequently used because of this. Not only do they provide space for saving face in potentially violent or offensive situations, but they also celebrate the many layered capacities of our human wit and intellect. 

In traditional Samoan society the art of the orator was as much dependent on mastering the poetics of his craft as was the art of the house-builder (tufuga faufale) or the tattooist (tufuga tatatau) or the song-writer (faipese/fausolo).

When transporting the poetics of one culture or people into that of another, ensuring that nothing gets lost in the process relies a lot on being able to master the art of translation. 

A significant amount of indigenous knowledge has been lost or changed (intentionally and unintentionally) because not enough attention has been given to developing the art of translation. For our indigenous societies in the Pacific, a large part of the problem lies in the continuing dominance of our colonial languages and worldviews over our indigenous languages and worldviews. Such dominance can be blatant and subtle; consciously and unconsciously imposed; and across academic and popular prose.

Kramer records a Samoan song about the process of getting a male tatau (tattoo). In Samoan there are different kinds of tatau or tattoo and so there are different words to describe them (e.g. a malu is a woman’s tattoo; a pe’a is a man’s tattoo; the term malofie is a term of respect usually used when speaking of the tattoo of a chief; and the term soga’imiti is a term of endearment or affection usually used to indicate a man with a pe’a who displays the finest qualities associated in Samoan culture with the tatau and with being a man). 

The song is written from the perspective of a support person who seeks to encourage strength and forbearance. Like any song the words chosen and the arrangement of these words are deliberate; they are meant to transport the Samoan meanings, nuances and idiosyncrasies of the tatau context into the full consciousness of the reader/listener. 

The English translation of this song as offered in Kramer (and noted in 1a, 2a, 3a etc., below) while technically correct, does in certain places lack nuance and seems to overlook idiosyncrasy. In Samoan we might say, e lē namu Samoa: meaning here that the Samoan idiosyncrasies are not captured by the translation. I have provided an alternative English translation (as noted below in 1b, 2b, 3b, etc., and in italics) below to highlight where I believe this is the case. Diacritic and punctuation use replicates that used in the 1995 Kramer publication of this song (pp.72-73).

Here I wish to make my point about making visible the invisible by hint and suggestion, in this case making visible what seems to be invisible in Kramer’s and Verhaaren’s scholarly unpacking of this song. I wish to draw your attention, not so much to the stylistic differences between early 20th century English and mid-21st century English, but to the transfer of meaning from the Samoan context to English in the translation. You will need some competency in both languages to appreciate this.

The art of translation depends on a mastery over context (here over the Samoan and the English) and over the subtleties of meaning within, as well as over the technicalities and poetics of language and languaging. If you will indulge me I wish to illustrate this by attempting to chant this song in Samoan for you and then to recite the two English translation versions, Kramer’s & Verhaaren’s first then mine: 


1. Sole, ‘aūa le oitagi,

E lē se tigā o se ma’i,

‘O le tigā o le fuata’i

Malū ou tino, tu’u tia’i!

Tu’ufau mai ali’ī e!


1a. Friend, stop your wailing and moaning,

 That is not the pain of a sick person,

 That is the pain of a novice!

 Relax your body like giving up,

 Give in, o chief! 


1b. My friend, do not cry in pain,

It is not pain from sickness,

It is pain from transformation!

Cool is your body if you allow it to succumb,

Give over, my chief! 


2. Talivā mai lau ‘ula ma lau lopa

Na isia e le’i nonoa

Motu le ‘ula e le’i atoa

Tu’ufau mai ali’ī e!


2a. Soon you will receive your pretty chains of adornment

As yet they are separate and not joined;

The necklace is still in pieces and not quite finished.

Give in, o chief!


2b. Your necklace and your lopa awaits

The holes have been drilled but the necklace is not joined

The necklace breaks, it is not complete

Give over, my chief!


3. Anei fo’i e afiafī e

E tilotilo i au malofie

‘Ua pei ni lautī usī e.

Tu’ufau mai ali’ī e.


3a. But soon in the evening

You will look at your tattoo,

Comparable to a fresh tī leaf.

Give in, o chief!


3b. The evening will come

And you will admire your malofie tattoo,

Because it will shine like an oiled ti leaf.

Give over, my chief!


4. E peane la a se amoga

Ita fesuia’i ma lota alofa

Ia auē na loloma,

Tu’umuli ‘a se pa’ū a se toga!

Tu’ufau mai ali’ī e.


4a. Ah, if it were a burden

I would carry it for you in my love.

O be quiet and give in,

I will withdraw when the blows have fallen.

Give in, o chief!



4b. Ah, if it were a burden

We would share it with love.

Be still and give in,

I will withdraw when the southerly blows fall.

Give over, o chief!


5. Fepai’a’i le ‘au ma le sausau,

Molia le lama, ‘ina tau,

Tu’ufau mai, ali’ī e!


5a. The stylet and hammer strike,

The colour is applied so that it may adhere.

Give in, o chief!


5b. The stylet and hammer strike,

The ink is applied that it may adhere

Give over, o chief!


6. ‘Ua se vai na tu’u lenei toto

Si ota alofa i lou malolo

Tu’ufau mai, ali’ī e!


6a. Like water flows your blood,

Ah, I feel pity for your condition.

Given in, o chief!


6b. Your blood flows like water

And I pity your potential humiliation

Give over, o chief!


7. ‘A ‘o le tu mai lea a le vavau,

E te sāga ōi ‘oe, ‘a e pese a’u:

E tupu le fafine fanaunau (possible typo: fananau),

E tupu le tane tā le tatau,

Fasia fo’i tufuga a le to’elau,

Tu’ufau mai, ali’ī e!


7a. But this is the custom ages old,

You constantly moan, but I sing,

Women must bear children,

Man must be tattooed.

And the tattooer will be struck by the trade wind.

Give in, o chief!


7b. It is custom from time immemorial

That you cry in pain, while I sing

It is the lot of women to bear children

It is the lot of men to bear the tattoo

Even the tattooist must bear the northerlies

Give over, my chief!


8. E isia le ‘ula, isia le fau

‘A e lē isia siau tatau,

‘O siau ‘ula tutumau

E te alu ma ‘oe i le tu’ugamau.

Tu’ufau mai, ali’ī e!


8a. The necklace may break, the string may break

But your tattoo will not break.

This necklace of yours is permanent

And will go into the grave with you.

Give in, o chief!


8b. The necklace will break, the string will break

But your tattoo will never break

It will be your necklace forever.  

You will take it with you to your grave.

Give over, my chief!


Tali: Talofa, ‘ua ‘e tali‘au

 Talofa, ‘ua ‘e moe

 ‘Ua lē tumu iē.  


Chorus a: Ah, you suffer beneath the blows,

 Ah, till you fall asleep,

 And you are not tired nor weary of it!


Chorus b: Oh, I share your burden of pain,

 Oh, I share your need for rest,

 Your capacity for forbearance is endless!


Seiuli Tuilagi Allan had a beautiful malofie and he wore it proudly. Like many Samoans who wear a tatau it formed and marked him as Samoan. His chiefly titles (Tuilagi and Seiuli) make visible his family connections and locate him in the broader genealogy of Samoa and Samoa’s chiefly system.

His ability to bring to life the poetics and nuances of the Samoan language (spoken and unspoken) in his performances, bespoke a commitment to making sure that his love for his Samoan or indigenous identity and worldview would be forever visible in his art. 

The values of a person and of a people can be found not only in the way in which they perform their art, but also in the way in which they take care to ensure that that art will live beyond them. This takes me to my point about ethics.

To be in the presence of great art – not great artists – but great art, is humbling. It is evidence of the divine and of what is most beautiful and humbling in life. Michelangelo’s timeless painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling simply took my breath away.

Michael Jordan’s gravity defying basketball skills during the 1980s was mesmerising. But for evidence of the tenacity and humility of the human spirit, I turn to the example of those indigenous peoples who were massacred in the thousands and millions because of the arrogance and greed of another people.

The ability of the American Indians to survive to this day and to forgive notwithstanding their continued invisibility, is a lesson for all humanity. I am in awe. 

Some say that it is through struggle that the greatest art is made. This may be true. But such struggle cannot be fabricated; it has to be real. To make visible the indigenous in indigenous art one must know and believe in the values that drive the indigenous; one must be open to constantly searching for ways to resist attempts to make those values invisible; and one must be prepared to heal and ‘give over’, ‘tu’ufau mai’, of themselves, to what Micah suggests are the three virtues of humanity: love, justice and humility (Micah 6: 8).

It is only then that we will be able to truly appreciate the divineness of our being and our capacity to love and forgive, and the ethics within. For, as Father Ojibway stated: “…when all manner of things are described, the lasting task the Indigenous of the New World teach us to care about is the most obvious and probably the most difficult thing in becoming human beings – how to forgive one another”.

I wish to end my address by reciting the words of a meditation written by my dear friend and mentor, a member of the Fond du Luc Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa of Minnesota and former advisor to the White House on urban American Indian affairs, Father Paul Ojibway.

I first met Father Paul at the 2005 Vatican colloquium on traditional religions where we were contributing addresses on our respective indigenous religious values and beliefs. I came away from that meeting inspired to do more to make my Samoan indigenous reference visible on the world stage and less apologetic for being so.

He taught me the art of how to remain steadfast to our values with grace and humility. It is through the example of his being and doing that I gained richer insight into the many dimensions of what my forebears described as the tofā sa’ili, into our never-ending search for wisdom. 

If you can imagine a native American Indian flute playing and a drum drumming while an Eagle Dancer dances, do so as I read in closing, the words of my dear friend Father Paul Ojibway’s meditation on the Beautiful Brother:

“Take me with you now

Take me with you,

When the days are long and hot,

When you long for company and words of comfort

Take me with you,

When the days are short and dark

When you long for another to help carry the weight of prayers

For enough and more

Take me with you,

When the mourning is over, when we haven’t finished life’s journey,

When you want to reach higher than yesterday, and the yesterday before

Take me with you,

When you have no prayers to carry and you wait for prayers to come,

When you search for the memory of longing

And a song waiting to be sung

Take me with you,

And we will dance as one.

And…how…we will dance.”


I wish your conference well as you dance and meditate with the fullness of light through your many issues and themes. Soifua.


Bg pattern light


Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?