‘Ula su‘i fefiloi – colours of Samoa

Celebrating 25 years of making and teaching art in Samoa 

Samoa is a country of great natural beauty with a rich and distinguished culture. Intense colours can found in the marine and terrestrial environments of the island ecosystem, from the brightly coloured sega‘ula (blue-crowned lorikeet) to the equally vibrant fuga gutumū (parrotfish). 

The rich colours complement hues found in an array of cultural expressions, from besparkled tuiga (ceremonial headdresses) to the green and red bird feathers adorning ‘ie sae or fine mats, and in the strong earth tones found in siapo (bark cloth). Perhaps this is one reason why so many artists are attracted to Samoa. 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiapapata Art Centre Inc., a charitable trust established to promote traditional and contemporary arts and crafts in Samoa.

To celebrate this milestone, the works of artists from around the world who have visited Samoa over the last 25 years will be featured in an exhibition from 23 – 30 April 2016.

International artists featured in the show alongside local artists have come from Sweden, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Canada, USA, Israel, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Ula su‘i fefiloi – Colours of Samoa, is a reference to the threading together of different flowers to create a garland that represents unity in diversity, fragrant and visually appealing – a theme that aptly suits the many-coloured exhibition. 

Co-founder Wendy Percival has art in her blood. Her mother Audrey Bensley is an accomplished potter and her late father Gordon Bensley was a painter and photographer. You could say Wendy was raised in a studio.

That upbringing combined with a colourful natural and cultural environment make for a perfect stimulus for creativity. It was in 1989 when Audrey Bensley visited Samoa to meet her first grandchild born in June of that year.

By that time, a small shed had already been built as an artist’s studio for drawing, painting and printmaking. With Audrey’s visit, it was decided to set up a pottery studio complete with an electric wheel and kiln and she became our first artist in residence. 

In 1991, just after Cyclones Ofa and Val, a grant from the Canada Fund was received to help equip the studio for the production of a range of arts and crafts.

Soon after, a feasibility study was made with the support of the New Zealand government to explore the viability of an art centre in Samoa.

The Tiapapata Art Centre subsequently received a grant under the NZ Pacific Islands Industrial Development Scheme and in 1992, the Tiapapata Art Centre was registered as a private company, and continued as such for 14 years.

In 2006, it was decided to establish the Tiapapata Art Centre as a charitable trust, as this was more in line with the educational aims of the art centre. 

Sadly, Phyl Cox, a founding trustee and excellent production potter, passed away from cancer in 2006. In 2007, tragedy again struck when a fire destroyed the art studio.. Hanging on the front of the studio was a carving titled “Tulituli Matagau le Ufi a Sina.”

Carved by art centre co-founder Steven Percival in 1994, the work featured the principal characters in a legend telling of how Sina was saved from certain starvation in Fiji by her three brothers pili (lizard), ma‘oma‘o (giant forest eater), and fuialaeo (starling).

The title for the carving means to follow the path of Sina’s broken yam. It was her brother Pili who had called on nature to feed his sister in Fiji and eventually the ufi (yam) made the journey to feed Sina.

Following the yam back up the valley, Sina was reunited with her brothers. The carving has come to represent the art centre’s vision of establishing a model art centre in the Pacific. 

Over the years, weekly art classes have been held for children, pre-youth, youth and adults. More recently, with the help of Livia Bell from the USA, a special art class for toddlers has started.

Art classes and workshops are offered in a range of media including pottery, drawing and painting, watercolour, printmaking, textile printing, jewellery making and papermaking.

Art therapy workshops have also been conducted with persons with disabilities, elderly persons at Mapuifagalele Home for the Aged, young women who have been victims of abuse, and consumers receiving health care at Goshen Mental Health Trust and the Mental Health Unit. 

By 2010, enough funds had been raised for the current studio to be built. Designed by Arno Percival, the studio was constructed in three months by Tauanu‘u Lalotoa Toilolo and a team of builders from Savaii.  

In 2013, the Tiapapata Art Centre was awarded a grant under the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to produce a documentary film and museum exhibit and exploring the making and use of coconut sennit.

With no examples of traditional architecture lashed only with sennit, it was decided to build a faletalimalo at the Tiapapata Art Centre. Master Builder Lesa Laufale Fa’anu and a team of traditional house builders from Sa’anapu constructed the house in seven weeks.

Using traditional materials and techniques with over 20,000 meters of sennit lashing and a floor of smooth river stones, this house has been described by UNESCO as the only traditional house in Samoa that is truly authentic.  

Arno Percival also designed the new gallery with additions made by Sam Meredith, a locally based engineer. The gallery was built in five months, from August to December 2015 by another building crew from Savaii.

Seve Albert Meredith assisted Head builder To’ala Tavita with the project. With major building works completed, Pastor Tiumalu Tai Pulemau then started making the cafe furniture and other gallery fixtures. 

Activities and projects implemented by the Tiapapata Art Centre Inc. are supported from several sources. Tuition and the sale of arts and crafts generate regular income from the core business of the art centre – teaching and making art. 

Recognised by the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture as an educational institution, the art centre received annual education grants from the Government of Samoa from 2003 – 2012.

Other grants and donations assisting specific projects have been received from individuals, companies, and foreign countries including the governments of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States of America.

The United Nations Development Program and UNESCO have also provided support for initiatives of the art centre. 

Since 2003, grants have been awarded to the Tiapapata Art Centre to produce documentary films. Percival, a self-taught filmmaker and photographer, has produced documentary films on a range of subjects including Samoan material culture, climate change, lessons learned from the 2009 tsunami, the Millennium Development Goals, human rights, religious freedom, issues facing persons with disabilities, gender equality, and, most recently, violence against women and girls in Samoa. 

In addition to exhibiting works of art, the new gallery will be used to screen films and will be made available to host events. One such event will be the celebration of International Jazz Day, an event that falls on the last day of the exhibition, 30 April 2016. 

“While the pathway to this juncture in the history of the Tiapapata Art Centre has been difficult,” stated Galumalemana, “the journey has been worth every ounce of energy and investment. 

We feel like how Sina must have felt when she was reunited with brothers and hope that all who visit or create art here will be as inspired as we have been.” 

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