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Sunday 9 May – Saturday 15 May 2021
On the eve of Rotuman Language Week, Associate Curator Pacific Andrea Low met with artist Sofia Tekela-Smith to look at some of Sofia’s artworks. Tekela-Smith's life as well as her art practice was shaped by her journey as an infant back to Rotuma, where she was raised by her grandmother, Mue Tekela. Unlike many Aotearoa-born Rotuman people of her generation, Sofia grew up speaking Rotuman as her first language.
Here, Tekela-Smith holds Sofia, a sculptural self-portrait that plays on the outdated notion of Pacific women as ‘dusky maidens’. Echoing 50s-era chalkware heads, these were once common retro depictions of Pacific people, a reference that Tekela-Smith has reclaimed in her work.
The sculpture Sofia wears a tēfui, referencing the Rotuman ceremonial garlands that have star-like motifs or ‘fui’ and are made from fragrant flowers, fruit, and leaves. The number of fui depends on the wearer and the occasion but there can be up to seven in a garland. Tekela-Smith's single fui is made from a layered cluster of mother-of-pearl pieces that is then threaded onto woven waxed thread with a glimmer of gold wire.
Tekela-Smith's jewellery practice reflects the notion that art is a part of life, present in every day. Though they have adorned many gallery walls over the years, breastplates like the one Tekela-Smith wears here are made to be worn by people as they would have been by her ancestors.
Carrying the materials and forms from her forebears through to here and now, Tekela-Smith's pieces carry many small, intimate trademarks, like the four-pointed shape she uses as fasteners. Collaborations with artist John Pule or her children have seen poetry and drawings engraved into pieces that can be worn, hidden, against the wearer's skin.
When Tekela-Smith returned to Aotearoa New Zealand at the age of fourteen, she brought with her the language of her maternal homeland, her lived experience in Rotuma and the stories of the communities that surrounded her there. All of these things are distilled in every piece of jewellery she makes, so a small piece of Rotuma, made by her, is carried off and worn in all corners of the globe.
Experience the culture of Rotuma, with activities showcasing the richness of the Rotuman language and traditions, starting at 11AM in the Te Ao Mārama South Atrium. We look forward to seeing you there.
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Rotuman Language Week is an invaluable occasion for which to seek out and showcase tēfakhanis ‘on tēmamfua (Rotuman documentary heritage) in our archival collections. In doing this, we can show our support for this community's ongoing aspirations for Fäeag Rotuḁm in Aotearoa New Zealand.
In our efforts to surface hidden examples of written Rotuman, we have recently discovered a series of articles from a regular column documenting Rotuman news in the pages of the Auckland-based MANA newspaper, which ran from 1977–1978.
Started in 1977, MANA was unique in that it was the first multicultural newspaper to be run as a collective. Under the stewardship of Joris de Bres, who up until then had been working as a journalist for the Auckland City News, initially there were contributing editors from five Pacific communities in Auckland: Vapi Kupenga (Maori), Nihi Vini (Cook Islands), Wairaki Toevai (Samoan), Nelson Tupou (Tongan) and Aiao Kaulima (Niuean). Later there were also contributions from Nancy Prebble (Fijian) and Joseph T. Eason (Rotuman).
The editorial board asserted that the aim of MANA newspaper would be: 'to reflect the lives and opinions of the Maori and Pacific Island communities in New Zealand, and to provide information and news in Polynesian languages about New Zealand and the countries of the Pacific.'
From 15 September 1977, a small news column in the Rotuman language was included, the contact being Mr Joseph T. Eason of Waiuku. Perhaps Mr Joseph Eason was some relation of W.J.E Eason, the author of A Short History of Rotuma (1951). Apart from the name of Eason, known Rotuman family names in Auckland and around New Zealand are included in this and subsequent articles: Gibson, Viliami, Bentley, Sokimi, Mrs Susau Strickland QSM, Antonio, Fullman, Whitton, Fonumonu, Tonu, Simpson, Smith, Reidy, Wiley and Whitcombe to name just some of the families discussed. Noticeably absent from the articles are the diacritic marks that make Fäeg Rotuḁm so unique. Articles in Rotuman continued until the issue of 6 April 1978, where there was discussion of the Rotuman Constitution. Though there is no indication, the last issue of Mana was published on 18 May 1978.
MANA newspaper. Auckland War Memorial Museum. HT1501 MAN.
From Sunday 9 May until Saturday 15 May, we will be lighting the Museum in the colours of the Rotuman flag.
“The Rotuma language is a time for all our Rotuman people here in Aotearoa to celebrate and embrace our heritage, our culture, our language and our identity and who we are as people. It is also a time for friends, families and those who want to learn about Rotuma get an insight to us as people who have crossed the ocean to make Aotearoa their home.
We are truly grateful and value the support and the work of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples in adding Rotuma officially in their line-up of Pasifika languages in 2020. To be officially recognised is an incredible step forward for our people and it will encourage them to value our language more. Our language is already listed as ‘vulnerable’ from UNESCO so hence the work to nurture our identity is ever crucial for us to collectively collaborate with key organisations and funding bodies to support and grow our language usage and create a community of fluent and confident speakers. However, our people must make that first step to want to learn.”
For Rotuman Language Week 2020, Fesaitu Solomone hosted two Zoom talanoa, the first of which highlighted one Rotuman cultural treasure in the Museum's collection, Tales of a Lonely Island. This book is a gateway for learners of the Rotuman language, and one that became incredible scarce until it was republished in 1995. You can read more about the book and its many community connections in this blog by Associate Curator, Heritage Publications Paula Legel and Associate Curator, Documentary Heritage (Pacific Collections), Leone Samu.
On 12 May 2020 we held the first of two Zoom talanoa highlighting three Rotuman treasures held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum Research Library Te Pātaka Mātāpuna. Entitled ‘Tēfakhanis ‘on tēmamfua - a talanoa on selected Rotuman Documentary Heritage Collections’, we were joined by panellists Fesaitu Solomone, Fekau (Reverend) George Apitko, Frank Samuela, Nataniela Amato-Ali, alongside museum colleague Paula Legel (Associate Curator, Heritage Publications).
The panellists engaged in a rich discussion about provenance of the three treasures, the unique characteristics of the Rotuman language, as well as the influence of key missionaries in developing written forms of the Rotuman language over time.
Our second zoom talanoa of this special Rotuman-themed Ngā Kākano series was held on 14 May 2020, entitled ‘Fạiạv Ne Si’u - a talanoa on selected Rotuman treasures from the Pacific Collection’. Our panellists were Fesaitu Solomone, Sopapelu Samisoni, and Alfred Prasad alongside museum colleague Fulimalo Pereira, our Curator Pacific at Auckland Museum.
Fuli Pereira shared some background information on the ethnographic collection of James Edge-Partington (1854 - 1930) which is held at Auckland Museum. The panellists discussed several Rotuman treasures counted among this collection including an apei or Rotuman fine mat first acquired by Edge Partington in the late 1800s which has been in the Museum collection since 1929. Once again we share our gratitude for our panellists who gave insights into the cultural significance of the apei, as well as bringing thought-provoking discussion around what the apei and other treasures mean to Rotumans today.
We wish to thank our panellists for their time and expertise in creating a memorable talanoa. Fãiåkse’ea!
These items from our collection offer a glimpse into the Rotuman way of life, an introduction to the island's people, customs and a detailed exploration of precious and daily objects.
Rotuma : hanua pumue, 1991. Fatiaki, Anselmo. AWMM. GN671.R5. ROT.
Iri, Fan. Woven in check from drau ni niu (coconut leaflet) (coconut leaf) of natural colour with handle of the same material, with pink dyed strips of drau ni niu (coconut leaflet) incorporated. Rotuma. AWMM. 1949.11, 30792.
Net. Used to cover thatch on houses during hurricane season. Rotuma. AWMM. 1939.3, 24354.
Basket for carrying food, circular in shape and woven from ra ne niu (coconut leaf). Rotuma. AWMM. 1980.261, 48718.2.
This mounted Polynesian triller known as Jea (pronounced “Chair”) in Rotuman was collected on Rotuma prior to 1885 by a missionary Reverend George Brown. This subspecies of Polynesian Triller is endemic, only found on the island of Rotuma. It is found in small groups throughout both the coastal and inland habitats of Rotuma, even found in the vegetable and fruit markets of Ahau. Polynesia Trillers feed on both insects (insectivorous) and fruits (frugivorous).
During the Pacific Collections Access Project specimens from Rotuma, including this bird, were brought from the collection stores by Severine Hannam, a Collection Manager in Natural Sciences to show the Rotuman community. While discussing the specimens and sharing knowledge the community initially identified the triller as being a pest, as it is everywhere and eats their vegetables. Everyone was eager to hear how special and important the species is for Rotuma, as it’s found nowhere else in the world. The community that was present shared the need to protect their unique bird, the Jea, with family and friends in Aotearoa and back in Rotuma.
You can find more photos and information about the specimen below.