Beyond the Frangipani: Pacific Designers on Pacific Design

3 years ago by

Written by Lana Lopesi
Supported by Creative New Zealand


Lana Lopesi is the editor of Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the second in a four part series that looks at design and the ‘Other’ that will be published over the course of this year. This series will consider the various roles of design and design objects outside of dominant design discourses.

Part One: Turning the Pages, is available here.

Our largest city, Auckland is quick to celebrate its place within the Pacific Ocean and its large Pacific population (up 7.4% of the country and Samoan being the third most spoken language). This is evidenced by the civic branding as the largest Polynesian city in the world, and our long standing festivals such as the Pasifika Festival (running for 25 years) in Central Auckland and Polyfest (running for 42 years) out South.

Bright colours, beautiful flowers, and patterns from tattoo are used over and over again to help relay the idea of the happy-go-lucky island environment, designing the Pacific within a set aesthetic, one we have come to know very well. These simplistic and homogenised depictions of Pacific culture flatten the different and distinct cultures across the thousands of islands that make up Oceania. And also, flatten the different lived experiences of Pacific people here in Aotearoa. The Pacific community has many things to celebrate, but it is also a community which is incredibly vulnerable to poverty, low income rates, low home ownership and high incarceration — a reality which is a stark contrast from the celebratory visual identity.

There is a difference between working from within a cultural worldview and working with cultural content, although often in design the two are confused. With so few Pacific graphic designers working within the industry in Aotearoa, it is hard to tell who is actually authoring much of this Pacific aesthetic. Are our voices and experiences rendered invisible? To tackle some of these questions, I spoke with a number of designers from Moananui practicing in Aotearoa New Zealand to ask their thoughts.

Moses Viliamu’s branding for the Ministry of Social Development with the ‘Pasefika Proud’ Campaign.

Porirua based Moses Viliamu (Samoa/Tokelau), Director of Pacific Graphic Design Ltd, expresses exhaustion around the tokenistic treatment of the Pacific, saying that, “Due to a lack of knowledge we have been stereotyped as frangipangi, tatau or tapa designs. Personally, I am tired of this cliché as we are much richer and more vibrant than this. If you delve deeper into the Pacific culture and you will find a lot more richness, diversity and beauty to behold!”

Opeta Elika’s identity for the Advance Pasifika movement. It was used on fliers, posters and tee-shirts.

Auckland-based Opeta Elika (Samoa), Graphic Designer at Kelston Deaf Education Centre, may be best known for his iconic work on the Advance Pasifika fliers, one of which in now in the collection of Te Papa. When questioned about his thoughts on a Pacific aesthetic, he answered, that it’s “a culmination of cultural ideals and beliefs passed down through generations. We tell stories through these symbols and create narratives of our lives and the lives of others.”

He went on to liken this to the Samoan tatau saying, “I’ve been quite fortunate to sit through a pe’a session on two occasions and even though they were gruelling four hour sessions every day for a week (I can’t fold my legs for very long) I found it so rewarding. Each mark had a specific meaning that lead on to different marks with a whole new set of meanings that painted this wider story unique to the receiver.”

Rae-Dawn Martin’s website design for The Native Collective.

Rae-Dawn Martin (Fiji) of The Native Collective and Junior Digital Designer of Translate Digital, continues in this line of thinking stating, “A Pacific aesthetic is much more then throwing a “Pacific” icon on a piece of work and calling it a day. Design, especially when considering something as significant as our Pacific culture, has so much more to depth to it than what people generally see or assume. I understand that some people want it to be obviously “Pacific”, but we are so much more then these “Pacific” icons and we should take any opportunity to shed a little more light on what our culture is about.”

“This can be represented in a number of ways (colours, patterns, icons), but it takes time to reach depth. For example, when I was designing the logo for The Native Collective, I went through a whole process that actually started with all the things that are “Pacific icons” and then moved into more meaningful designs such as a weaving icon which represented the coming together of all Pacific cultures and the strong bond we all share. In the end, we didn’t go with the weaving idea, but it was that which lead to the final pattern being developed which contains a number of icons that we believe represent the core values of our Pacific culture.”

ROTE Design branding for Avondale Community Action.

This touches on something that Tina Pihema (Ngati Whātua/Samoa) of ROTE Design also brings up, the history of symbology, “Making good connections is important and knowing the history of different symbology, when creating visual content, as finding the right solution only works if you understand the problem or the question. Pacific designers are innovators and have the potential to be innovators in our community on many levels, solving social issues in our community using visual communication, design content, speaking to our community from a tacit knowledge system.”

Which leads to the real question, who holds this type of knowledge and who has the right to access to it, or in laymen’s terms can only Pacific designers use Pacific content?

Multidisciplinary artist Jasmine Te Hira (Te Rarawa/Ngapuhi/the Cook Islands) explains that, “Sovereignty is an important idea in pacific design”, going on to mention that “we should have ownership over Pacific design and authority over what Pacific design looks like as pacific people.” Pihema continues this saying that if non-Pacific designers are to work with Pacific content or with Pacific interests that they need to be in constant collaboration with Pacific people, otherwise they would be appropriating the culture, “Using Pacific designers to create pacific content is important. If the kaupapa is Pacific, it is important we are the ones visually communicating our ideas to the community and making sure that these visuals are meaningful and authentic.”

This is reinforced by Martin. When asked, who gets to work with our Pacific content, she answers, “People of the Pacific. I think the choice to bring culture into design is something that needs to be carefully considered so it doesn’t come across as appropriation in any way. When using Pacific aspects in any kind of work, it needs to come from a place of research and knowledge. Without any awareness of the background of your design, where it came from and what it means, even if it looks good, it is ultimately useless and will probably offend someone who understands the culture.”

“Pacific content needs to be used genuinely, by genuine people and companies who have a love, heritage and understanding of the Pacific itself. I feel a responsibility as a designer with Pacific heritage to make sure that the intentions of any project with cultural ties is well researched, and any decisions are to be informed by this research as well as shown to people in the Pacific community for reflection before publishing.”

Elika raises a concern about Pacific designers being pigeon holed to only working with this type of content saying, “I feel Pacific people have a greater understanding of the content used but shouldn’t be restricted to working with that style alone. I can recall being at university where I felt an expectation to solely base my design projects around the Pacific like that was all I was good at. I did so early in my degree for one project and got a good mark for it, but it raised too many questions. Could I have rubbished my way through this project and still got a good mark just because I’m an Islander?”

“On the flipside, I had a classmate who was not of Pacific descent incorporate a Pacific style in her project. Although she didn’t understand the content she was using she made it look pretty and justified that it was her modern spin on it. She too received a good mark.”

Problems around tokenism and appropriation are easy to identify, what is more difficult is the design problem of how to hold onto the depth and meaning of the motifs while also contemporising it, a distinction Pihema picks up on,I believe designing meaningful Pacific content means putting pacific culture and identity in the centre and by doing this it creates a starting point that informs, process, conversation, communication, colour, shape, typeface, form.”

“Design should be historically relevant but we also need contemporary voices that will accurately depict our current concerns and aesthetics. With so many influences out there, including American culture, why should Pacific design look the same as it did 20 years ago? There are hundreds of colours that exist, yet we often use brown, black and orange, or have this false and cheery disposition always coming through in colour symbolism.”

Ultimately what a lot of this comes down to is the undeniable lack of Pacific designers in the industry, Pihema continues, “It is vital for Pacific designers to be represented in design, through self-agency because they will be able to accurately depict a pacific aesthetic, if there even is one. Or rather the more Pacific designers that are represented in design, the more accurate that viewpoint will be. The truth is there are many Pacific aesthetics, but there is usually only one that gets favoured.”

It was perhaps Elika who said it best when he said, “For me personally, Pacific aesthetic is more than a style it’s a way of life.” Like any design connected to a cultural group, you can’t just pick and choose symbols and motifs. That imagery is connected to a group of people, a set of histories, let alone being indigenous intellectual property. The design industry has a responsibility to not profit from the cultural capital of others and to work in processes of collaboration. What is a Pacific aesthetic? Who even knows! But we know what it’s not.

A part of this problem at an industry level is the lack of Pacific designers within our mainstream design houses and studios. The Pacific voice is not contributing to the wider design culture, but instead is used as a call in for culturally specific jobs. We need more Pacific designers to deepen, broaden and advise on Pacific projects, yes, but we also need more in general, because diversity can only ever be an advantage in an industry striving for innovation.


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