GERALDINE PANAPASA talks to Fiji Arts Council director Letila Mitchell about the festival.
TIMES: When did the arts festival start and why?
MITCHELL: The idea of a Festival of Pacific Arts was first put forward by the Fiji in the early 1970s as part of the cultural component of the South Pacific Games. Then it was taken to another level by the Conference of the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community) in an attempt to combat the erosion of traditional customary practices.
Since 1972, delegations from 27 Pacific island countries and territories have come together to share and exchange their cultures at each Festival of Pacific Arts. In 1977, at the 3rd meeting of the South Pacific Festival Council (now the Council of Pacific Arts), the council determined that the festival's major theme should continue to be traditional songs and dances and that participating countries and territories should be free to include other activities depending on the resources available to them. The festival was conceived by the SPC's governing conference in an attempt to combat the erosion of traditional customary practices.
It grew out of the desire expressed by Pacific island leaders for the people of the region to share their culture and establish deeper understanding and friendship between countries.
TIMES: What is the purpose of the festival?
MITCHELL: To generate pride in one's indigenous heritage, focus on sustaining the transmission of Pacific knowledge, skills and traditions and united as a region to protect and uphold unique cultures but a common heritage that links and connects all Pacific people.
TIMES: How often is the festival held?
MITCHELL: Every four years
TIMES: How many countries are participating?
MITCHELL: The 27 countries are American Samoa, Australia, the Cook Islands, Easter Island, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.
TIMES: What is the significance of the festival to Pacific islands?
MITCHELL: The festival is recognised as a major international cultural event and is the largest gathering where Pacific people unite to gain respect for and appreciation of one another within the context of the changing Pacific. Visits of Pacific people from one island to another have always been important occasions.
Trade, social visits and exchange of dances, music, food and crafts have served as opportunities for islanders to learn from one another and have assisted in the dynamic transformation of culture. Today, the Festival of Pacific Arts helps maintain a sense of Pacificness among island communities. There is awareness that, although a group of people may reside on tiny atolls far from island neighbours, they are part of a greater Pacific-wide culture.
Recognition of a common Pacific identity can be a strong motivating force for individual communities to revive and cherish their traditional forms of cultural expression. Young Pacific islanders were traditionally raised in an environment that taught them their language, history and traditional knowledge and skills but many ways of passing on the traditions and skills are disappearing.
A realisation of what has been missing in the more westernised island culture is one of the reasons young islanders train long and hard for each festival, seeking to uncover the secrets of ancient music and chants, costumes, body art and language.
To be part of a delegation to the festival is deemed an honour. The festival has no competition and performers do not seek to compete against others but the festival has stimulated a new sense of cultural pride among islanders young and old, generates excitement, pride and promise for the arts and cultures in the region.
It enables young contemporary artists and performers to express themselves and their talent and helps bridge the gap between traditional cultural expressions and the aspirations of our youth.
The festival makes a significant contribution to the evolution of Pacific island identities. For the region, the festival promotes unity by encouraging mutual appreciation and respect for one another's culture.
It also improves political and economic stability by developing a deeper sense of solidarity and unites the geographically isolated island countries and territories, facilitating inter-regional communication.
The festival is also an important instrument in the preservation of the performing and production skills underlying the broad variety of cultural expressions in the Pacific.
Expertise and skills in crafts have been rediscovered and revitalised while traditional and ceremonial performances have been rediscovered, revived and in some cases updated. Tourism and related industries have also benefited, with proceeds often going to local communities.
TIMES: How important is Fiji's participation at the festival?
MITCHELL: Fiji is seen as one the leaders in the Pacific in many areas such as sustainable development, education, technology, etc. Therefore, it is important for Fiji to participate in strength at the festival as part of its responsibility to the region but in its leadership role being committed to uphold and protect its national heritage. It is also important for Fiji to participate in the festival because of the honour it bestows on our artisans and performers who are given the mandate to represent Fiji at the festival.
There is nothing more important than to represent your nation, your province, your tikina and your family. The festival, like the Olympic Games for sports people, bestows this honour on artists who show integrity, passion and commitment to their art form but also to their cultural heritage.
The festival is also a unique opportunity for our artists to network, generate ideas and exchange knowledge with other delegations. It is important for development as well as to show our excellence in the arts.
TIMES: What categories will Fiji's delegation participate in?
MITCHELL: Traditional dance, contemporary dance, theatre, fashion, woodcarving, weaving, masi making, canoe and navigation, heritage art workshops and demonstrations, fine art, symposiums, photography, film, literary art, culinary art and music.
TIMES: How many will represent Fiji?
MITCHELL: Eighty artists have been selected to represent Fiji.
TIMES: How is the trip to the festival funded?
MITCHELL: By the Government
TIMES: Are there awards given for each category?
MITCHELL: No, it is not a competition. The focus is transmission of knowledge and skills
The major theme has been traditional dances and songs. Fiji will participate in contemporary dance and theatre production.
TIMES: Is this the first time to have these categories?
MITCHELL: No, Fiji is one of the countries at the forefront of exhibiting and performing contemporary art. It is still a new component of the festival so Fiji, alongside PNG, New Zealand and New Caledonia has been a pioneer in contemporary art.
TIMES: Are there enough opportunities in Fiji to express the talents and creativity many people have?
MITCHELL: There are many international opportunities but there has been little support in the past for our artists to reach or to be a part of the opportunities. Things are changing as our governments realise the importance and potential of the creative industry.
Pacific art is a natural resource and something that needs to be developed and invested in. With increased investment will come increased potential for income and sustainable careers for all our people.
TIMES: What are some programs implemented by the Fiji Arts Council to develop art and craft in Fiji?
MITCHELL: The five key projects for 2008 are heritage art exhibitions and workshops, fine art exhibitions, breaking barriers program that focuses on developing creative industries in disadvantaged or at risk communities such as prisons, squatter settlements or youths at risk, skills development workshops and programs, strengthening creative industries and international market development and Dance Fiji.
TIMES: What is the Pacific Arts Alliance?
MITCHELL: It is a network of Pacific artists, art organisations, art managers throughout the Pacific who share knowledge, skills and resources to develop the art sector in the region.
It is a network of organisations such as the Fiji Arts Council, GalleryPNG, Siapo Association in New Caledonia, Tautai Trust in New Zealand and many other collectives or organisations and individuals who serve a common purpose to build the Pacific through the arts, to support and protect each other as Pacific people, empower and develop the Pacific as a collective Pacific voice.
TIMES: How important is it for people to preserve and maintain culture and tradition?
MITCHELL: Culture and tradition are like the roots of a tree. If the roots are embedded in the soil the whole tree will be well nourished, strong in a storm and grow to its full potential.
I believe that a person with a spirit strongly rooted in his heritage and focussed on being connected to his land will be a unique person, balanced and powerful.
Without that connection and without our heritage, we become part of the mass and often have nothing to hold on to in a storm. I am a strong advocate of difference.
TIMES: What usually happens after the festival?
MITCHELL: For the most part there is a lapse of four years but we hope that with increased support and investment in art the festival will become a stepping stone for those who participate, that they come back rooted in their culture, inspired and motivated to continue to create and pursue a path of excellence.
TIMES: Any other comment?
MITCHELL: This is a unique opportunity for our artists and I just want to encourage the media and members of the public to lend their support and congratulations to the delegation.
It is a time of honour for our artists and by providing a launch we hope the families of the artists, friends and the various communities that make up our multicultural country come to show them how proud they are of their achievement.