By Demi Ball and April Maung
When Samoan artist Angela Tiatia broke a forbidden cultural taboo, the reactions were mixed. She had revealed her malu, a traditional female tattoo, in an artwork entitled ‘Walking the Wall’.
“It’s quite subversive to, and forbidden, to show that in public…especially (in) the traditional community, it’s considered a really bad thing to show it to the public because it’s quite a Christian community.”
It was through creating ‘Walking the Wall’ in 2014 that Tiatia was able to release herself of the control placed on her body and become a role model for other women, even amidst the reactions she received.
“The majority of it was negative, but in that short time has encouraged body positivity with younger women who have the malu, just being a bit more proud about showing it.
“Women are encouraged to uncover as much as possible, and so [the work] was just really highlighting walking a very fine line between the Western and the Samoan cultures,” she explains.
Tiatia is an accomplished woman; with two university degrees under her belt and numerous awards, her works have been displayed in exhibitions across the world, including Singapore, Germany, France and the United States.
The success she has experienced as an artist, however, was not without its challenges.
“I remember when I said to my mum, ‘I want to be an artist,’ she was like, ‘um, no, I didn’t work my ass this hard for you to have such a frivolous career!” she recalls.
“My mum was a solo parent…and the family goals are very different when you’re raised in an environment that’s not very well off.”
The New Zealand born artist has also worked as a fashion model, having been “one of the first wave of Pacific Islander models to break the industry in the 1990s.”
During that time, she was subjected to extreme discrimination due to her diverse background.
“I felt unempowered the whole entire time, and I was involved in the industry for 20 years,” she said, reflecting on her modelling career.
“You have no control over how you’re portrayed, like what you’re dressed in or the narrative that your body is placed within advertising. You have absolutely no control.
“So, whenever we were hired or there was a brief that was sent out to the modelling agency, it was always asking for Caucasian models, that’s how they named it in the past, or if they were being really adventurous, the main protagonist would be a Caucasian model and then they would ask for exotic models to make it look a little bit more equal or a little bit more diverse.”
Tiatia’s success as a fashion model came with many obstacles, both personal and professional.
“I grew up in a Christian family and super controlled in that way of adhering to the Christian values of being covered and respectful…and then being thrust into the modelling world which was a complete opposite, of undressing, but it was still controlling…so I had no control in either situation, which I find really fascinating” she said.
While Tiatia’s primary focus in her artistic work has been based on shunning traditional ideals of beauty in Western society, a recent visit to her childhood home in Samoa inspired a new passion for environmental issues.
Describing her former home as “a really magical, beautiful place to be raised a child,” the island was now a ruined land that she could no longer recognise.
“It was really lush and beautiful and very fertile. A lot of our sustenance and food would come from right out the back of our backyard.
“That lush backyard was now ankle deep in muddy water. All the trees had gone, they’d been chopped down, there was no grass, there was nothing growing at all.
“I was just so stunned, shocked and devastated as to how much the environment had changed.”
It was this event that sparked Tiatia’s passion for climate change awareness, using the issue as inspiration behind her latest artwork Tuvalu, a “three channel installation video-work” in a “documentary style, moving image style portraiture of the Tuvaluans”.
The work focused on climate change as a part of the Oceania Rising program at the Weave exhibition, a festival of Aboriginal and Pacific cultures held at the Australian Museum in March this year.
“I chose Tuvalu because it’s the most vulnerable of the Pacific Islands to climate change at the moment.
“It’s working simultaneously with my own personal work in terms of body image and empowerment on the self and feminism…I like to have quite a broad outlook on life, that it’s not only introspective and personal, but it’s also looking at how those ideas would impact a much more broader community.”
Tiatia’s concern for the environment is clear, as she is an advocate for reducing the carbon footprint and making more environmental-friendly changes.
“I’m scared! What are we leaving for our grandchildren? …Maybe we might be too late. I don’t know, maybe we should still have a party…burn up all the coal that we can!” she jokes.
Although the exhibition recently concluded, Tiatia’s focus remains on building climate change awareness in her local community, while continuing to inspire younger women to focus on these bigger issues, as opposed to the superficial things in life.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but also I think it can be changed in terms of our value sets…in such simple ways like teaching our young girls, when we reward them with our words that we reward them in what they can do, rather than in what they look like.”
While the challenges Tiatia has faced have been tough, she sees the value in using her previous experiences as a basis for her art.
“It’s given me such a really amazing perspective on what it’s like to be powerless and also how the machine of the advertising world works…who holds the power when it comes to creating images for mass society that’s out there.
“We consume these images without really knowing that we do…and so whenever I see ads, I’m consuming them in the context of being aware of the machine, so that’s been really good.”
With artworks in development for a future exhibition with Sullivan and Strumpf, Tiatia continues to test the limitations of standards in both art and society.
“I always had this view that so long as I could reach one person and change the mind of one person, then the work was worth it.”