The Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
ROSANNA RAYMOND An Interview by Chikako Yamauchi
The center’s Visiting Artist for 2005 was Rosanna Raymond, performance poet, writer, artist, and costume designer. Raymond explores landscapes of her multiethnic heritage—Samoan father, Pākehā mother, raised in a predominantly Māori community in Aotearoa New Zealand—to create her multimedia art. CPIS MA student Chikako Yamauchi interviewed Raymond about her work and her history with Pacific Sisters, a collective of multimedia artists formed in 1992. The following are excerpts from the interview, along with an image of Raymond’s multilayered art. While she was in Honolulu, Honolulu Advertiser writer Wayne Harada coined the phrase “multitusking maiden,” referring simultaneously to her most memorable performance character, Full-Tusk Maiden, and to her ability to work in several media at one time. In the piece below, Raymond has combined her visual art with her poetry. Other examples of her work, including her recording of “Ode to a Pale Sina (Beat Me and I Shall Fly to the Moon),”are available on the Pitt Rivers Museum Pacific Pathways site athttp://projects.prm.ox.ac.uk:8080/pcs/viewpub.php?pid=305&ud=25
By Rosanna Raymond.
CY: Being a “multitusking maiden” requires a lot of different kinds of skills and knowledge. How did you acquire these skills and different kinds of knowledge?
RR: I did my first storytelling as a child, instead of listening to stories. Later I met up with the group Pacific Sisters, a multicultural collective of artists. Within the group there are performing artists, costumers, writers, photographers, and digital workers, and I think from hanging around with that lot, I became a “multitusker”! We used to do lots of workshops together, and we would teach each other different skills. I think the very nature of living in Aotearoa—you have to have a few skills up your sleeve. I work professionally, but I picked Pacific Sisters as my creative side. In the end it has all sort of managed to roll itself into one big ball. I live with a photographer, my husband Kerry, and I think that is why I have always worked alongside photography. It is something that has just always been with me. I am either organizing a shoot, or helping with one, or being in one, or watching a shoot being done.
CY: From my audience perspective, your artistic endeavors all stand strongly on their own, but the multilayering of them creates something—its own creature.
I hope that each of the arts, each discipline, can kind of stand by itself—that you can take the poetry, and enjoy the poetry without all the visuals and the performance art, and the same with the crafts—that the costuming stands by itself and the visual art stands by itself. But it is nice when it is all mixed together as well.
CY: Where did you learn to sew? Was that with the Sisters?
RR: My mother and both my grandmothers have always been craftswomen, so on my Samoan side and my Pākehā side I have always lived with women who have been industrious with their hands. I didn’t manage to pick up the crocheting and the knitting . . . but ever since I was a kid, I’ve sewn doll clothes, sewn clothes, it was just something that we did. Working with the Pacific Sisters, I used to do all the “arms and legs” bit – I was the producer, and I used to stand in admiration of them and say, “I wish I could do that!”
In the Pacific Sisters there is Ani O’Neill, who is a Cook Islander; Niwhai Tupaea, who is Māori; Suzanne Tamaki, another Māori; and two afakasi Samoans (myself and Fiona Wall)—all New Zealand–born. Ani, in particular, is completely craft-orientated with her work, and she is the one who very patiently taught me how to do a lot of the plaiting techniques—and then the materials did the talking. One year we had to fundraise a lot of money so we started to make jewelry to sell in a stall, and we fundraised, not just by the jewelry alone, but we ended up fundraising thirty thousand New Zealand dollars, which was no mean feat. And that helped us get to the Festival of Pacific Arts [in Samoa in 1996].
I also made my first costume for that, so for me it was one of those moments where I suddenly thought of myself as an artist, rather than as the director/producer, doing all the boring stuff—answering all the phone calls and making sure everyone turned up for rehearsals. And it was hard for me a lot of the time because I used to do so much of the other sort of work . . . it eats into your craftwork. And actually that is how I feel about last year, I did so much other work, that my artwork suffered a lot. That’s why it was wonderful to come to Honolulu. . . just having a bit of space sometimes, away from the old daily grind. Especially as a mother—I have two kids and a husband—there is lots of washing and dishes! So this is luxury—and when it is luxury, you don’t waste that time.
CY: Was the Pacific Sisters created specifically as a women-centered space?
RR: Yes, it was—it was a space where we could all be our Polynesian selves. We all had Pālagi blood, we were all mixed-race, all urban kids, too, so even the Māori that were living with us had moved away from their tribe, from their tribal land, so it was a space that we felt safe. And two of us were mothers with kids so it was a time we could get together, be creative, look after each other’s kids—it was a really supportive space. Then doing the show, nobody else was going to do it for us, so I think we just figured out we would have to do it ourselves.
The art world wasn’t serious about craft at that stage—so a lot of times we were excluded. We were excluded a lot because of our mixed-race and excluded a lot because we were “crafty”—and it wasn’t until we went to Sāmoa for the festival of the arts that we made this big step onto a platform of saying, “Now we are artists,” because through making costumes we made the story. We didn’t just make the costumes for the hell of it. We were telling the story of Sina and the eel—and we made a whole set for it. That was the first time I started to write. Before, I would sort of help everybody through an idea. Here I was the main one, but it was a real group effort. We had six cast members, and every cast member had to have a costume, and from there it grew. We created a soundtrack, using a mixture of organic and traditional music. It was a multilayered process again.
CY: In other settings you have touched on the healing aspects of art. Could you elaborate on that?
RR: I am a great believer in that. For me, personally, art is a great healer. I think when you have a product—this something, this object—it is really quite empowering. You have created this beautiful thing, this thing that can come with stories and has meaning. The creativeness comes not just from the making of it, but why you made it, as well as how you made it, using the same techniques that your ancestors had been using for hundreds of years.
It is really empowering, too, to know that you are carrying on this tradition and that this thing has value and people also want to buy it, or want it—that’s another part. It’s good for the ego! But it also puts it in the twenty-first century, and it becomes relevant to your everyday life. The Pacific Sisters ended up doing lots of workshops for young pregnant women, just teaching them how to work in groups and, by using crafts, how they could earn pocket money. That gives you a sense of self-sufficiency. You can be at home, and you can still be creating and providing yourself with an income. Especially for the mothers, finding an income is really important. [The workshops] were really good for us, as well as them.
I also find that art is a really good way of articulating messages that otherwise people wouldn’t listen to. If I were to just tell people that a certain kind of seed is not around any more, a lot of people would turn off. But if they see a beautiful object made out of these seeds, with a high price on it, too, and they say, “Why is this price high?” I’d explain to them [deforestation, overfishing issues, etc], and they’d say, “Ah, that’s really sad.” The object really helps them see the beauty of the seeds. And placing a value on it was a big thing for me. I’d lost the sense of value for tapa, for the mats, and for a lot of our seeds and shells—they’ve gotten relegated to trinkets, something that tourists pay $5.00 for. They don’t quite understand why we needed more than that. But it is not a renewable source. We can’t use our traditional feathers in New Zealand anymore because they are extinct. There are all these other layers of meaning that go into why we create these objects.
The writing is another part of it, I think. Someone asked me, “Do you produce your art as a form of healing?” And I must confess, yes—but it saves me a lot of money on psychiatric bills!
CY: What’s next for Rosanna Raymond?
RR: I am going to put on another cap and turn into curator and creative director for the Pasifika Styles Exhibition 2006, which we will have at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It’s fantastic to be in this position, especially after so many years of criticizing museums. Our cultures change, so should theirs! They want to change, they need to change, and it is great to be able to work together with an institution and help change peoples’ perceptions of those spaces as well.
For me, it’s another opportunity to help promote the art of the Pacific, so that we don’t just blend into the art world. I’ll be having meetings with Creative New Zealand to see if we can get money to bring artists over. The living dynamic is really important to me, and museums and institutions can help. If they haven’t got much money, at least they can put their support behind changing the dynamics of what an art exhibition can and should be. (For more information on Pasifika Styles2006, see Bulletin Board in this newsletter.)