PRINT November 2017



The Jaackers performing at the FAFSWAG Body Vogue Ball, Family Downunder, Auckland, August 20, 2016. Photo: Jermaine Dean.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND’S largest city, has long instrumentalized Pacific people as a way to demonstrate its cosmopolitanism and diversity. It trades heavily on its status as one of the world’s biggest Polynesian metropolises (boasting a Pacific population of some two hundred thousand, almost 15 percent of Auckland’s total inhabitants); the city’s self-promotional efforts routinely foreground Pacific culture, artists, and, most of all, sportspeople—billboards advertising local rugby matches and underwear alike feature muscular brown men as a kind of shorthand for erotically charged athleticism. In recent years, though, Auckland has become one of the least affordable urban centers in the world, and this has had an enormously disproportionate effect on blue-collar Pacific communities. For FAFSWAG (a combination of swag and fa’afafine, the Samoan cultural term for their third gender community), a thirteen-strong LGBTQ collective of emerging Pacific artists, this is a situation to be exploited and subverted. Largely performance-based, the group’s work is, ultimately, a form of activism: a means of upending stereotypes about Pacific people, of making the city’s young queer Pacific scene visible, and, as one of the group’s members recently proclaimed, of “fucking up the patriarchy, one Caucasian space at a time.”

In March, Auckland’s leading contemporary art venue, Artspace, hosted one of FAFSWAG’s signature events—a vogue ball based on the theme of “disruption.” It was a relentless three-hour-long affair, during which voguers went head-to-head in five categories: Fem Queen, Butch Queen Vogue Fem, Runway, Hand Performance, and Dramatics. The competition was driven by a live DJ as well as by an indefatigable MC, FAFSWAG member Akashi Fisi’inaua, who, wearing camouflage fatigues and high heels, flushed new performers out of the crowd with the machine-gun refrain “Is there anybody else, is there anybody, anybody else?” Four judges, all belonging to FAFSWAG, sat imperiously at one end of the dance floor, throwing out scores as the voguers shadowed each other with a kind of contactless ferocity, then dropped and held poses on the floor—often wearing FREE WEST PAPUA t-shirts (a reference to Indonesia’s occupation of the Pacific nation) or over-the-top frocks.

Though sexy, loud, occasionally X-rated and, frankly, fun, the ball was also underpinned by a triple confrontation: with the “Caucasian spaces” of Auckland’s art world (Artspace is both literally and figuratively a white cube); with central Auckland’s professional, middle-class gay scene (many of the performers came from working-class backgrounds in the city’s southern and western suburbs); and, perhaps most important, with the group’s own community, as a call to “decolonize.” For FAFSWAG, the moralizing imposition of Christianity in the Pacific islands was a kind of circuit breaker: a colonizing tool that disconnected Pacific people from precontact belief systems and sexual frameworks, a rupture reinforced by economic migration to Auckland. Many Pacific communities are now deeply religious and conservative, their views accompanied by a predictable intolerance of queerness and gender fluidity (though certain recognized third-sex statuses persist in various Oceanic cultures—an example being Samoa’sfa’afafine—and come with strict domestic roles and expectations). FAFSWAG’s aim is to restore a connection to pre-missionary culture and combine this with distinctly urban forms of performance and artmaking. As a result, its costuming and performance approach draws as much on Pacific mythologies, dance forms, and religious structures as on drag and vogue culture. This is particularly the case for Witch Bitch, a subgroup of FAFSWAG made up of Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaea, and Sione Monu, who perform spiritual “activations” of gallery spaces based on intense research into ancient Pacific practices.

FAFSWAG’s own contributions to ongoing global conversations about the effects of race, class, and gender on how we perceive bodies of color in public space are contingent on the unique situation in which Auckland’s young queer Pacific people find themselves—caught between the colonized conservatism of earlier Pacific generations and the workings of a contemporary city with a history of co-opting otherness in the name of diversity. Decolonization, in New Zealand as elsewhere, isn’t over but is a real and unfolding cultural shift, both within contemporary politics and the arts. In FAFSWAG’s hands, it’s both a framework and a mechanism to explore sexual-political links between past and present, rather than a means to demonstrate a fixed, predetermined authenticity. The group’s approach is best summed up by one of their rallying cries, which was heard at the Artspace vogue ball over and again: “Decolonize and moisturize.”

Anthony Byrt is a critic and journalist based in Auckland. His first book, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, was published by Auckland University Press in 2016.