Walking through East Harlem with Rosanna Raymond wearing bodysuits covered in artificial flowers and leaves from head to foot, on the first glorious late April Spring day when New York seemed to go directly from winter to summer, we were stopped again and again by astonished residents of the mostly Latinx and Black neighbourhood as they burst into smiles, asking us to take photos with them.
Of mixed Samoan, Tuvaluan and Pakeha (white New Zealand) descent, Raymond is known internationally for her collaborative performances that bring together diasporic Pacific Islander communities to explore notions of gender and the body in public space. She calls these performances acti.VA.tions, “Va” is a Polynesian term for spatial relations, a place of exchange, of change. And, like many other diasporic Indigenous Pacific artists, I found myself swayed by Raymond’s aesthetic passion into finding my body by transforming it.
It was a cold white winter in New York in early March 2017 when Raymond first flew in from Aotearoa (New Zealand) via Hawai’i to begin a residency as a Fellow in Public Practice at the Metropolitan Museum. She was hosted by Maia Nuku, the Met’s new Oceania Curator, who recently moved to Manhattan from London. Both women had shaped their practices working together in London.
Raymond’s Samoan grandmother, Malia, a very early immigrant to Aotearoa‑New Zealand in the 1920s, instilled a sense of language and Pacific culture in Raymond’s early life. Malia came to Aotearoa speaking “a little bit of English.” As Raymond puts it, “The only time I heard Samoan was at night when the phone would ring. I would say to her, Speak to me in Samoan! And she would say, Eh! Why you want to learn that?” She had good reason. Growing up in Christchurch, Raymond remembers being confronted by groups of young white men stopping their cars in the street and jumping out to scream in their faces, “Black cunts, get out of Christchurch!”
As a teenager, Raymond was often high on drugs but modelling was her escape from Christchurch to Italy and other European countries for several years, to a different life and way of being. “I cleaned up in Europe. Upon my return to Auckland I vowed never to go back to Christchurch again.” “There were a few who went away and came back to New Zealand in the late 1980s when the whole house party scene began.” Many were Māori and, like her, second and third generation New Zealand‑born Pacific Islanders whose families had immigrated to work in the fields and factories.
Raymond says, “I grew up as a tomboy refusing to wear pretty dresses as soon as I could say, ‘No’. My mum tried, it never sat right and never will. I was raised in the 1970s by an extended family of feminist solo parents, men weren’t really a feature in my life growing up, they were never at the centre of our families, except my brothers and cousins. And all roles in the house were done by everyone; there were no gendered roles. Yet outside the family, and certainly when I modelled, the role of women was clear, and not one I related or aspired to. I often get told I am butch or masculine, even as a young girl, it never bothered me.”
The Urban Pasifika movement in the 1990s changed Aotearoa New Zealand’s cultural landscape, and created a “Va” for the seminal Aotearoa women’s art group Pacific Sisters formed with Suzanne Tamaki, Selina Forsyth, and Niwhai Tupaea, a transgender Māori woman artist. Rosanna “met Niwhai first in the clubs and on the streets and then we all worked together on dance theatre productions and from there the rest is Herstory, well, unwritten of course.”
As a visiting poet and artist from American Samoa, I first saw Pacific Sisters perform in 1996 at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Apia, Samoa, and was delighted and blown away by the high energy fun in their take on Pacific dress, movement, music, gender, and bodies. It was not long after that that Raymond and her photographer husband moved with their two children to London where finding community in the UK was difficult for Raymond at first. She found herself responding to the “idols” of Pacific gods and goddesses in museum collections. From this experience her current practice found focus, as she began to seek ways to bring meaning and māuri (life) to these tāonga (sacred objects) in institutions, by finding artistic communities that these tāonga could again be a part of.
Her practice has taken her around the world working with Indigenous groups, especially women, transgender and queer artists, through her SaVAge K’lub (a word‑play on the English gentlemen’s Savage Club groups) as in the interventions staged within Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art for the last Asia Pacific Triennial, and most recently in a few collaborations with FAFSWAG, the amazing trans‑queer Fa’afafine art group in Auckland. In New York I’d liken her practice, from a North American perspective, to women artists like Coco Fusco, Cindy Sherman, and Ana Mendieta, and queer/transgender Canadian Indigenous painter and performance artist Kent Monkman. Raymond inhabits personas in her performances that are part absurdist tiki kitsch, part institutional critique and part goddess as a way of connecting to ancestors, and as a form of postmodern Indigenous futurism. Her work resonates with other recent Indigenous performance and social or public art, like Australian Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s Embassy that took place in NYC at Performa 15 in 2016. Similar to Bell, Raymond draws together local Indigenous artists to collaboratively create new works that are performative and visual, as well as political.
Over the years I met up with Raymond at exhibitions in San Francisco at the De Young Museum, and in Los Angeles at ATA in an exhibition of contemporary Pacific art, where I took a photo of her nude tattooed body in performance. Rosanna says “I started thinking, what is nudity? From first contact our bodies are sexualised or savage, the nymph or the warrior—I am both. The presentation of my body is a way for me to decolonise. And as women age we become invisible, so it is through presenting this naked body, I demand to be seen, though I often find the phenomenon of people turning their heads so they don’t have to see me. This fascinates me. It is also about presenting a genealogical body not a sexual one. The site I privilege is my Samoan and Tuvaluan heritage. Nearly fully tattooed, I am never naked.”
In decolonising her body Raymond developed a series of characters she’s called Sistar S’Pacific, Dusky Maiden, Full Tusk Maiden, Backhand Maiden, SEAoncey, Blood Clot, Pulotu Pollution (Pulotu, the afterlife) and My Va Body. She plays through language with luggage words such as: Conver.SA.tion (Sa meaning family and sacred), Acti.VA.tion, which Reacti.VA.te Pacific objects in Western institutions through what she envisages as Ta/Va (Time/Space) duality or what she calls a “non cannibalistic cognitive consumption of the other.” In response to the idea of the portrait or the performative body, Raymond proposes an evolving, androgynous self of representation, that is also culturally inspired “if you understand our cultural markers in terms of gender you can see many ‘masculine’ traits, it’s in my stance. It’s what I adorn my body with. I find the new language of gender more helpful for me, as I carry within me the masculine and the feminine, gender fluid, and not to be confused with my sexuality, that is something different. Even in the language there is no male or female, my Samoan grandmother would use he and she and apply it to any of us.”
When I met up with Raymond in New York City I suggested she might like to use my “Aue Away” bodysuits from a recent installation that had been displayed on mannequins but not yet acti.VA.ted by Pacific bodies. She suggested we perform in the suits together, which I as a poet and painter immediately shied away from. I’d made the suits for other bodies not my own! But soon enough there we were walking through East Harlem to Central Park being photographed by Raymond’s son Salvador Brown, a London‑based photographer visiting NYC for her forthcoming performance at the Metropolitan Museum in July. Raymond’s bodysuit is leaf‑based, my bodysuit is made of blue camouflage and artificial flowers.
As Raymond expresses it: “I found the confidence to display both sides through our pre‑contact cultural heritage, through the atua (god/desses.) Where I found Nafanua, goddess of war. And Sina a human who slept with gods, a navigator, educated, industrious. There is a plethora of atua whose gender changes from island to island. I feel the genealogical body the space/vessel, where the ancestors are present(ed) isn’t a male/female space, it is an ancestral space, genderless, and this is the space I share for my acti.VA.tions. These are not “performances” of self or culture, this is where I released the shackles of half‑cast blood quantum and could just be present with my moana body, neither male nor female. Though in saying that, audiences are so trained in the postcolonial body they often can only see the physicality of my body, they gender me. It took me a long time to accept this, and just be me.”
Dan Taulapapa McMullin is an artist and poet from American Samoa, who lives by the Hudson, New York. Rosanna Raymond is the recipient of a Chester Dale Fellowship to create opportunities for cross‑cultural interactions among staff and museum professionals and local Polynesian communities, working with the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As part of her Fellowship in Museum Education and Public Practice, Rosanna Raymond and Dan Taulapapa McMullin will be collaborating on an embodied conversation activating the Polynesian Galleries involving the “Aue Away” bodysuits on 28 July 2017.
Card image: Rosanna Raymond, Au Away, 2017, Act.VA.tion for Tiki Talks in Central Park for July MET Fridays. Photo: Salvador Brown.Photo: Salvador Brown