The latest and arguably most important phase of the Government’s Fijian Made campaign – Fijian Crafted – is being launched by the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, in Nadi on Friday. Why is a crafted object more significant than an industrially manufactured item, however excellent or desirable? Because more than anything else, it represents the artistic skills of ordinary Fijians – the men and women who use their hands to create items of beauty – masi, mats, wood carvings, pottery, paintings and all those things that come under the craft banner and are genuine expressions of Fijian culture and achievement.
These ordinary individuals often display extraordinary talent yet one wonders how valued their work has really been in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Because let’s face it. With certain notable exceptions – Pacific Green furniture for one – there’s a definite tendency on the part of many urban Fijians to prize foreign-made items more highly than anything crafted by a local. If it’s from “overseas” – many people think – it simply must be better. Yet all around us are objects that are not only beautiful and functional but genuinely authentic and reflect our unique surroundings and culture so much better than the imported alternative. Nowhere is this more the case than with decorative items that can be used in the home.
When Grubsheet was a kid in Fiji, our family home was decorated entirely in the “local” style – woven mats on the floor, canvass-clad timber chairs to sink into at the end of a long tropical day, family photos on the wall framed by shell necklaces or salusalu, the odd carved club, spear or fan to fill in the gaps, perhaps a masi hanging and a coffee table or two made out of pieces of local timber ingrained with the map of Fiji or any number of places such as Rotuma which a local artisan was keen to put on the map. We lived in such surroundings happily and with pride. It was part of the Fijian experience of the 1950s and 60s. No-one said “why have you decorated your house like this?” Local families just did it out of aesthetic preference and also to support those who made the items. And because we were keen to reflect the artistic achievement of the place in which we lived.
I am old enough to remember the British colonial era and the way many people decorated their homes. Some colonial servants had lived in other British possessions such as Hong Kong and the East African colonies and sprinkled their homes with Asian scroll paintings, African carvings or the odd leopard or zebra skin. But few families I knew didn’t have certain Fijian items at the core of their decorative efforts – mats, masi, carvings and the like. All over the world today,“ end of Empire kids” – the progeny of those who lived and worked in Fiji under colonial rule – regard the items that they inherited from their parents as being among their most treasured possessions. These aren’t just what used to be quaintly termed “curios” – items acquired as souvenirs of their Fijian visits by international holiday makers or mementos collected by expatriates returning home after a posting here. They aren’t crude items destined for some cupboard or dusty corner, like the countless “swords” engraved with peoples’ names that were once foisted on every tourist. The very best of them are genuine works of art – expressions of individual talent and excellence – that ought to be prized acquisitions and treasured possessions for all Fijians.
Some of the oldest pieces – such as 19th century tanoas, clubs and pottery – are now extremely valuable and fetch high prices at auction or on ebay. So is antique masi, which is similarly prized though obviously more vulnerable to deterioration. Grubsheet is fortunate to have acquired some of these items and the patina of age that has been layered on the original craftsmanship makes them especially beautiful. These are obviously a cut above your average handicraft from Jacks. Yet so many quality items are still being made in Fiji that these too are destined to be treasured and appreciated long after those who’ve acquired them are gone.
The tourist trade still laps up this output and some of the items at Jacks nowadays run into the thousands of dollars. There’s also a brisk trade in mats, masi, magimagi and shells at the handicraft market in Suva, which incidentally needs much better signage and promotion. But there’s plenty of evidence that if it weren’t for the tourist trade, Fijian artisans would have a tough time nowadays making a living. In the Vanua, of course, mats and masi are still prized as items of aesthetic and cultural significance and are a central part of everyday life. But it strikes Grubsheet that most urban Fijians nowadays are eschewing “Fijian style” when it comes to decorating their homes in favour of a generic international look. Better access to Asia and the sudden availability of Chinese furniture has also made the Asian look more popular. But it’s telling that so many affluent Fijians seem to want to live like someone in Sydney or any number of global cities rather than surround themselves with objects of beauty crafted by their fellow citizens.
It’s tempting to cast this as a “wannabe” phenomenon- wannabe “like overseas”, don’t wannabe like our parent’s generation. Yet it’s also striking how little genuine effort is going into promoting “Fijian style” when it comes to home décor. The opposite happens to be the case in Hawaii, where “Hawaiian style” is huge and has become a popular local slogan. Many Hawaiian residents are actually recreating their homes in the manner of their parents and grandparents. Those 1940s “pretzel” rattan lounges that people once threw out are now fetching thousands. And people are also paying top dollar for any decorative item that reflects “old Hawaii”- before the generic age of leather lounges and the bland “international look” that makes any home, no matter where in the world, appear no different to any other. So there’s clear evidence of a strong return to authenticity of surroundings when it comes to decorating and a repudiation of “same, same” blandness. And therefore a strong argument that those arbiters of contemporary taste in Fiji would do well to emulate the Hawaiian example. We’ve got the stuff and, in the main, it’s top quality. We’ve got no shortage of skilled artisans. So let’s use them and make Fijian Crafted a brand that’s as celebrated, treasured and in vogue as Fiji Water or the new Fiji Airways.
How do we do it? By tapping the same creativity that has made Fijian fashion such a phenomenon. The top Fijian fashion designers such as Robert Kennedy, Hupfeld Hoerder, Aisea Konrote, and others have led the way in generating a local industry and showing us that “local is better”. What we need is a new generation of local interior decorators to do the same. These people need to be conduits between our local artisans and the wider market to set trends and generate demand. They need to create interiors using local products that inspire, are showcased by glossy magazines like Mai Life and their counterparts abroad and fire retail interest in the “Fijian look”. They need creative flair but also the sensitivity and judgment to enhance indigenous culture, not cheapen it. And they need to preserve the artistic integrity of our artisans and put their best interests at the forefront of this effort.
One of the wonderful aspects of the new Fiji Airways – quite apart from the supremely comfortable new A330 aircraft – has been the way in which the work of Makareta Matamosi – the masi artisan from Namuka-i-Lau – has been celebrated. Her striking design for the livery of the new airline hasn’t only attracted overwhelmingly positive comment and won a major “new best airline design” award. What struck Grubsheet most was the surge of national pride that erupted when the planes bearing Makareta’s work flew low over the nation’s islands, villages, cities and towns on their way into Nadi on their delivery flights.
What were we collectively responding to? Yes, A330s are handsome planes but are a dime a dozen at airports around the world. It’s nice that Fiji has them but many ordinary Fijians will never have the means to set foot in one. No, what really stirred emotions in most people was seeing the name of our country emblazoned on the side of the plane and under the fuselage. And most of all, the shouts of excitement and tears of pride came because of the beauty and authenticity of what we saw painted on the fuselage and tail and those brilliant tattoo-like rings around the engines.
The point was that we didn’t need a design studio in New York, London or Paris to come up with a logo or motif for our national airline. Our inspiration came from within, from Fiji’s grass roots in the form of an ordinary wife and mother from a small island who may be just like other masi makers except for one thing. Her skills and a great commercial opportunity combined to propel her to the apex of Firjian artisan achievement- someone so good at what she does that her status transcends these islands and can be acknowledged and appreciated anywhere on earth.
This is what makes Makareta Matamosi a national treasure and inspired the Prime Minister to ask the board of Air Pacific to name the second A330 after her home island. In doing so, he captured the national mood perfectly. Because we all want someone like Makareta to be acknowledged and revered. Which is why Grubsheet is also hoping that the celebration of her work sparks a national revival in Fijian crafts and the value we place on what our people are making.
Dozens of artisans are on the books of the Fiji Arts Council, which has emerged as one of the main bodies keeping Fijian arts and crafts alive. Many of those people – especially from the West – will be present for the Fijian Crafted launch in Nadi. All of them are budding Makareta Matamosis, different only because they haven’t had the same opportunity to be “discovered”. But they are all national treasures in one way or another and we should do everything we can to encourage them, celebrate their work, buy it and prize it as genuine expressions of our national culture and character and something than makes Fiji unique. Just like the masi design on the big aircraft tail that’s now turning heads and drawing appreciative comments at airports around the Asia Pacific region.