In 2008, I stepped into an unforgettable adventure on a tiny island in Fiji in the Pacific called Vorovoro. I was part of TribeWanted, an off-grid community tourism experience where travellers from all around the world lived together with a local tribe.
Learning all about the Fijian history, songs, stories and daily life, I became intrigued with this country and always dreamed of going back to discover more of the 330 islands the country’s composed of.
Last Friday, I was invited by the Fijian Tourism Board and Stature PR to travel to the city of Norwich for the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Fiji ever assembled. And boy, did that bring many amazing memories!
Flashbacks to Vorovoro Island
As soon as I stepped through the doors of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, I got flashback to Vorovoro Island:
Drua – Fijian Double-Hulled Canoe
In the museum, you can find over 270 works of art showcasing the creativity and skills of the Fijian artists. The collection is a result from three years of research and curation of the extensive, but little-known Fijian collections in the UK and overseas.
Project leader professor Steven Hooper showed us around the exhibition and told us that he really saw each object on display not just as an ‘ethnographic specimen’ of Fijian culture, but more as works of art in their own right.
The biggest eye-catcher is definitely the massive canoe you’ll see next to the reception desk. Can you believe it’s only been build less than 2 years ago -and it’s actually working? It’s been made entirely of wood and cord (no metal parts) and while I think it’s already quite large, it’s based on the original 30 meter (!) long canoes that people used in the 19th century.
While I’ve never seen a canoe like this on the water before, I did spot one in a classroom of a school on Mali island in Fiji while I was there. How fun is that?!
I must admit the Fijian kids are way craftier then we used to be in school, haha. Check this incredible woven turtle!
Join in the Kava Ceremony
Some of the pieces at the exhibition were around the ‘Kava Ceremony’, one of the most important ceremonies in Fiji. You can believe we had many of them on Vorovoro island!
The root of the Kava-plant (also called ‘grog’ or ‘yaqona’) is pounded into a powder, then mixed with water to produce a mud-coloured drink with sedative and anesthetic properties. Don’t worry, it’s nothing psychedelic or anything, it just relaxes you and at most it will make you fall asleep :)
At the ceremony, usually four guys will dress up in grass skirts, two of them being the guards, one of them the mixer of the kava and the last one the grog-server. The arm pieces are made out of banana-leaves, which of course didn’t quite work in Norwich:)
Kava Bowl (tanoa) + Coconut Shell (bilo) from which the Kava is served
Kava has an aquired taste, for sure! Only after a few times drinking the peppery muddy water will you start to enjoy it, trust me!
Items made from Shells & Whale Bone/Tooth
At the exhibition, there were quite a few beautiful items made out of shell, bone and tooth, for example the ‘tabua‘ (polished tooth of a sperm whale) and necklace shown below. They were traditionally given as gifts for atonement or esteem (called ‘sevusevu’), and were important in negotiations between rival chiefs.
Fijians didn’t actively hunt on whales for their bones or teeth, but they do strand on the beach a lot, like the poor fella on Vorovoro island that you can see in the picture below.
Beautiful Shell Necklace, below a simple version worn by Tevita
Well-Dressed like a Fijian
My favourite section in the museum was the one about clothing and textiles. You could see several barkcloths (masi) from the 19th century with sunning painted designs stamped and painted on them. Some of the pieces were over 15 meter long, while others were turned into dresses as you can see below.
I’ve mixed in some photos of Hampton Court 2009, when I was there with a group of people that had also visited Vorovoro island. We were there to support Team Fiji, five of the guys working on the island who came all the way to England specifically for this show. Most of them had never even left their own island, let alone the country! Epic.
The only thing I missed at the exhibition were the more modern textiles as you often see in Fijian dresses (sulu or sulu dresses) for the woman and sulu and bula shirts for the men. Well, I’ll just add some of them into this post then, just for a little pop of colour :)
If you look closely, you can see that two of the girls are also wearing masi in our outfits (like me all the way on the left, easier to see in the photo below, as we have big bows on our backs). As we were the tallest girls, we had to lead the group during our dance performance. No pressure!
Spears, Clubs and Other Weaponry
The Fijians aren’t a particular violent people, but they did know how to make some serious-looking weapons!
The spears were mostly used for fishing though, the clubs for ceremonies and the flesh fork a.k.a. ‘brain picker’ from the cannibal-set mostly as a fork for chiefs (to keep distance from the food for the regular people), but still… I wouldn’t take the risk :)
Also, did you know that Fiji is famous for providing soldiers for the British Army and peacekeeping troops for the UN?
Boys performing a war-meke in Fiji
I had such a good time at the exhibition and can definitely recommend a visit! There is just so much to see, you can spend hours inside, but because of the size of the museum you never got an overwhelming feeling. All the objects were given lots of space and formed a great connection to each other. There wasn’t much to read throughout the exhibition, so if you really want to know more about each item, I can suggest to perhaps buy the catalogus before you enter, so you get a bit more background information. If you’re interested to learn more about the Pacific arts and culture, then this is definitely a great collection to go and see. It’s rare to see so many items put together like this, so make sure to visit while you still can, because it’s really quite unique.
Exhibition “Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific”
From 15 October 2016 to 12 February 2017
The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the Unversity of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
£12 / £10.50 Free for Members, UEA Student Members and Patrons
Disclaimer: I visited the exhibition on invitation of Stature PR and Tourism Fiji.