Do visual artists in Fiji need to be better organised so that they can improve their status, visibility, public understanding and awareness of their work? This was the main question at a workshop hosted by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). The workshop, held on the 28th - 31st of October, brought together leading visual artists, support organisations, and interested producers from other art forms. The question posed is not new. Visual artists in Fiji have tried to come together under various structures over the past few decades, not always successfully, leaving some disenchanted. Visual artists in Fiji do not always have access to support that is available to their peers (including Diaspora artists) in countries such as New Zealand and Australia, where significant government and support institutions, such as arts councils, provide a range of services, backing and funding opportunities. Artists in those countries (and beyond) have also come together in associations to promote their specific interests to their arts councils and governments.
Artists in Fiji are used to working individually or in loose collectives. Although some artists have formalised partnerships through small businesses, social enterprises, galleries or agents, artists often struggle to unite, despite their common challenges, issues and needs. To fully understand this cultural industries subsector in Fiji, Lingikoni Vaka'uta, a PhD student and leading artist, provided an account of the history and situation of the visual arts in Fiji, based on his master's thesis, entitled Contemporary visual arts in Fiji: Development and challenges towards a re-thinking for the Fiji visual arts system.
According to Vaka'uta, some of the main problems holding back the sector are the lack of formal statistical data, art infrastructure, critical appraisal, and commentary and discourse around contemporary arts in academia, in the press and in public arenas. Since artists are busy producing, there is little opportunity for the public to understand, judge and define quality; this is compounded by the lack of local writing and discourse about contemporary art. There is an urgent need to foster an appreciation of contemporary arts.
Other challenges raised by participants are the limited market opportunities and the varying interests and needs of the artist community. Fiji artists need to put food on the table. They do this through a combination of commissions (for those with a following and reputation), door to door sales (especially when artists need money
immediately) and selling to the tourism market, which demands certain types of commercially oriented products. Artists need significantly expanded markets locally and overseas. Addressing these challenges could be one of the roles of a national level visual arts association. By partnering with government departments, tertiary institutions and other support organisations, this association could foster discourse, increase market access, develop arts in education and even lobby the tourism industry to increase the amount of local art used in hotel investments.
Heritage artists in the past were highly respected members of the community. Their skills, talents, imagination, aesthetics, and links to the spirit world were central to society. Today's artists provide a window into the past, present and future - they are important messengers but they form a scattered and diverse community. How can they reconnect to society more strongly? How can they advocate so that they can continue to work in dignity, and not under or over-value their work?
Workshop participants agreed that it would be useful to establish a national body to represent the diversity of artists (small businesses, individuals, collectives, etc.), and work to improve conditions in collaboration with the Fiji Arts Council. The organisation form will be decided after further consultation and discussion. In the meantime, a small working group will explore the possibility of building a relationship with a visual arts copyright organisation based in a neighbouring country to start addressing copyright issues.
The workshop was part of the Enhancing the Pacific Cultural Industries:
Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands project, made possible with the financial contribution of the European Union (European Development Fund) and the assistance of the ACP Groups of States.