story by Liza Simon
Good luck describing the Festival of Pacific Arts to someone who’s never been. Powwow meets Burning Man meets Merrie Monarch? Well, yes. And no. Ultimately, there is nothing else quite like it. Picture artists from twenty-five Pacific island nations coming together to preserve and innovate—and you’ll have an inkling.
This year for the first time, the thirty-six-year-old mega-arts event will be held in Pago Pago. And how appropriate, since Samoa, “the cradle of Polynesia,” is one of the first places voyagers are believed to have made landfall before fanning out into the Pacific. But no matter how far away settlers sailed, navigation by the stars enabled continued comings and goings and cross-pollination of music, dance, painting, drama, tattooing, woodcarving and even architecture. In the 18th century, Westerners arrived and created the boundaries that we see on the modern map. But the Festival of Pacific Arts celebrates the commonalities that unite the ocean’s people, says noted playwright Alani Apio, whose theatrical production Kamau is part of Hawai‘i’s contribution to the fest this year: “Even though stories from all over the Pacific differ, I’ve always marveled at how you can see right through to the same things that matter—it’s land, it’s genealogy, it’s about connecting to deep family roots.”
The idea for the fest originated in 1956, when several island cultural leaders conceived of it as a way to safeguard traditional arts against commercialized kitsch. The first festival was held in Suva in 1972 with succeeding festivals every four years. You might see cameramen in ti leaf skirts and full-body tattoos lugging the latest digital equipment and warriors hefting traditional war implements off baggage carousels. But somehow it all comes together, and when it does, it’s magic. This year’s fest, which is expected to draw 2,000 participants, will take place from July 20 to Aug. 2.
Festival of Pacific Arts