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Traditional and contemporary arts and craft from Niue on sale at FestPac.

Photo/PMN News/Khalia Strong

Pacific Region

FestPac: Controversy takes centre stage at celebration of culture

From a Fijian performance criticised to stall holders faced with “heartbreaking" fees, it’s all happening at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Hawai'i.

Khalia Strong
Khalia Strong
Published
10 June 2024, 6:55pm
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It is certainly no secret that there's bound to be drama when thousands of people from all walks of life gather in one place.

And the Festival of Pacific Arts in Honolulu is no different. People from 27 countries and territories are attending the event - held every four years - at the Hawai’i Convention Center.

The increase in stall fees at the world’s largest celebration of indigenous Pacific Islanders is having a huge financial blow for some people there to sell their traditional arts and crafts.

Niue stall organiser Loine Paotama-Pakieto said they were originally told the surcharge the premises would be claiming, would be 20 per cent.

"Then when were setting up yesterday, we were told it's gone up to more than 40 per cent, so it's really hard to then make money when you've got to pay back that surcharge.

"We've had to hike up our prices to accommodate the surcharge that's been put on us."

PMN is US

Niue stall organiser Loine Paotama-Pakieto. Photo/PMN News/Khalia Strong

Paotama-Pakieto said many stall holders arrived with suitcases full of products, hoping to make a windfall from the major event.

"People aren't buying, which is making the members very antsy because they want to sell their stuff, but with that surcharge on top, we're going to struggle to get rid of all our products.

"So our suitcases are going to be full of things going home, not with Hawaiian stuff, but with our own stuff."

Hawai’i is located about 7400km from Aotearoa New Zealand, and the US state has a population of 1.44 million people, with 22 per cent (316,800) of them Native Hawai'ians.

Speaking to Pacific Mornings’ William Terite, Strong said it was “heartbreaking” as many of the stall owners have had to increase the prices of their goods or face a loss.

“I'm watching people walk in and they see these earrings for 30 US dollars, they're beautiful, and they're handcrafted, but when they can get them for $10 at another stall that's where they're going to go.

“It's even just people who've been once they ask for the price. For the 'ei (floral garland), you're looking at 60 US dollars, which is close to 100 New Zealand dollars once you do the conversion.

“So that just shows the difficulty and kind of the economic oversight, perhaps, that is shown to some of our Pacific handcrafts.

“I've spoken to some of the other store holders, and many are not aware of the sales charge, so I'm waiting to get an official comment from the festival organisers about those selling at a loss - they've brought hundreds of their products to sell.

“For Niue, they're saying they're worried that they're going to be going home with their suitcases full of their products that they haven't been able to sell.”

A master carver told PMN Niue the mana and essence of the festival had been tainted.

Meanwhile, the Samoa vendors said they are not aware of a surcharge and are selling their goods at the usual price.

Watch the Vou dance group from Fiji's performance at FestPac on MaiTV

Clash of opinions around Fiji's opener

Strong said the other controversy at the festival included the Fiji contingent.

She said a group of young performers from Suva has come under intense pressure for their dance, meke, during the opening ceremony at the University of Hawai’i’s Stan Sheriff Center on Friday.

“This came out of the opening ceremony. The Fiji group, first they apologised because it was a very small delegation compared to some of the showings from the other islands, but the dance group that performed, called Vou, was a contemporary group.

“So, instead of the traditional chants and maybe the meke that we were expecting, they did this high energy, almost aerobic-like dancing for their item, sparking major controversy online.

“People felt like their culture hadn't been represented properly whereas other people thought, you know what, the dance needs to involve our culture, our community, needs to bring it into the modern day lives.

“For me, artistic interpretation is part of creativity and there should be that licence there. But the backlash was intense so this dance group, Vou, the word means new in Fijian. That would make sense, that's what they called their style which is contemporary.

“They said they're proud to represent Fiji. They said ‘We need to enable platforms for continuity of practices to keep the traditional dance alive’.”

Interestingly Fiji’s Minister for iTaukei Affairs, Ifereimi Vasu, apologised for the small contingent at the opening ceremony, said, “we didn't have everyone that we were meant to bring. [And] Fiji Airways is the hub of international travel”, and they had to make room on the flight for others to come to Hawai’i.

Launched in Suva in 1972 to halt the erosion of traditional practices through ongoing cultural exchange, this year’s theme is “Ho‘oulu Lāhui: Regenerating Oceania”.

Organisers said the festival honoured the traditions that FestPac existed to perpetuate with an eye toward the future

The Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture started on 6 June and ends on 16 June.