Cultural misappropriation: capturing Pacific stories

Photographer Saint Andrew Matautia tells Newsroom why he feels 'obligated' to tell Pacific stories and shares his thoughts on the appropriation of indigenous art 

It was at university where photographer Saint Andrew Matautia began making projects such as Cultural Misappropriation and Indigenous Knowledge. It was around the same time, 2013, when Nike was receiving backlash for putting pe’a - Samoan men’s tattoos - on women’s leggings.

“I just wanted to highlight how global organisations use peoples’ or indigenous knowledge and don’t give back to the people they got it from.”

Matautia wants to shed light on issues that affect today’s indigenous communities, and tells Pacific narratives through photography.

“It started with a uni project ... I was failing my first year; one of my lecturers told me ‘Why don’t you incorporate some of your indigenous knowledge to your assignments?’”

It was the push he needed for his first project, Cultural Misappropriation. In recent years, some big brand names have been called out - H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Gucci among them.

But, cultural appropriation is not the only issue Matautia has highlighted through his work. “If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will ... I feel obligated to tell Pacific stories however I can.”

Matautia’s master’s project, completed in 2015, highlighter another contemporary issue: education. “It looked into the high failure rates of Māori and Pasifika students, and how to use culture to help those students learn better and be better engaged with education.”

His photographs were shown at contemporary art gallery Whitespace in Auckland last year. He also did a project in Tokelau highlighting the country’s experiences with climate change, and another on the transgender community in Samoa.

Matautia says photographing people allows him to tell those stories visually and altruistically without putting his “own spin on it”.

But he worries about the way the ubiquity of digital photography has devalued the art.

“Nowadays everybody can be a photographer ... I feel the value of photography is lost, the value that people put into photos is lost. People don’t value them as much as even five or 10 years ago.”

Matautia concentrates on the connection between himself and the people he takes photos of. “I try and make a connection between myself and the people, capturing those connections I’ve made. I try to nurture that every day.”

Matautia was born in Samoa, and his family moved to New Zealand in 1988. His first experiences in photography came in 2010 when he started helping a cousin who organised weddings.

“I ended up buying a camera myself and then I started shooting these free weddings for my cousin just to help him out, and from there it turned into a business really.”

Two years later, he started a design degree, which sparked his interest in ethnographic photography.

His next project is with youth prison reform lobby group Just Speak. The multimedia exhibition Kōrero Pono examines people affected by New Zealand’s prison system, and how they deal with life outside prison.

The exhibition will run from October 15-28 at the Potocki Paterson art gallery in Wellington.

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