Veiqia: A Lost Tradition
a lost tradition
Our dependence of our oral traditions means that over time things not documented either change or are lost. Today there are still certain aspects of our culture and tradition that we do not know about. The fact that tattooing was very common with women in Fiji more than 150 years ago caught many by surprise when covering the Veiqia Project – a research project inspired by the practice of Fijian female tattooing at the Fiji Museum. The word Veiqia itself was new to many who attended the project launch and I was curious to find out more. After some research I was surprised to find the word Veiqia refers to the traditional art form of tattooing meant for iTaukei women and practiced in the 1800’s – and I was under the impression that tattooing was not common in Fiji unlike our Pacific neighbours Samoa and Tonga. The word tattoo is derived from the Samoan word tatau – which means to strike in. Malu is a word in the Samoan language for a female-specific tattoo of cultural significance. The malu covers the legs from just below the knee to the upper thighs just below the buttocks, and is typically finer and delicate in design compared to the pe’a which is the equivalent tattoo for males. The malu takes its name from a particular motif of the same name, usually tattooed in the popliteal fossa (sometimes referred to as the kneepit or poplit) behind the knee. It is one of the key motifs not seen on men. According to Samoan scholar Albert Wendt and tattooist Su’a Suluape Paulo II, in tattooing the term ‘malu’ refers to notions of sheltering and protection. Samoan women were also tattooed on the hands and sometimes the lower abdomen. These practices have undergone a resurgence since the late 1990s. In Fiji, however, the practice of Fijian female tattooing dates back to the 1800s but was lost following the arrival of missionaries and has been something of a taboo subject for many years. It is also understood that it was customary for iTaukei women to be tattooed before marriage or it was done to signify the rite of passage to puberty for young girls – similar to the practice of circumcision for men, but this custom seemed to have faded out a hundred years ago. Veiqia was originally practiced only in the royal clan of Bau, but this spread to Nadroga and down the coast to Suva and Rewa. Legend has it that some Samoans visited Fiji and noticed that women had tattoos and took the idea back to their islands. A chant was made about women being tattooed but the chant was changed along the way that in Samoa the men became tattooed. One of the bloggers on the Babasiga Blog page stated that the last female to be tattooed in Fiji was the daughter of Ratu Kilakila from Somosomo in Taveuni way back in the 1800’s. She was tattooed before shes was taken to Tubou, Lakeba in Lau to be the wife of Taliai Tupou who was the brother of Roko Malani of the Vuanirewa clan. The art of Veiqia is pretty much extinct today and it is
believed that due to Christianity and the arrival of the early voyagers who upon landing noticed our customs and thought it barbaric. The Veiqia Project launched to coincide with International Women’s Day celebrations. Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation Mereseini Vuniwaqa who launched the project stated the reason why this traditional art is even more important to celebrate is because in Fiji, women were the tattoo artists otherwise known as daubati. Sharing some of her cultural knowledge, Vuniwaqa said that the daubati have been described as hereditary priestesses. “Girls were tattooed at puberty, the ceremony initiated them as women and signified their eligibility for marriage.” “The art of veiqia is a symbolic evidence of the strength, resilience, resourcefulness and creativity of women.” Vuniwaqa said traditional knowledge, vernacular and folklore together make up our unique culture and traditions which have in some instances lost their relevance in modern day settings. “It is exhibitions like these which in some way contribute to the revival of those traditions and cultures which are so important in identifying where we come from as an individual. And therein lies another important role of woman as a custodian of traditional knowledge and art.” Vuniwaqa said that through the project, women artists are being empowered to not only contribute to the revival of traditional knowledge and art but also to use their art as a means of improving their livelihoods and those of their families. “I must therefore congratulate the Veiqia Project and the Fiji Museum, together with all collaborating artists for this initiative of bringing back into focus the traditional art of tattooing in Fiji.” The project is a creative research inspired by the practice of Fijian female tattooing. In 2015 five contemporary Fijian women artists were engaged in Australia and New Zealand to participate in shared research activities and museum visits. Through a shared online forum and time spent with Fijian Collections at museums in Fiji, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the artists have generated and indigenous research archive driven by personal, artistic and relational connections. The Veiqia Project Exhibition curated by Tarisi SoroviVunidilo and Ema Tavola took place in Auckland, New Zealand in March last year for the Auckland Arts Festival and coincided with the Pacific Arts Association XII International Symposium. Artists are collaborating with Fiji-based artists to produce new work to be included in the 3-month exhibition at the Fiji Museum. Artists are: Margaret Aull, Selai Buasala, Mereula Buliruarua, Elizabeth Edwards, Donita Hulme, Katarina Lesumai, Joana Monolagi, Dulcie Stewart, Laurel Stewart, Luisa Tora, and VOU Dance Fiji.
Batiniqia or tattoo tool
Curator Tarisi Sorovi-Vunidilo with artists Mereula Buliruarua and Donita Hulme looking at batiniqia (tattooing tools) from the Fiji Museum’s Collection
Veiqia Project Curator Ms Tarisi Sorovi-Vunidilo and Minister for Women, Mrs Mereseini Vuniwaqa at the launching of the Veiqia Project
An ancient art revived