Sipeli Turns to Art
Art is often used as form of self-expression. For Peter Sipeli, a man growing up in the 80s exploring his sexuality, it was the perfect platform to articulate his thoughts and feelings. Later on in life he used art to advocate for others in the LGBTQ+ community. Growing up in Lami was clearly a wonderful experience for Peter Sipeli, who spent his childhood with his head stuck in a book or in the clouds. Sitting in a cosy little coffee shop in Suva, he told tales of days spent swimming in ditches, running around in the bush outside his home and daydreaming about fairies. Sipeli shared his childhood with eight other siblings, his only brother passing away in 1996. Both his parents have now passed on too. He explained how he came to the realisation of his loss after his father’s death: “I never thought of myself as an orphan until we were celebrating his one year death anniversary. Then I thought oh my gosh - we don’t have any parents.“I always thought in the back of my mind if I were ever to fail in life I’d go back home and then I realised, oh they’re not in that home and so its me against the world. You come to this realisation that it’s actually just you against the machine. It’s a sobering thought.” It’s clear from the way Sipeli speaks that he holds the fondest memories of his mother. His sincere affection shines through in some of his sharpest, wittiest writing. “She was a storyteller. My father would have dinner like it was business and bugger off to sit in the corner and read the paper. My mum would just sit there and tell stories. I was close to her.” His mother, Palatina, Alo Leni`aro Lockingston-Sipeli, moved from Samoa to Suva in the early 60s, where she stayed at home and looked after the children. His father, Sebastian Taweli Sipeli Rakai, had moved to Suva as a child and worked for the Catholic Church. Sipeli attended Marist Convent Lami School and was then sent to a “prestigious catholic school” known as Marist Brothers High School. ‘‘I remember my father going, ‘we’re sending you there so you can learn to become a man!’” As an effeminate teenager, Sipeli struggled to fit in at the all boys’ high school. He relied on the arts to help him through his hardships and began writing poetry when he was a teenager. ‘I was recently rummaging through all of my old stuff because I was moving house. In 1990 I was in Form Three and had submitted a poem to the school magazine. It was called ‘releasing the beat within’ – I was coming out to my school without realising I was doing it. It was 1990 - nobody was
coming out in 1990 in Suva, it was a different world even then. In the late 90s, Sipeli saw Benjamin Zephaniah, a spoken word artist and writer from London, perform poetry in Traps bar. Zephaniah had been invited to Fiji by the the University of the South Pacific’s School of Language, Arts and Media (SLAM) for a literary conference. “He did performance-based poetry with this incredible creole-British accent and his own way of presenting his work, with performance and power.” Sipeli leans back in his chair and smiles at the memory. “I was blown away, I’d never heard poetry like that before. So I went home and I just changed the way I wrote poetry. It was more rhythmic, it was more performance based, it was more story telling and it was about using local language.” Shortly after this encounter, Sipeli went on to do his own slam poetry. Poetry slams are spoken word performances of original poetry judged by a panel and with a lot of audience involvement. “When I was going to poetry slams at that time, it was a heavy heterosexist hip-hop kind of space, a lot of hip hoppers who were hardcore straight guys with baggy jeans and thick sneakers, talking about their world. “I wrote this piece called ‘Faggot’ and it was kind of a response. I think that it might be over ten years ago that I took ‘Faggot’ to poetry slam at USP. It was an unapologetic piece. It is punchy and it’s shameless, people loved it. It was sheer blatant.“I stood on the stage, five minutes after people were screaming ‘do it again!’ That’s when I realised this was what I wanted to do.” Sipeli began to organize his own slams after USP stopped regularly running the events. Not long after, he opened up his own poetry shop. “The poetry shop was a platform I developed seven to eight years ago. The whole idea was to provide a space for spoken word artists to share work and to find consistent activities where people could do poetry and expand that work.” Sipeli also managed Fiji National University’s creative arts gallery and currently works for the art component of the Kula Art Awards. He has built a reputation as an events organiser, from popular street markets to major art exhibitions and university functions. Along with this work, he produces a monthly magazine known as ArtTalk’s and works as a human rights activist with women’s groups such as Fiji’s Women’s Crisis Centre. Perhaps one of his most notable roles is his work as an LGBTQ+ advocate. Sipeli uses his own personal experiences to help empower others and bring equal rights to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. In 2000, Sipeli and five others started the first gay lobby in Fiji, whilst just last year he spoke at the TEDxSuva conference using storytelling as a form of advocacy. “I grew up in Suva, this is my community. I’m completely accepted wherever I am in Suva,” he said. “It might change if I’m in a rural community, if I lived in a village or if I lived with my parents.” Sipeli may feel accepted for who he is in his own community, but he understands the difficulties that remain for many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender indigenous Fijians. On the issue of coming out in the Pacific, Sipeli offers this advice:“Coming out isn’t an external only thing; you don’t just stand in front of people and tell them you’re gay. I think coming out in spaces like the Pacific is harder, if you come out to your family and it doesn’t go to plan you lose your family. If you come out to your friends and it doesn’t go to plan you lose your friends. I think for me in the Pacific, when I talk to younger people I say coming out is an internal process; you need to come out first to yourself and be okay with that.” “Sometimes possibly coming out in the western way mightn’t be of any benefit to indigenous people. Because indigenous people are people connected to community and to family and if you lose that, who are you as a singular being in a traditional space? It’s hard!“Sipeli suggests we need to rethink what coming out means or looks like for indigenous people. “People ask, ‘Oh gosh, Peter, are you telling people not to come out, is that what you’re saying?’ No! I’m asking them to love themselves.”
Peter Sipeli spent his childhood with his head stuck in a book.
Peter Sipeli enjoys the outdoors.