Sipeli Turns to Art

mailife - - Contents - By SI­MONE KELLY Photos IVAMERE ROKOVESA

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.”

58

Peter Sipeli spent his child­hood with his head stuck in a book.

Peter Sipeli en­joys the out­doors.

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