The crowd flocked to the upper-level balconies of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ great hall, trying to get a glimpse of an ‘ava ceremony — what one speaker called the “highest gesture of respect” in Samoan culture.
The sounds and voices of Polynesian culture filled the quiet air of the museum Saturday. The ceremony was performed at full length, in a cordoned-off sacred space in UMFA’s great hall, where street-art murals from the museum’s “2020: From here on out” exhibit served as a backdrop.
Saturday’s event — which included food trucks and live performances, and brought together members of Utah’s Pacific Islander community and people from far away — marked the opening of a new exhibition at UMFA, ”Tatau: Marks of Polynesia.” The exhibition runs through Dec. 30.
The exhibit — originally organized by Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum, and curated by Takahiro Kitamura — consists of more than 150 photographs and accompanying narratives that capture 2,000 years of cultural history through documentation of the art of tatau, or Samoan tattooing.
UMFA put together a community advisory group, said Emma Ryder, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, to “ensure that the Polynesian, particularly the Samoan, community in Utah is properly represented in the messaging and programming surrounding the exhibition.”
Verona Mauga, who co-chairs the advisory group and is part of the nonprofit Le Malu — which advocates for Utah’s Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian community — said she started working with a representative from the Japanese American National Museum to bring the exhibit to Utah. The first priority was to find a museum that would be a good fit for the exhibit.
“What museum would be able to help, and really take good care of this exhibit in a way that was really important and respectful to the community?” Mauga said, adding that UMFA was the most “intentional” about creating a space for the exhibition.
Alisa McCusker, senior curator at the UMFA, said, the museum wanted to host the exhibition “to represent the community that the UMFA is in.”
Material from the Pacific has been a “weakness” with the museum, historically and with its current curatorial staff, McCusker said.
Working with communities, like Utah’s Pacific Islander population, is one of the steps UMFA is taking, McCusker said, in response to the movement among the world’s museums to ”decolonize” — to return cultural artifacts to the people to whom they originally belonged.
With the “decolonizing museums” movement, McCusker said, “There’s kind of a spectrum of responses, and ours is to really wholeheartedly embrace it. In order to do that, and to understand that impact that it can have, we need to work with the community members, first and foremost.”
The history of tatau, and its preservation, is also tied to the colonization of the Pacific.
“There was a time in history when missionaries and Christianity came to the Pacific Islands,” Mauga said. “[When] the island started to be colonized, different churches, including the Catholic Church, outlawed tattoos.”
Mauga said, “Our tataus, the marks we wear on our bodies, are symbolic of so much of who we are, our ancestors. Our tataus are our service to our God, family, community, village. These markings are important. It’s more than just seeing a beautiful piece of artwork and wanting to put it on your body. There’s so much meaning behind it.”
When Mauga, who moved to Utah when she was 13, got her malu (a traditional female tatau) on her legs, she said she was able to do it in a traditional way. She also said she prepared for it for a long time.
“I had to feel that I was worthy,” she said. “For us living off island, in the diaspora, [tatau] is a way for us to connect to so much of what we’re missing living here in America.”
Mauga — and the exhibit — credit the Sulu’ape family as being influential in preserving the art form, and for growing and sharing it with a larger audience. A member of the family, Peter Sulu’ape, performed a tatau demonstration on someone’s hand during Saturday’s opening festivities.
The tataus are tapped by hand, using traditional handmade tools called ‘au. The Sulu’ape family has adopted ambassador artists, such as Sulu’ape Si’i Liufau, who has been serving and working with the family since 2008, and was given the title of chief in 2015. He and his work are featured in the exhibition.
“Being in the tattoo industry and being Samoan got me into searching for the real meaning of artwork and designs,” Sulu’ape Si’i Liufau said.
The exhibition, he said, helps capture what tataus signify. “These pictures, they’re not just people with tattoos, but people that are prominent in our Samoan culture and society. Our tattoos are a mark of service,” he said.
While Saturday’s event was a celebration of Pacific Islander history and culture, the present was also on people’s minds. One food vendor pledged all proceeds from the day would go to wildfire relief efforts in Maui. The museum’s director, Gretchen Dietrich, also paused for a moment of silence in honor of wildfire victims during opening remarks at the ‘ava ceremony.
Mauga said there is widespread excitement within Utah’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities to see the UMFA exhibition.
“The truth is, a lot of people who live off-island aren’t 100% familiar with the history,” she said. “To have something so important to us being on display in a place like this, for a lot of community members, it’s not just exciting, but emotional.”