Fiji in the World:
National Heritage Re-Evaluated
Fijian artifacts are preserved in many museums around the world, notably in the UK.
However, objects were often mislabelled or unidentified and the full extent of these collections unrealised.
Since 2011, research, exhibitions and publications on Fijian art, textiles and dress by UEA researchers and their Fijian colleagues has helped shine a new light on their extent and significance.
This has led to new exhibitions, collaborations and events that have contributed to enhanced public understanding and appreciation of Fiji’s rich cultural heritage, including at the highest political and diplomatic levels in Fiji and the UK.
This research not only changed understandings about the extent of museum collections but has also spawned ongoing collaborations that see Fijians explore their heritage and national identity in new ways. This in turn has provided opportunities for young people to pursue careers in the creative industries.
Since 2011, the Fijian Art research team, led by Professor Steven Hooper, Dr Karen Jacobs and Dr Katrina Igglesden of the Sainsbury Research Unit at UEA has examined and analysed extensive Fijian collections in over 40 museums in the UK, continental Europe, North America and Fiji.
A wealth of documented material has been uncovered, providing crucial evidence of how Fijian objects were both exchanged as gifts – as objects circulated among kin and between chiefdoms – and exchanged with European traders, missionaries, colonial officers and visitors.
These art-historical approaches also revealed a much more dynamic picture of Fijian creativity than previously recognised.
Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific
As research revealed the range and quality of Fijian collections, Prof Hooper was approached to curate a large-scale exhibition of a kind not attempted before. This resulted in the book and exhibition Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific, co-curated with Dr Jacobs and Dr Igglesden at the Sainsbury Centre between 2016 and 2017.
The exhibition was opened by HE the President of Fiji and visited at her request by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It was later shown at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2019-2021).
A significant aspect of both exhibitions was the loan of 32 rare pieces from Fiji Museum. The museum, which has excellent collections, had not previously made international loans and their inclusion has significantly raised the profile of Fiji Museum at home and abroad.
During a visit to the UK, the Fiji Prime Minister asked Prof Hooper to prepare a plan to develop Fiji Museum and in 2016 he was appointed an Honorary Adviser to the museum. In 2017, with the Director and Dr Igglesden, he undertook a comprehensive review with 18 staff that has provided a basis of the museum’s current strategic plan.
Dr Jacobs’ research, publications and exhibitions on Fijian art, textiles and dress have reinvigorated, stimulated and enhanced knowledge across institutions in the UK, the USA and Fiji.
With the team, she undertook research in 34 museums, including the British Museum, Fiji Museum, National Museums Scotland and the Smithsonian Institution. A major reinvigoration of Fijian histories proceeded from this research alongside eight new exhibitions in UK museums, showing that Fijian collections were not just the result of colonial (mis)appropriation, but that Fijians played strategic roles in their formation.
This included Fijian women, who have often been neglected in representations of Fijian history. These exhibitions foregrounded the names, roles and actions of Indigenous Fijians, effecting a radically changed perspective on Fijian history.
Dr Jacobs, Dr Igglesden and Rosanna Raymond, an artist, curator and academic based in Aotearoa New Zealand, created Fabricating Fashion?
This series of workshops that began in association with the first London Pacific Fashion Show in 2012. It brought together many of the Pacific’s finest fashion designers and contemporary fibre artists with museum professionals, academics and arts enthusiasts to showcase the contemporary relevance of Pacific textiles and create new works.
For her book This is not a Grass Skirt, Dr Jacobs also creatively collaborated with a group of Fijian artists who united in The Veiqia Project, a Fijian female collective of artists, curators and researchers based in Fiji, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.
As part of the exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, Prof Hooper arranged the commission of an 8-metre-long double-hulled sailing canoe, made to the highest traditional standards and without metal components. It was test sailed on Suva Harbour, paraded on Fiji Broadcasting Corporation’s float at Fiji’s 2015 Hibiscus Festival and featured in The Queen’s four-day 90th birthday pageant at Windsor Castle in 2016.
After being shown in the Fiji exhibition at UEA, it was displayed at the Fiji Prime Minister’s request as an icon of carbon-free transport at the COP23 Climate Change meeting in Bonn in November 2017, for which Fiji held the Presidency. The canoe is now on permanent display in the Pacific Encounters gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
A proposal to develop and transform Fiji Museum’s ability to serve the nation and overseas visitors, authored by the UEA researchers with Fijian colleagues, has been prepared for submission to a major funder.
The pandemic has delayed plans, but it is anticipated that they will proceed when the situation allows and that the UEA team will play major roles in planning and delivery.
Work also continues on Urban Pathways: Fiji. Youth. Arts. Culture., a youth-driven project led by Dr Jacobs with Dr Igglesden as Senior Research Associate at UEA and project partners in Fiji including the University of South Pacific, The Pacific Community (SPC), Fiji Museum and VOU Dance Fiji.
The project aims to identify how Fiji’s diverse urban young people experience and perceive culture and how arts and cultural heritage organisations can engage and champion youth participation. It's funded by the British Academy’s Youth Futures programme, supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund.
Through youth-driven workshops, placements, open days, interviews and artistic displays, it will identify how urban Fijian youth experience culture and how cultural heritage institutions in Fiji can engage youth while offering viable employment opportunities.
SeeA look back through pictures at the Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre which ran from 15 October 2016 – 12 February 2017.
BrowseOfficial website for Urban Pathways: Fiji. Youth. Arts. Culture, a youth-driven project led by UEA researchers and project partners in Fiji including the University of South Pacific, The Pacific Community (SPC), Fiji Museum and VOU Dance Fiji. Logo designd by Mereoni Rosi Tora.
ReadDr Karen Jacob’s book is based on a systematic investigation of previously understudied liku in museum collections around the world. A fascinating read for those interested in neglected women’s objects and practices in the Pacific.