Q&A with Courtney Sina Meredith
Talanoa with Tautai’s Director and Sāmoan artist and poet Dan Taulapapa McMullin
CSM: Firstly, where are you in lockdown and who’s in your bubble?
DTM: My partner Stephen and I live in Hudson, New York (although I will be living again in Aotearoa later this year and going back and forth again over the next few years). Our town is a country village of people from The City, as we call New York City, who migrated up here, or have second homes here, for the farms and green mountains. There are a lot of gays, lesbians, transgenders, straight women, who were involved with Act Up during the height of the AIDS era, so I think of it as an Act Up retirement community. And we’re known as an arts community: Glenn Ligon, David Hammons, Philip Glass, Robert Ashbery, many artists, composers, and poets, reside in our small town of 5,000 people, and more in the surrounding country side, in barns converted to art studios, but mostly those are working farms still. Stephen recently had heart surgery so we’re being very careful, a young friend does our shopping. I work in my studio, Stephen works upstairs creating piles of paperwork, mostly pro bono legal work for community groups. Also we have a schnoodle (schnauzer-poodle) named Roby. Meanwhile, I’m in daily contact with friends and colleagues like Yuki Kihara in Samoa, Sia Figiel in Florida, Albert Refiti in Aotearoa, Maia Nuku back in New York City, and the editors of Queernesia a book project I’m co-editing, and the curators of Hudson Eye an exhibition series here in Hudson, so I’m constantly in conversation through text, FB, Zoom, Skype, phone, email, and so on.
CSM: How has COVID-19 impacted your creative plans for 2020?
DTM: Yes, well, I was hoping to be in Aotearoa in July to work on a PhD with Albert Refiti and Welby Ings but that’s delayed. Also I’m involved with Hudson Eye which is the main arts series locally in this part of upstate New York, curated by Jonah Bokaer and Aaron Levi Garvey, and our plans are in flux as we cope with the changing protocols around COVID-19 and public spaces.
CSM: As an artist, what are the learnings you’ll retain from this time of crisis?
DTM: Communication! I’ve become a better communicator. I used to hate the phone, still do mostly ignore it, but I do like scheduled video conversations, and like almost everyone I know, I’ve become a regular on Zoom. I’ve also found that globally the world, which shows through the internet, has slowed down in physical space but seems to move more easily in cyber or mental spaces, the cyber Vā, and the mixed Vā that is our immediate space-time and cyber space-time intertwined.
CSM: Who are you inspired to reach out to and collaborate with next?
DTM: I’m working on a photo-colllage/graphic-novel historical work A Queer History of Polynesia, based on archival research of the past couple years that was the background work for Taulaitu my a novel-in-progress. Albert Refiti and AUT have been supportive of this work, and Rosanna Raymond as well. I will also return to collaborating with my co-editor of Samoan Queer Lives (2018), Yuki Kihara, on a text and poems I’m writing for the book of Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp exhibition, the book will launch at the Venice Biennale next year. And I’ve been invited by Tagi Qolouvaki, No’u Revilla, and Leiana Naholowa’a to co-edit an anthology of queer Pacific writing and art that we’re calling Queernesia, which is part of the Oceania Literary Series published by University of Hawaii Press. The series is curated by Craig Santos Perez who with Brandy Nālani McDougall edited my book of collected poems Coconut Milk (2013). So that’s all sort of set in place. At the moment I’m working on a sort of cubist influenced portrait of Sia Figiel so I’m chatting about that with her, she texts me photos etc.
CSM: What sort of developments and disruptions would you like to see in the arts worldwide?
DTM: In Aotearoa, and somewhat in Australia, there’s a Pacific Islander contemporary arts presence, but not globally. That needs to change globally on the international stage, in order for the Pacific Islands to have more hegemony over our fates. Also in the American island states and territories (Hawai’i, American Samoa, Guam-Guahan, Micronesia) and in the diaspora in “the mainland” (such a horrible expression) there’s almost absolute invisibility. To be frank, it’s more likely that a Pacific artist from Aotearoa will represent us in a public space in the U.S. than an artist from the U.S. island areas, it’s rare for a Pacific Islander from the U.S. territories to have work shown in the U.S., it almost never happens, believe me I know! I think also this is a problem in the French and Spanish territories – Chilean territories, wherever the white power structure is invested in suppressing indigenous voices. Our global presence as Pacific peoples is nonetheless growing, and I hope it becomes even more diverse and stronger year by year.
CSM: Can you share any strategies around work/ life balance and artistic replenishment – especially while you’re in New York, the epicentre of COVID-19?
DTM: Thanks to my supportive partner, we have a city apartment in Hoboken, which is on the Hudson River across from Manhattan, we’re a brief subway ride from Chelsea, but we haven’t been to the city apartment in months, and a lot of our NYC Pacific friends have returned to Aotearoa and Hawai’i because of the Coronavirus, or they are struggling in isolation in the city. In my work, as I’ve been doing the past couple years, I delve into the archives daily, it seems so many major publications of Pacific “oral tradition” and historical account and image are now available online, it’s a matter of search words, detective work, and developing language skills. I’ve been working on my Samoan, Hawaiian, Maori, Tongan, Fijian, Maohi, French, German, Spanish; I’m not fluent in anything but I have a working knowledge.
CSM: Who are the emerging artists you’re excited to see more from?
DTM: I met Jahra Rager Wasasala when she was invited recently to perform at Atea the exhibition curated by Maia Nuku at the Metropolitan Museum. I’ve always loved Jahra’s poetry that I follow on the internet, but then her dancing blew me away, it reminded me of what felt like a turning point when I first saw Lemi Ponifasio’swork in Samoa in the 1990s and Rosanna Raymond’s work with Pacific Sisters at that time too. I also love what Pati Solomona Tyrell, Tanu Gago and all the FAFSWAG crew does, they’re beautiful and inspiring, they remind me of how I felt the first time I saw Yuki Kihara’s work, that spirit of camp and Fa’afafine mana that I identify with and feel at home in, although to the rest of the world it’s camp, to us it’s just life.
CSM: Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share with Pasifika artists who may be struggling at this time?
DTM: Well, other than beware the “wisdom” of other artists, all I can offer is what I tell myself at times and rarely follow: Hold on, stay the course, believe when no one believes in you, because your ancestors believe in you, they put you here darling, that Alofa that created you is your Mana, do what you have to do to survive in life, and be kind to others and to yourself, but in art be fearless, take that walk into the unknown, your future is there in the darkness, that is where your light will shine.