fafswag is the auckland collective celebrating queer pacific islander culture

They’re fighting moral restrictions on love, rigid gender binaries, political oppression and shitty art.

by Wendy Syfret
21 June 2016, 6:30am

A FAFSWAG family portrait. Image courtesy of the group.

In its most basic form, FAFSWAG is 10 member collective based out of Auckland who celebrate LGBTQ Pacific Islander culture through parties, events and some pretty amazing videos. Beyond the impeccable style and raucous good times, they're a group of artists working to navigate a particularly complex cultural landscape.

Pacific Islander culture is unique in how it has historically both embraced and erased LGBTQ experiences. There is a widely recognised a third gender —sometimes called Fa'afafine, Fakaleiti, Fafine, Akavaine, Mahu or Takataapui — for individuals who are called male at birth, but raised as female. Sometimes people of this identity are celebrated, sometimes they're not. Either way, the transgender experience is a familiar part of Pacific Islander culture.

Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals. Being a L,G,B or Q is often still seen as a sin in a community where the church casts a long shadow. For many queer Pacific Islanders, the dichotomy makes it difficult to understand where they belong. That's where FAFSWAG comes in.

Formed around a core team of artists, the collective works to create a queer space within the Islander identity and and call bullshit of restrictive cultural narratives. For the past four years they've done this through films, art, music and an epic annual voguing contest known as the FAFSWAG ball. i-D spoke to member Tanu Gago about what it means to be an LGBTQ Pacific Islander, and how art and partying can make the world a much warmer place.

A previous FAFSWAG performance piece.

Before we talk about FAFSWAG, can we chat a bit about the Pacific Islander LGBTQ experience.
It has remained largely invisible for a majority of our recorded cultural history; most of the text that states otherwise has been destroyed or augmented through the process of colonisation. The only remanence of any gender or sexual diversity has been epitomised through the cultural framing of our third gender population. It's the only culturally acceptable deviation from western gender and sexual norms that's widely embraced in the Pacific, but not without incident, contention or western distortion.

Can you tell me about your own experience with deviating from these norms?
The small privilege that comes from being accepted and loved by our families has afforded us a different relationship to our culture. We're the kids of the migration and we're redefining our place in the world, whether it's our relationships, communities, theatres, universities or our local art galleries. We are the authors of our own destinies. This means defining for ourselves what love, family and identity looks like. It's exciting and something we don't take for granted.

How does the history of a third gender within Islander culture play into the acceptance, and treatment of the wider queer community in 2016?
The fluid gender spectrum in the Pacific has negative and positive impacts: it's often what allows us to belong within a cultural context connected to our families—these identities are understood and recognised as natural. But other forms of diversity with less defined cultural acknowledgement, such as gay and bisexual individuals and trans females, are often relegated to shame and sin.

Portrait of FAFSWAG member Matua.

With that as background, tell me how FAFSWAG came about.
It started as a digital platform for seeking out like minded artist working in the Rainbow Pacific. It was just a group of friends wanting to make meaningful art that spoke to our surroundings, realities and individual identities. People don't really talk about this, but the LGBTQI world can be an extremely lonely place. Pacific culture by nature is collectivist, so our people naturally gravitate toward one another and seek each other out.

Do you feel you have a defined group mission?
FAFSWAG emerged out of a lack of formal social spaces for people like us to access. We are outcast as society's undesirables and slapped with dual minority statuses as queer and brown people. For this reason it's been important to carve out a place for our stories and for us to facilitate meaningful connections with our creative peers. It just turns out that the very nature of doing this has huge political impacts.

Often there is this sense that queer groups exist to educate or engage the hetero world on LGBT issues. Do you feel you have a responsibility to that wider conversation?
There's a hangover that sees our communities framed by mental illness, sexual deviance and our prevalence for sexually transmitted infections and new HIV transmissions. Our identities are constantly being cranked through a filter, and it's not a flattering Instagram filter! The heteronormative moral majority is always creating uneducated and misinformed stereotypes that make it easier to discriminate against people who are different. So yeah, we do have a responsibility to keep people in check and be part of a wider discussion. But it doesn't have to happen on their terms. We have to say no to your pantomime caricatures of our complex identities, no to your to your legislation that treats us like illegal citizens in our home, no to your moral restrictions on love, no to your rigid gender binaries and transphobia, no to your political oppression and social deprivation and no to your shitty art!

Last year's FAFSWAG Ball.

Can you tell me how the vogue scene and your vogue balls play in this?
New Zealand youths have become enamoured by the New York Ball and Vogue scene of marginalised African American LGBTQI communities. The underground Vogue scene in this country is really young and is still something that happens on the fringes and margins of society. For the past four years we've produced a community based Vogue Ball in Otara South Auckland. In the beginning we made so many mistakes and had to really educate ourselves about the culture. This meant working collaboratively with legendary people in the scene like Mario Faumui, Jaycee Tanuvasa and Darren Taniue. 

How did that change the balls?
Now we've finally arrived at producing an event that more accurately honours the global culture of the underground vogue scene. While the style of dance has become more commercial, with some of our internationally renowned hip hop dance crews adopting it, as a cultural movement and lifestyle the NZ scene is still in its infancy. FAFSWAG isn't the Vogue scene which is important for us to differentiate. In New Zealand Vogue lives with our youth and is activated through friendship and impromptu jams. We are artist that recognise and respect the art form. For us, Vogue appeals in so many creative and cultural context that all speak to our personal journey as LGBTQI people. 


Catch a preview of VICE's new documentary with FAFSWAG at Beaút this Sunday.


Text Wendy Syfret
Images courtesy of FAFSWAG

queer culture
vogue balls