Pip Laufiso: Living and Breathing Pacific Arts in the Deep South

Pip Laufiso was born and raised in Ōtepoti and her contributions to Māori and Pacific arts in this city have spanned decades. Stacey Kokaua reflects on how Pip influences a community of creatives in a city not often recognised for a brown arts culture.

The first time I saw Pip Laufiso was when she was visiting our neighbours, Tony and Suzanne. This was in olden times – the mid-90s – and my family had just moved from Kirikiriroa to Ōtepoti. I was still struggling to understand why my parents had made the choice to move. During our time in Kirikiriroa, we spent every other weekend in Tāmaki Makaurau with Dad’s Cook Islands family. At the time, I had some idea of what Pacific women were like, entirely based on my family and Cook Islands church services around South Auckland. I could not see anything that I recognised as ‘the community’ in Ōtepoti.

That was until I saw Pip and her family walk up Tony and Suzanne’s front steps. I noted the differences. They wore their hair in high loose ponytails, draping down the back. But, significantly, they always wore black, usually loose black dresses. And boots. Because this is the Deep South. It’s as cold as they say it is, but that’s never been a barrier for Pip Laufiso and her vision for Pacific arts in Ōtepoti.

When I initially pitched this article to Pip, about her engagement with Pacific arts in Ōtepoti, I suggested we were so far south and potentially isolated. Pip responded by reminding me we’re not the most southern, and she explained her connection to the arts community and Pacific communities in Murihiku and Waihōpai, who “project, connect and express their identity and their location.” This is in keeping with Pip’s belief that Pacific artists inevitably practise from a sense of location and place. For this reason, she is a strong advocate in national arts conversations for exploring work made away from Tāmaki Makaurau, which is often presented as the epicentre of Pacific arts in Aotearoa.

“We’ve been talking about Te Wai Pounamu, right?” she asks. “Look at this place! Te Wai Pounamu is amazing, it’s beautiful. Gosh, five days in Auckland, I come home and … I’m so exhausted and I think, OK, cool, a million of you all live here. But you’re missing out … you miss out on this fantastic, beautiful country.

Pip has a deep love for Ōtepoti and its Pacific arts culture that stretches back to her childhood. She was born and raised in Ōtepoti to Sāmoan and Tongan parents in the 1970s. She describes her upbringing as “Samoan, Catholic, and a little bit radical because of my mum.” Pip was raised by her father, Filipo, and her mother, the late Eti Laufiso, a woman Pip describes as tenacious, and who was known nationally for her work as “a community leader, teacher, activist and visionary”. Eti was a pillar of the Pacific community in Ōtepoti, and Pip recalls the influence her mother had on her:

"She had a really strong commitment to social justice. She was one of the Dunedin founding members of P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A and became involved in many other campaigns, like the Homosexual Law reform, the AIDS campaign, and did a lot of stuff around education … She was invited to join a group of teachers of te reo Māori … and met up with a lot of other people who were pioneers of teaching te reo Māori in Dunedin."

This struck me as really progressive, because while my own experience of women of that time was warm and loving, they were also highly influenced by a particular brand of fervent Christianity that would have conflicted with the work Eti was doing. Pip reflects that her mother was outspoken on many issues and was criticised by members of the Pacific community at the time for some of the issues she advocated for, including the anti-smacking bill and AIDS education.

But the social justice and committed advocacy that provided the backdrop for Pip’s childhood wasn’t confined solely to her home. At the same time, Mere Meanata-Montgomery was setting up the Dunedin chapter of the Polynesian Panthers and her image was immortalised in Robin White’s 1978 screen print Mere and Siulolovao, Otago Peninsula. Pip recalls seeing the work of Ralph Hōtere as a child, and cheering him on as he protested the construction of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana. She recalls speaking with Hone Tuwhare when a group of poets visited her high school and he noticed her brown face among her Pākehā peers.

Unsurprisingly, teenage Pip could be found collecting signatures for a petition to have te reo Māori taught at her school; organising ‘gigs’ for her student council, hosting poets and bands at school; practising with Kaikorai Valley College’s ‘poly-group’ Tū Tangata; giving out stickers during Māori Language Week, wearing a sash that said, ‘Kia ora!’; working with Secondary School Students Against the Tour, made up of students across the city protesting the Springbok rugby tour. It was in Ōtepoti during the 1970s that Pip Laufiso developed an approach to the arts, specifically Pacific arts, that centred relationships and collaboration, and understood the seamless ways the arts, social justice and learning engaged with each other.

Like her mother Eti, Pip has adopted an approach to navigate any points of contention by nurturing relationships – strong, trusting and collaborative relationships that could withstand disagreement. Moananu Pesamino Tili is now an expert in Pacific arts in his own right, specifically various forms of Pacific dance. He grew up with the Laufiso family and recalls afternoons of singing at the family home in Brockville – a neighbourhood that still has a strong Pacific presence. Looking back, he sees a lot of Eti in the work Pip does, or Pipa, as she is known by people from her childhood:

"Pipa continued with the same vigour that her mother Eti had, in terms of speaking out for the marginalised, especially for Māori and the Pasifika Community, yet still being very proud of her Sāmoan roots. Her and her family’s love of tāngata whenua and their own heritage had an impact on impressionable young Sāmoans growing up in Dunedin. In those days she showed me that even a group of migrants, who were often made to feel inferior, can rise above it all and be successful. Be influential and strong."

And this is the crux of Pip Laufiso’s work: collaboration and uplifting others in Pacific arts. Her work alongside musician Hiliako Ioheta, her partner in life and the arts, represents a broad portfolio of creative projects and collaborations across varied disciplines. They have both worked for years organising the Otago Early Childhood and School Māori and Pacific Island Festival, known as the Otago Polyfest, which recently enjoyed its 30th year. Pip and Hiliako have maintained a network of Māori and Pacific creatives across Aotearoa and te Moana-nui-a-kiwa, as recalled by Moananu Pesamino Tili:

"Pip was always inviting me to gigs or promoting Pasifika events such as the Laughing Sāmoans, Taloi Havini, Scribe, Ladi6, Pacific Underground, Boh Runga, Dawn Raid, Adeaze, Goretti Chadwick, King Kapisi and Ardijah just to name a few. She was so good at putting Dunedin on the map. She always seemed to be the first point of contact whenever a Pasifika artist wanted to run an event, and of course she became the promoter."

Pip has also played a pivotal support and management role with the award-winning band Koile, of which Hiliako is one of 12 members. Founded in 2001, Koile represents many of the Ōtepoti Pacific communities, including Tokelau, Tonga, Sāmoa and the Cook Islands, and is described as “a southern collective presenting a potent cross-cultural mix of migration to Aotearoa anchored in the deep south of Ōtepoti”. Stemming from their work with Koile, Hiliako and Pip founded Inati Arts and Events to manage collaborative arts projects and to feed into their desire to continue facilitating opportunities and access for Pacific creatives in Ōtepoti.

I spoke to Teira Dean, who is a part of a large Cook Islands family who have a long history in Ōtepoti. Teira is known for his significant talents in performing arts, specifically as a musician trained in traditional Cook Islands drumming, ukulele, singing and other cultural practices. He is also a member of Le Apatonga, an Ōtepoti-based performing arts collective, and has known Pip for a long time. “Pip and them have always been around in that cultural space,” Teira tells me. “They’re always gonna be family for us.”

While Pip has never been part of ‘delivering the performances’, Teira reflects that she has played a major role in ensuring the success of Le Apatonga by providing administrative support, such as securing funding, advising on venues and gigs, and making sure they use her name if it is of any benefit to them. This type of support is pivotal for the success of young creatives, who often lack experience in navigating the systems that control the channels of funding in the arts world. “Pip is everywhere, bro. You see her in so many different settings … always there to support our people, always working in the background somewhere, even when you don’t know it.”

Backed by this type of support, talented musicians and performers like Teira can focus on their creative work, while also building the same sorts of skills Pip possesses. In this way, Pip ensures that Pacific arts culture in Ōtepoti continues to grow.

In 2022, Dunedin Fringe included a theatre production called My Grandfather’s Canoe, based on the poetry collection of the same name by Ōtautahi-based creative Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna‘i. At this time, we were deep into the Covid-19 traffic-light system. We were so excited to leave the house and experience something that we knew would be creative and uplifting.

As producer, Pip worked with a team of Ōtepoti-based creatives including Hiliako, who was music director for the production. After months of preparation and only a few days before the show, Pip, Hiliako and Faumuina, the play’s lead, all got Covid. They were not able to attend the debut and had to watch via Zoom.

But traces of their contributions were woven throughout the performance, specifically the way the work brought together varied arts practices, languages, age groups and personalities. The collaborative nature of the work meant that the last-minute changes made in response to the absence of Pip, Hiliako and Faumuina were seamless.

After so long isolated in our homes, that night was so magical for me and others who attended, and I remember people remaining in the venue long after it had ended. In a comment that captured the moment, my friend Litea told me, “My mask was wet with tears and snot.” It was not surprising that the show went on to win the Dunedin Fringe Touring Award and several others as the production toured the country.

Around the same time, Pip helped bring together Ōtepoti Pasifika Arts Collective (ŌPAC). The group includes a variety of creative practitioners including theatre, performing arts, literature and music, representing communities from Tokelau, the Cooks Islands, Niue, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Sāmoa, Fiji and others across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. The central aim of the group is “to make Pasifika arts visible, to actively work together to elevate our Pasifika artists and arts groups and to nurture creative success”. Corinne Hundleby is a Solomon Islands grief dancer who is a member of ŌPAC, and describes Pip as “one of a kind”: “She gives her heart and soul into everything she does. She is what I call a ‘wahine toa’, someone that is a strong individual that supports you, guides you and lifts you up.”

Many of the members of ŌPAC also worked on My Grandfather’s Canoe and so when asked to develop Mana Moana Ōtepoti as part of the city’s Puaka Matariki celebrations, they felt confident they could navigate the level of collaboration needed for the work. Pip explains that the process of creating the projects in collaboration with each other was as powerful as the projects themselves, particularly the work that crossed cultures and generations. Pip’s future aspiration for ŌPAC is to ensure access and opportunity for Pacific creatives in and around Ōtepoti. This suggests that we can expect to see more from Pip and the Pacific arts space.

The people closest to Pip share her empathy for people. My most recent recollection of Hiliako is seeing him at the Toitū te Tiriti march on Waitangi Day. There was a young child, around seven years old maybe, who wore a T-shirt that suggested he was Palestinian. He was carrying a bag of lollies and walking among the crowd, making sure to offer any other children some lollies. From a distance, I saw that as he approached Hiliako and held up his bag, Hiliako knelt down on one knee so they were eye level. I don’t know what they spoke about, but Hiliako nodded and smiled as the child explained. And I thought, I wish there was a place to celebrate the ways Pacific men are gentle and nurturing.

As well as empathy, the people in Pip’s circles share her belief that the arts and creative expression give us all the tools we need for a more empowered future for all people and their communities.

In writing this piece, I have spoken to, and mentioned the names of, many people. You might read this and ask, is this about Pip Laufiso or about all these other people in Ōtepoti? But I know that’s what Pip would want. She would want her successes to be tied to the success of others. Her work is so focused on collaboration and relationships across so many different spaces, communities, cultures and generations.

Every person I have mentioned enjoys a relationship with Pip, but also speaks of a specific time, location and community context that Pip engaged with – whether the kaupapa was social activism, advocacy for Māori, promotion of Māori and Pacific arts, education or another cause that Pip recognised needed support. Pip reflects on this approach to the arts world, a space that can often be interpreted as pretentious, extravagant and ridden with politics:

"What changes minds is relationships. If you build strong relationships, you can encourage people to engage in ideas that are new to them; it builds empathy, trust and helps address prejudices and anxiety of the unknown … The basis of my work is the bloody-minded belief that creativity and the arts are essential to humanity, human expression, human experiences. Pacific communities are carrying so much trauma and the arts are fundamental for healing and wellbeing. I have a strong belief that the arts can provide that healing."

This essay is published through our Dunedin Critical Coverage Project, formed in partnership with Ōtepoti Writers Lab and funded by the Dunedin City Council.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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