The Pacific female physique: the manifested and the mystified

Observations inspired by the Leilani Kake exhibition ‘Ngā Hau E Whā’
Coco Solid

The female body would have to be one of the most inspiring, complex and ever-evolving creations there ever was.

Speaking frankly as the occupant of one, at times the female body can feel burdensome, judged, and plagued with incessant cruel expectation too. The outside world wants to enjoy the female body, but too often to control and exploit it as an idea for its own gain.  When you get into the realms of hosting an ‘alternative’ to the western ideal (for example the Polynesian physique and idealogy) you don’t view your own female form in a simple way. Outside of our own politic, our cultural-friendly beauty paradigms and the odd celebration (and misguided fetish) we are often stoic exiles, mystified and maternalised without even making a move. The western idea reads us as child-bearing from birth, physical labourers, survivors and disarmingly dominant without even asking if this is true. And these aren’t exactly the principles celebrated on the cover of Cosmo are they.

For many Pacific women, (you know, those mysterious stacked dusky maidens subject to violent colonisation or sluggish immigration) outside of our smaller networks that appreciate and understand our context physically, this creates a paradox. On one hand history and mythology will remind her she is sacred. The earth mother of infinite power and regality, the provider that has saved and guided so many, the inspiration of legend that has driven men to greater highs and lows then his Gods and his land combined. On the other hand, she is reminded she is irrelevant in today’s world. She is an outsider and represented as such. She is out of context. At her most disempowered she is taboo. At her most reviled and oppressed, she is unattractive. And to me this has always been one of the biggest representation battles both minority cultures and women face.

It is only natural that a conflicted response from the outside world will create a conflicted self-image. The riddle of why many Pacific women do not address their sexuality, sexual health and feminine/feminist social identity with the liberated gusto of their western sisters, reveals itself as not much of a riddle at all.

I went to Fresh Gallery Otara and when I walked around an unknowing corner I stepped into what felt like a pitch black chamber. My ears were slowly greeted with a haunting tauparapara (chant) and an earthy rumble from what felt like below. I found myself in the heart of Leilani Kake’s exhibition Ngā Hau E Whā. I looked around in the darkness and on all 4 sides of me were four large projections of women suspended in water, all blue and from four very different walks of the physical female form and cycle. It was good to know that a woman, Leilani Kake, had assembled these figures with a multitude of positive intentions in mind. As the exhibition name suggests like the four winds, the four elements, the mini-room was rich in both visual symmetry and paradox.

There were different shapes, ages and realities within the four walls which I won’t describe at length because I want a wide range of people and perspectives to see them for themselves.

What I will say is that regardless of the state, connotation and deeper message underpinning each body, I felt liberated just seeing them. The images were slightly obscured, the picture clarity made all the more powerful by the fact visually these women weren’t pornographically indulgent. I felt free from activating my pop-cultural brain which all too-often enslaves me – I was just faced with visual facts and representations I knew were honest and heartfelt. I was also happy to see images that were my more closely aligned to my own physical tapestry then the ones I am constantly fed.

Personally I think work of this kaupapa is effective and always neccessary. When you take into account the more mainstream mediums don’t usually afford the Pacific and indigenous woman all that much, this exhibition was a rare moment of clarity and much needed self-esteem for the people Kake actively aims to empower.


Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds

The taboo black box sits in Fresh Gallery Otara like an elephant in the room. This intriguing exhibition draws you into its intimate dark hole that immediately envelops one as you enter. Wha was not exposed is soon unashamedly gleaming. Confronted with the starkness of nude female bodies one must find direction deciding on what and where to begin. An orientation process that I find interesting as the bodies are juxtaposed as if cardinal points of nautical celestial bodies.

The taboo of Pacific women’s body is unashamedly portrayed as ‘real’. Stages of a woman’s life are suggested by the manicured bikini line to the pregnant belly to the voluptuous form of motherhood. The film work does not attempt to guise the smile or the eyes of awkwardness in production. This is real – this is the Pacific womens’ body as never seen quite like this before. The exhibition certainly breaks the taboo of Pacific nudity and opens a discussion of why?

The why one must certainly contemplate and understand that the ‘elephant’ message is immersed in the art. I see bodies floating in an ephemeral and shifting state telling us that human life is just as delicate. I see the splendour of four common ladies urging message of exposure and ‘if I can do it you can too’ motto. It is this mixture of courage and feminine fragility that beckons one to answer the why for themselves.

Charmaine ‘Ilaiu-Talei
20 March 2011


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