The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum (PIEAM) has opened its latest community exhibit titled Toe Fo’i: The Return, which through the medium of art preserves the memory of those lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic and explores how artists can be healers of their community during these unprecedented times.
Toe Fo’i: The Return puts into perspective for visitors the impact of COVID-19 in infection rates and death rates of Pacific Islanders.
According to the National Library of Medicine, the proportion of COVID cases and deaths to the Pacific Islander population was highest among all racial groups in 15 and 9 states.
The exhibit features work from five Pasifika artists – Melodie Bergquist-Turori, Ālaoi’a Moni Pili, Roldy Aguero Ablao, Mariquita “Micki” Davis, and Jason “JP” Pereira – that was curated by Kiki Rivera, a member of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, educator and art activist.
Rivera chose the artists because of past projects they have worked on together, specifically the Pasifika Transmissions exhibit that was up at PIEAM from May to Aug. of 2021. Their relationship with one another formed a bond that provided comfort during a difficult time and was the inspiration for the concept of this exhibit.
“We’ve formed this little community where we’re all in alignment with each other and our goals as Pasifika artists,” Rivera said. “It felt like the best team, and every time that we’re talking amongst ourselves we feel better, we know that we are the medicine that we need.”
Each piece in the exhibit tells its own story on the impact COVID-19 has had on each Pasifika artist and the overall community. The art reflects the difficulties of handling loss because of the virus, disagreements on vaccine mandates, where the community is going next, and more. Inspiration for each piece was collectively shared through story-circles that the artists and Rivera partook in earlier this year.
“We wanted to kind of address these things as artists because we’re not medical professionals as the West sees us,” Rivera said. “But I also wanted to see artists as healers, as providers, and art as medicine.”
The themes of grieving, healing, and community were a part of each piece in Toe Fo’i: The Return. Many of them also included interactive parts to the art, bringing the community into the piece, to be able to experience what the artists did in the story-circles.
On the community wall crafted by Moni Pili, visitors could write out their goodbyes to loved ones who died because of COVID on a fabric square which would later be folded into a butterfly and added to the wall.
Another piece, made by Ablao, let visitors lay among the folded paper stars that represented all the ancestors surrounding and guiding them.
For Bergquist-Turori, they were embroidering smaller pieces of fabric that resembled the tivaevae that was part of their art installation called “Pure Panapana” (which translates to “prayer of stitches”) that people could take home as a reminder of the experience.
Tivaevae is the art of quilting in the Cook Islands, and with it, there is a story. With every stick, Bergquist-Turori held onto all the stories they had heard in the story-circles.
“That’s what a tivaevae is, it holds the story, it’s not about the pattern, it’s not about the colors you choose or even the person who made it,” Bergquist-Turori said. “It’s about the story that it tells, the love that is in it because it contains the mana of the maker and the mana of the stories that go into it.”
Rivera and Bergquist-Turori encourage people to visit and experience the art for themselves. To take the time to become part of the ongoing story and part of the community space that PIEAM provides for its guests.
“When we allow ourselves time to absorb and to experience, that’s time to heal, time to participate,” Bergquist-Turori said, encouraging people to make time for the experience.
Rivera invites visitors to be part of the ongoing story at PIEAM because they think storytelling can save the world.
“It’s through storytelling with each other that we can end different conflicts,” Rivera said. “This space itself is meant to be a healing space, those especially who find themselves lost or in need of some kind of repairing or fixing of the heart.”
Toe Fo’i: The Return will be at PIEAM until August 21. For more information on hours and ticket prices visit the Pacific Island Art Museum website.