Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

An Oceanic Imagination: A Tribute to the Life and Mind of 'Epeli Hau'ofa

Symposium, Wednesday 21 October, 2009

In October 2009 at Otago University the Division of Humanities Pacific Research Cluster held a highly successful symposium entitled ‘An Oceanic Imagination: A Tribute to the Life and Mind of ‘Epeli Hau’ofa’.  

About the presentation aimed at giving a flavour of the symposium

Papers presented included a range of themes such as ‘A Tribute to our Oceanian ‘Epeli Hau’ofa’; ‘From Tales of the Tikongs to a Sea of Islands’, ‘Epeli and my life as an artist’ and 'Visions of building Pacific representations through the arts'. Each of the speakers has provided a copy of their paper and it is intended that a joint publication with the Oceanic Centre at the University of the South Pacific will be completed soon.

For all those who participated as well as others with a love for and interest in ‘Epeli, this on-line presentation will give a flavour of the day. Included on this page are some of the presentations, as well as the art work, and poetry presented in the evening.

The presentations are linked with sections of a paper written by Dr Greg Burnett who beautifully summed up the day with his paper ‘Epeli Hau’ofa: Resisting the deadly discourses that bind’. Dr Burnett's paper will be produced fully in the written manuscript but much of the intent is here.

^ Top of Page

Presenters and Participants

The one-day symposium included presentations from key Pacific researchers and artists:

  • Associate Professor Ropate Qalo, Sociology Department, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
  • Mr. Josaia McNamara, Artist, Oceanic Centre of Arts and Culture, University of the South Pacific, Suva
  • Ms Karlo Mila-Schaaf, Performance Poet
  • Associate Professor Judy Bennett, History Department, University of Otago
  • Dr Ian Frazer
  • Dr Steve Ratuva, Pacific Studies, University of Auckland
  • Ema Tavola, Pacific Arts Coordinator, Manukau City Counci
  • Luisa Tora, Activist/Writer

There was active participation from members of the research cluster (Professor Paul Tapsell, Drs Greg Rawlings and Greg Burnett) who participated as facilitators and provided summaries of the panels, as well as students, members of the public and staff from a wide variety of University departments. Members of the Tongan and Fijian communities from both Otago University and the wider Dunedin area were fully involved with the smooth running of the day, preparations and the evening dinner and performances. The symposium also attracted visitors from Lincoln and Massey universities.

^ Top of Page

Photos from the Symposium


^ Top of Page

The beginning of the presentation aimed at giving a flavour of the symposium


Opening remarks: Jenny Bryant-Tokalau and Patrick Vakaoti (PDF, 456 KB)

Greg Dening might say Epeli lived his life “on the beach” (Dening, 2004) that unique liminal space of Pacific exchange. The beach is Dening’s metaphor for crossings of all sorts: physical, cultural, linguistic, social and disciplinary among others. It is the place where difference meets difference, where sea meets land and where locals meet strangers. We could all do with spending more time on the beach – educators particularly. At the very least this collection of essays serves as an encouragement for all of us with Pacific research interests and maybe more importantly those with Pacific roots and routes to weave Epeli’s ideas into how we see the Pacific world and beyond. Also for those of us who teach it is important to introduce him to our students as they develop their thinking about the Pacific. The timely publication of We Are the Ocean (Hau’ofa, 2008), less than 12 months before his passing, containing extracts from many of Epeli’s original works – including his satire has made this easier (Burnett, 2009: 7).


Burnett, G. (2009) ‘Epeli Hau’ofa: Resisting the deadly discourses that bind’. Conclusion, Pacific Research Cluster Symposium: An Oceanic Imagination: A Tribute to the Life and Mind of ‘Epeli Hau’ofa, October 21st, 2009

Dening, G. (2004) Beach Crossings: Voyaging Across Times, Cultures and Self, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.

Hau'ofa, E. (2008) We Are The Ocean: Selected Writings. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.

^ Top of Page

Remembering ‘Epeli’ Poem - Ropate Qalo (PDF, 48 KB)

Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies

This centre originally for visual and performing arts and established in 1997 under Epeli’s leadership is no doubt his most visible project. Originally an old New Zealand Air Force building and then a staff residence on the USP campus it underwent a radical conversion to accommodate Pacific artists. Josaia McNamara describes its architectural style reflecting “the movement of the waves” in turn reflecting Epeli’s life itself. Consistent with Epeli’s view of Pacific sociality its aims have always been to not just retain unique Pacific cultural artistic roots but to encourage adaptation and engage with contemporary change (Burnett, 2009: 6).

‘Epeli and my life as an artist: a tribute to Epeli Hau’ofa - Josaia McNamara (PDF, 4.2 MB)

^ Top of Page

Part Two: ‘From Tales of the Tikongs to a Sea of Islands’

The ocean is within us, suggestive of fluidity and capacity to change and, as Karlo Mila-Schaaf suggests, thus challenges the widely held land-based sense of identity grounded in fenua/whenua/vanua. Current challenges faced by many in the region would seem to affirm such a sense of the collective self. Kiribati President Anote Tong (2008) for example, recently suggested that the only answer now to increasing environmental fragility in the atoll Pacific is migration - like Nei Nimanoa from oral tradition perhaps. Epeli argues this is something Pacific people have always done (Burnett, 2009:3).

'Epeli Hau'ofa: The Magical Metaphor Man' - Karlo Mila-Schaaf, with poem (PDF, 128 KB)

^ Top of Page

[‘Epeli] himself was as Steve Ratuva suggests a “syncretic man” - a combination of reality and cosmology; critique and conformity; humour and seriousness; arts and farts; sensitivity and ignorance. There is a set of seemingly oppositional characteristics here required for global citizenship, reminiscent of Delors' (1996) challenge to formal schooling to seek balance between the local and the global; the material and the spiritual; the universal and the individual; the traditional and the modern and so on (Burnett, 2009:2) . . .

Epeli possessed a rare sense of humour in the serious business of academe. As mentioned earlier where his contemporaries mixed poetry and sometimes art with their academic writing he mixed scatological satire. He also mixed his insightful Pacific social analysis with, as Steve Ratuva suggests, an off beat persona - coming to lectures at the University of the South Pacific wearing an old lavalava and smoking a pipe. He seemed unperturbed by the amused reactions of students who wondered aloud whether it was always the same lavalava or did he have a dozen identical ones. He seemed equally unperturbed by academic colleagues who dressed more conservatively. Steve also pointed out the seeming ridiculousness of a man who could not dance, could not paint or could not carve establishing and then overseeing the growth of what has since become a world class centre for developing and showcasing Pacific artistic expression - the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture (Burnett, 2009: 5).

‘Epeli – the man… the myth… martyr… the mana’ - Steve Ratuva (PDF, 680 KB)

^ Top of Page

Part Three: ‘Visions of building Pacific representations through the arts’

Most recently the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies has absorbed the previously separate USP academic programme for Pacific Studies. Ema Tavola and Luisa Tora affirm the extent of the Centre’s influence on them as female visual artists who have spent time at the centre but are now situated in New Zealand. Both Epeli and the Centre have influenced their work greatly, evident in the Fresh Gallery Otara in South Auckland – containing a wide range of art grown from the Centre. It is art that challenges popular images of both the Pacific region and also Pasifika in New Zealand (Burnett, 2009: 6).

Life is a beach

. . . ‘inclusivity’ and ‘expansiveness’ run like red threads through Epeli’s life, his work and for most of us now his writing. This inclusivity and expansiveness are also demonstrated by the diversity of those who have contributed to this collection of papers on his life and are reflective also of others who comprise his diverse readership: a combination of those who knew him personally and those who have only met him through his text; Pacific and non-Pacific people; those who are Pacific region based and those rim-based in NZ; the funny and the serious; across disciplinary boundaries such as sociology, anthropology; politics; development studies; history, and the visual and performing arts. The site of the symposium, the University of Otago in the deep Scottish heritage south of New Zealand, also speaks of how widely his ideas have been embraced.

With extracts throughout from:

  • ‘Epeli Hau’ofa: Resisting the deadly discourses that bind’ - Greg Burnett