Language, Art History

(Un)seen: Rotuman Fạ’i

Dorell Ben

Dec 27, 2023

The Oceanic cultural tattoo marks lineages and memories that have had a tenebrous history with colonialism and Western contact. As a visual language, our tattoos are written on skins and connect people holistically to our cultures. Much of these cultural marks that once graced the bodies of Indigenous Oceanians have come to be termed, as many Western anthropologists and ethnographers have labelled, “done for, dying out or decaying,” separating its holistic practice in culture. My research addresses the error in these ideologies and proposes that the cultural tattoos of great Indigenous civilizations merely retreated into an unseen cultural space—a bodily language that connects the spirit to the physical world.

In my heritage Rotuma, the world is split into two parts: First, the Rȧn Te‘Isi, which is this material and physical world we are in; second is the unseen world where the ancestors go to rest, the ‘Oroi ta. This unseen region is located on parts of the hanua (Rotuman homeland) and just at the ocean horizon. There are different names given to the ‘Oroi depending on a person’s district. Rotuma is a small island that came to be under British governance of Fiji in 1881. It consists of seven districts, and is a site of many Oceanic cultural exchanges, from the old Maohi Kingdom, to Samoa, Tonga, Uvea and Futuna, Tuvalu, and Fiji. Rotuma entered Western history via Tahitian navigator Tupaia’s map in 1769 through Captain James Cook. Two years later, it was described as Granville Island by Captain Edward Edwards of the HMS Pandora. 

“Tupaia’s Map,” Wikicommons.

Rotuman mythology recalls that our first inhabitants were from Samoa, led by the chief Raho, and later Tongan settlers with the Tongan chief Tokaniua. Historically, we know that Christianity was imposed around the mid-19th century, first with Wesleyan missionaries in 1841 and then Roman Catholic missionaries in 1847. A conflict between groups to convert Rotumans to Christianity broke out into war in 1878; the Wesleyan victors converted the majority of the Rotuman population to their Christian doctrines. 

The fading of our Rotuman cultural tattoo, the fạ’i, is best understood within these contexts of Western imperialism and conversion. Traditionally, the cultural practice of the fạ’i undergoes several ceremonial rites. The Majạu ne Fạ’i (cultural tattooist) marks out the cultural patterns, proceeds with the fạ’i, then engages with several post-ceremonial rituals: covering with mena (turmeric) and a hapagsū. The Wesleyan missionaries, unsurprisingly, found the use of mena contrary to their rituals, and therefore labelled it offensive. Reverend William Fletcher of the Wesleyan mission believed dismissively that mena marked those Rotumans of “the heathen part of the village. His efforts to remove these practices were often compared to the Catholics by his successor Reverend John Osbourne, who pointed out that “Roman Catholicism in Rotumah is really no better than heathenism. 

“Natives from Rotuma Island” Lejeune, Chazal and Ambroise Tardieu 1826/1830. Extract from Voyage autour du monde exécuté par ordre du roi sur la corvette de S.M. "la Coquille," pendant les années 1822, 1823, 1824 et 1825.

Although Christian missionaries executed their strong belief system among Rotumans, Rotuman practice alongside Christian belief is what Historian Alan Howard terms religious “imaginings”: “an experiential universe inhabited by supernatural or mysterious entities. (Re)awakening this visual language insists on this acceptance of the spiritual body being marked in the ‘Oroi and awaiting physical bodies of today to reveal these sleeping marks. I propose that our temamfua (ancestors) who have gone to the ‘Oroi ta are the same temamfua we as Rotumans connect through various cultural practices, including the tattoo. The ‘Oroi ta is a collective cultural consciousness of all Rotuman practices, and with the decline of the fạ’i, these cultural patterns retreated into the ‘Oroi ta, existing in this “unseen region.” The fạ’i, then, exists in the unseen and this is often labelled as having disappeared from Rotuman practice, but is in fact, an enduring form of Indigenous presence and resistance.

We can see this disappearance narrative used today, when in 2015 the United Nations claimed that Rotuman is an endangered language and culture, sparking an innovation to cultural practices through language revival, cultural dances, exhibitions, and literary texts. My contribution to this large nexus is exploring the fạ’i through literary and visual artforms to draw attention to the fact that although the tattoo may seem concealed, its existence resides in the ‘Oroi, with the temamfua (ancestors). 

Additionally, there is the sense that art exists in the potential to draw out memories from the ‘Oroi, tapping into the cultural consciousness and revealing the seemingly “unseen” through tattoo, its motifs, and its patterns. In a virtual workshop led by Doctors Laura Castro, Diti Battacharya, Kaya Barry and Professor Barbara Pini on “geography and memories through art,” which led to a publication, art is a “catalyst for geographical dialogue and possibility.  

In an attempt to bring the fạ’i to the Rȧn Te‘isi (physical world), I explored the Samoan vā, a concept linked to the Samoan tatau (tattoo) by Albert Wendt who described the phenomenon as an interconnected space. Vā is considerably like the Rotuman cultural consciousness of the ‘Oroi. I suggested that “[b]y locating tattoo motifs within vā, Oceanian artists are able to use tattoo art as a way of decolonising their bodies and reconnecting Indigenous Oceanians to their histories and memories. But for Rotumans to do so, the cultural artform must first find its way to being presented in various spaces and places to instigate this dialogue. 

Among my own artistic explorations into the ‘Oroi, I started writing literary texts that speak of the fạ’i as a common cultural practice and used many tattoo charts to present the types of motifs belonging to Rotuma. The purpose of using these forms of art insinuates the cultural tattoo is a contemporary norm, despite the colonial imprisonment of its cultural entity. For Rotumans to read the cultural tattoo, we must first learn of its existence in the nuances of everyday life: in our stories and visual connections to identities. To give and be of service for something greater than ourselves celebrates an infinite contribution to the evolution of culture, one that is not limited by colonial boundaries. 

In two short stories, “He” and “Tautoga ne Tu’ura,” I discuss Rotuman mythology and histories of the culture’s holistic practice. These encapsulate the relationship Rotumans have between the Rȧn Te‘isi and ‘Oroi ta through the fạ’i, “they represent me and my hanua. The short stories invite ideas of healing through the fạ’i, by shedding the colonial traumas, and engaging in hapagsū, our Indigenous bodies reclaim our indigenous identities: “Tu’ura bids the marks be struck, giving to the majạu the seeds of si’esi and hefau […]A call to healing, as Tu’ura performs hapagsū. Irrevocably bolstering body to spirit, sit the pepvaë and the sunu. 

Written descriptions of the ‘Oroi always fall short, however, especially when it comes to the fạ’i. Unfortunately, not many images of the historic fạ’i exist to satiate the curiosity. Images in circulation of the Rotuman tattoo are from Stanley Gardiner’s ethnographical texts and Jules LeJeune’s sketch of tattooed Rotumans from the 1800s. These images position the tattoo in a colonial framework as a thing of the past.

To counteract these colonial representations I created the series “Indigenous Organ,” in which the fạ’i lingers in the bodies of every Rotuman in the unseen regions of our ancestral bloodlines. The Indigenous organs reclaim the Indigenous body and its narratives through the fạ’i. This series celebrates the cultural identities of Rotuman culture, expressing connections to the cultural consciousness in the ‘Oroi. It is a visual ode to the (un)seen fạ’i.

Quick Glossary

Fạ’i: Rotuman tattoo 

Hanua: Homeland, place of home 

Hapagsū: Sacred ritual performed when blood has been shed. 

Hefau: callophylum

Majạu: Skilled master

Majạu ne Fạ’i: Cultural Tattoo Master

Mena: Turmeric

Pepvaë: tattoo marks in a repetitive pattern 

Si’esi: Candlenut Seed

Sunu: tattoo marks in a repetitive pattern 

Tatau: Samoan, Cultural tattoo 

Temamfua: ancestors

Tu’ura: Human spirit that occupies an animal

1

“Tupaia’s Map," Professur Anglophone literature und Kulturen außerhalb GB & USA, https://www.uni-potsdam.de/en/iaa-alc/tupaias-map, last updated 2023.

2

René Primavere Lesson, 1829, Voyage Médical Autour du Monde Exécuté sur la Corvette du Roi La Coquille, Commandée par M.L.I. Duperrey Pendant les Années 1822,1823, 1824 et 1825. Paris: Roret Librairie, pp. 412-439. https://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/Lesson.html

3

Reverend William Fletcher in Alan Howard & Jan Rensel, 2007, “The Missionary Experience,” Island Legacy: A History of Rotuman People. Canada: Trafford Publishing, 143.

4

Ibid. 148.

5

Ibid. 135.

6

Alan Howard, 1992 “Symbols of Power and Politics of Impotence: The Molmahao Rebellion on Rotuma,” Pacific Studies, 15(4): 83-116, https://www.hawaii.edu/oceanic/rotuma/os/ArtCrafts.html.

7

Siteri Sauvakacolo, 2015 “Rotuman Culture on UN Endangered List," Fiji Times, 8 May, https://fijitimes.com/rotuman-culture-on-un-endangered-list/.

8

Laura Rodriguez Castro et al, 2022, “Editorial introduction: geography and collective memories through art," Australian Geographer, 54:1, DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2022.2052556

9

Albert Wendt, 1999, “Afterword: Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body.” Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, And Identity in the New Pacific, edited by V. Hereniko, 15–29. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

10

Dorell Ben, 2022, in Editorial introduction: geography and collective memories through art," Australian Geographer, 6.

11

Dorell Ben, 2022, “He," Synkrētic Journal, Issue 3, 73-78. https://www.synkretic.com/issues/he

12

Dorell Ben, 2023, “Tautoga ne Tu’ura: Dance of Tu’ura," Overland Journal, Issue 252, Spring, 75.

13

“Natives from Rotuman Island," 1830, Jules LeJeune, extracted from Extract from Voyage autour du monde exécuté par ordre du roi sur la corvette de S.M. "la Coquille," pendant les années 1822, 1823, 1824 et 1825. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/natives-from-rotuma-island-lejeune-chazal-and-ambroise-tardieu/jgEhVmve1DihiQ; Stanley Gardiner, 1898, “Natives of Rotuma," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 27, pp. 457-524. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2842839

Dorell Ben is a Rotuman-Gujarati woman from Fiji, currently pursuing a doctorate in reawakening oceanic women's cultural tattoos through an art praxis. Ben's interests vary across interdisciplinary aspects of Indigenous knowledge systems, narratives, and liminal identities.

Language, Essay

Asking for Permission/Listening for Consent

Anthony Romero

Dec 18, 2023
In this personal essay, artist, cultural organizer, and educator Anthony Romero reflects on the people in his community who work to revive the Coahuiltecan language in good relations with the land and its human and nonhuman kin.

Correction*, Essay

every pattern needs a passage

Sarah Biscarra Dilley

May 30, 2024
In this essay, co-published in the Spring 2024 edition of Post/doc by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, Director of Indigenous Programs & Relationality Sarah Biscarra Dilley (yaktitʸutitʸu yaktiłhini) explores modes of generational, matrilineal knowing that permeate our perceptions of “correct” ways of being in the world.