A pinnacle avenue for Pacific culture learning and education

The students of Oceania Arts and Cultural Centre John Bainivalu (left), Alfred Inia, Demetria Tawake and Julia Kuruyawa with one of the wood carving displayed at USP. Picture: RAMA

THE Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture (OCAC or The Oceania Centre) is one of the pinnacle avenues for Pacific culture learning and education in the region.

Established in 1996 as a special project of the University of the South Pacific (USP) Council, it has come a long way and has continued to promote what pacific has best to offer for students enrolled.

In this week’s Pont of Origin column, we look at the significance of the centre and how it has continued to mould and enrich people over the years.

Currently, the centre is headed by director Dr Frances Vakauta, who has had a lot of experience under her name.

Dr Vakauta took up the role of director last year.

“I started in USP in 1998 through the School of Education. So my main area of works is school curriculum but a lot of work I have been doing involves art, culture and heritage through the education lens,” Dr Vakauta said.

“I held the position of acting director after the death of late Professor Epeli Hau’ofa in 2009. And now I have come back as the substantive director.”

She said the centre was looking at creating high standards in pacific art. Dr Vakauta said members of the centre had attended and performed at various international festivals and events since the its inception.

“The various sections of the Oceania Centre include Pacific Studies academic programs, The Pacific Heritage Hub, Arts training and development and the Pacific Outreach Program,” she said.

“In Pacific Studies, two new programs will be on offer in 2019 . Bachelor of Arts in Pacific Studies, Heritage and the Arts and Professional Certificate in Heritage Management. Other programs on offer include Postgraduate Diploma in Pacific Studies, Masters and PhD.

“The Pacific Heritage Hub (PHH) began as a UNESCO facility housed at USP within the Faculty of Arts, Law and Education. As of 2018, it is integrated into the work at the Oceania Centre. PHH is a knowledge creation and management institute that focuses on both cultural and natural heritage. The idea is to work with other sections within the university to strengthen our efforts towards safeguarding Pacific heritage.”

She said the arts training and development program began in 1998 with a visual arts program and later in the early 2000s dance and music were introduced.

“The centre offers a non-formal education training and development program in dance, music and visual arts for students and other young new and emerging artists through an ‘artist in residency’ program,” she said.

“The Pacific outreach program was established in 2011 and includes two established positions that are based in the region. These are the Polynesia outreach co-ordinator position, previously based at the Alafua campus in Samoa and the Melanesia outreach co-ordinator based at the Honiara campus in Solomon Islands. The intention is to provide a similar arrangement for Micronesia as well.”

She said since 2002, the centre had staged numerous dance and music productions under the creative direction of the late Tuilagi Seiuli Allan Alo who was the university’s first choreographer.

“In 2011, Peter Rockford Espiritu took over this role when Allan relocated to Samoa as the center’s Polynesia Outreach Co-ordinator. Since 2012, Peter Espiritu and Tuilagi Igelese Ete, Head of Performing Arts took on this role,” she said.

“Centre artists have engaged in many regional and international tours and events. A few examples include the opening of the ACP leaders’ summit in Johannesburg, 2002; “A Love for Life” stage production Pacific performances at the Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa and in Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and Tonga (2008-2010), “Drua — The Wave of Fire”, Pacific Festival of Arts, 2012 and, “Moana — The Rising of the Sea”, Europe Tour, 2015.”

She added there were about 40 artists involved in the “trainee artist in residence” program.

“They are attached to the Oceania Dance Theatre (Dance Group), Pasifika Voices (Choir) and Oceania Visual Artists,” she said.

“I am also happy to announce that as of 2019, the centre’s Pacific Studies program will offer for the first time a BA Major in Pacific Studies, Heritage and the Arts enabling higher education pathways in Heritage Studies, Visual Arts, Dance and Music and Expressive Arts as a teaching subject in Teacher Education.

“We will also offer the Professional Certificate in Heritage Management for Culture and Environment Sector practitioners. These new programs complement existing postgraduate and graduate research programs on offer.

“The artist residency program, a non-formal training and development initiative established by Epeli in 1998 continues today with residencies in Dance, Music and Visual Arts. And, we are looking at certificated campus-based short-course programs in the islands as the next step to add on to the social art classes held at Laucala.

“These art classes cater for all ages and levels from beginner level. So, we are moving and contributing to grow and strengthen our cultural and creative industries in the hope that we can make a difference through our efforts in heritage work and the arts. It is particularly significant that the Pacific Heritage Hub, which was set up as a UNESCO project has this year been integrated as a section within the centre.”

She said sadly, the arts were not well understood or appreciated in the islands and artists who would like to earn a sustainable livelihood from their creative works struggle to make ends meet.

“The irony of this is that there is an abundance of natural creativity and talent in our islands which present untapped opportunities for our young people. Globally, the creative industries are said to be fast growing economies but in the Pacific, we do not have systems in place that support their growth.

“This coupled with the lack of political will, limited investment and resources and untrained sector practitioners makes for very weak cultural economies and creative industries. But, things are changing. The Regional Cultural Strategy as well as national efforts is slowly raising awareness about the untapped potential that exists.

“I am proud to say that the Oceania Centre has contributed to creating this awareness. Just last week, I visited the Solomon Islands National Gallery and was proud to find that the curator and assistant curator had both spent time in residency at the centre.

“Similarly, an Oceania Centre alumni has managed the Red Wave Visual Artists collective in Vanuatu since he returned home over 15 years ago.

“In Fiji, we see center dance alumni managing their own dance companies and we would like to see similar ripples in our other member countries as well.”

Whatever the cause is , the centre has and would continue to do what it is best known for, Dr Vakauta said.

The centre has won enormous recognition and will soon be receiving an award together with University of St Andrew of Scotland for their work carried out in arts, culture and pacific studies.