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Va tagata

Written by Susana Lei'ataua, Founder and Director of Onehunga Gallery


We arrive into a shared space. Sit in front of invisible pou, bright morning sunlight memorializing silhouetted edges of a fale. Lounge furniture is backed up against the walls of a rectangled living room. Ula-draped photos of family, sports teams, choirs, da Vinci’s The Last Supper, white net curtains blowing across open windows. Every place we have ever sat in this way, is also here. Va tagata.

We come together and sit in the space that has been named, Mana Moana. Our seating physicalizes our understandings that inevitably expand because we are together. The understandings of our self, of each other, of worlds both shared and singular, of families and familial connections; of the unknown so that it becomes known, and so that it becomes even more unknown. And these multiple understandings are simultaneous. Some of this we are aware of, even hyper-aware of. Some of it we are oblivious to.

Each day of this retreat we welcome a stream of guests — we know their names and meet either for the first time or as reunion. How they sit in this space is as insightful as what is said, as what is shared.

How does this experience continue when we no longer have this physical immediacy, where I lean into the person next to me and whisper about the bird thoughts soaring through my mind; where eye contact streams millions of words that will never make a sound, and looking down gives a quiet place for listening?

My cousin is here. She and I meet in the first minutes of the first Mana Moana retreat and confirm our gafa on the bus ride home from its launch. Here at the fourth retreat, we speak with each other va nofo, va fealoa'i — our specific relational understandings that cherish protocols, boundaries, knowing where we sit with each other, privileging the space between us.

As a word, relationship feels too succinct, lacking movement, too one-size-fits-all. I choose not to use it here. Like the English translation of va is space. Correct, like the top button done up and inevitably too tight.

My cousin and I embody va nofo and va fealoa'i. Our grandfathers were brothers. Context is literal and metaphorical, physical and metaphysical. I think about Utuagiagi and the layout of the fale in Salua. Where they lived, and where we live in relationship to each other now. The traffic from West to South Auckland that we’ll wade through the next time we sit together. The plastic pollution in the ocean from here to there and back again, the government's Pacific reset, the waiting list of thousands for hundreds of places in this year’s quota for Samoans. The homes that are full and the homes that are missing; with food and without, with heat and without. The academic and sporting highs and lows, the babies born, the funerals for the long and too-short lives, the art and the beauty, despite and because of it all.

Va is vast. Nothing leaves. I ask about this when we are together, and continue to realise it since, this feeling of sensing. Va tagata is us, where and how we sit, constantly defining and determining this knowing.