Sionemaletau Falemaka is a Sydney-based Niuean weaver of some repute. He lives on the top floor of an apartment block on the fringes of Kings Cross with a myriad of interesting characters and strange sights and sounds. Falemaka has lived in the area since arriving in the 1980s from his family digs in New Zealand. He feels comfortable in the inner city and fits in with his colourful eccentricities.
I first remember meeting Falemaka back in the 1990s at the opening of an exhibition at djamu Gallery in the old Customs House building near Circular Quay. djamu, meaning ‘I am here’ in the language of the local Gadigal people, was set up by the Australian Museum to showcase the state’s Pacific and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections (approximately 85,000 objects) alongside artworks by contemporary Indigenous and Pacific artists such as John Pule, Michael Parekowhai and Yvonne Koolmatrie. In those days I was a Visitor Services Host under the leadership of Manager John Kirkman (the current Director of ICE: Information and Cultural Exchange at Parramatta).
The opening was for blak beauty, an exhibition curated by Wiradjuri artist Brook Andrew and held in conjunction with Sydney Mardi Gras. djamu hosted an array of talented artists, curators and arts administrators, including Nardi Simpson of Stiff Gins fame; Sharni Jones, former Senior Aboriginal Cultural Development Officer at Arts NSW and current Manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections at the Australian Museum; Keith Munro, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia; and Maud Page, Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the Art Gallery of NSW — those were the days.
Falemaka never featured in a djamu exhibition but sold his work through boutique stores and worked at Cooee Gallery for fifteen years. Falemaka exhibited in a host of group shows, most notably Body Pacifica at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in 2010, an exhibition produced by Leo Tanoi and run in partnership with the Australian Museum.
I initially got to know Falemaka while working as a Technical Officer with the Pacific collection at the Australian Museum (2012–2014). In 2013, under the guidance of Dion Peita, former Co-ordinator of Pacific Collections, I was tasked with acquiring works from contemporary Pacific artists living in NSW. The museum was after objects that spoke to its historically significant Pacific collections: new pieces that showed a connection to the past but acknowledged the large community of Pacific people who now called Australia home. As a weaver from Niue, living in Kings Cross, and a maker of quality objects, often from recycled materials, Falemaka’s work filled the brief. He had been on Peita’s radar since his work for Body Pacifica.
I remember being blown away by the spectacle of colour that greeted me on my first studio visit to Falemaka’s apartment. His walls were lined with an amazing array of lei (floral neck garlands) and woven panels of natural and man-made materials. A huge loom took up a quarter of his lounge room and artworks and objects filled every nook and cranny. It was a sight to behold — a visual feast. I acquired five pieces for the collection that day — three kahoa feke (Pacific style neck garlands) made from recycled buttons and semi precious beads, and two woven kete (baskets) — one hand woven from recycled 16mm film and the other similar to a Maori muka (flax fibre) kete, but this one was loom woven and incorporated emu instead of the expected kiwi feathers.
That acquisition was the start of a friendship that continues to this day. Our relationship is built on mutual respect and an understanding of what it means to be a Pacific artist living in a non-Pacific society, with all of its trials and tribulations. We work within a Pacific framework and support each other through the sharing of workshop opportunities, materials, friendship and food.
In 2014, I included Falemaka in an exhibition that I co-curated with Paul Howard at Blacktown Arts Centre (BAC) called Stitching the Sea. The exhibition focused on the storytelling traditions and narratives contained within the cultural practices and ancestral objects of the people of the Pacific. Blacktown actually has the highest population of Pacific people in NSW. The exhibition was part of a three-year Pacific strategy driven by the art centre and supported through Blacktown City Council. It was held in conjunction with Stitching Up the Sea, a performance program developed by Latai Taumoepeau, a Sydney-based Tongan punake (composer of movement, poetry and music) and BAC’s Paschal Berry.
Held in partnership with the Australian Museum, Stitching the Sea loosely wove together the work of seven artists and collectives — the Australian Cook Islands Community Group Vaine Tini, Veisinia Kami Lasalo, Julie Wharerau and Ana Walters, Angela Tiatia, Greg Semu and Seve Faleupolu Gooding. The artists were initially invited to visit the museum’s Pacific collection, engage with the objects and create new work that told stories about their experiences in Australia. One of the main aims of the exhibition was to establish and build relationships with the local Pacific community by working through PIMDAN (Pacific Islands Mt Druitt Action Network). The exhibition went on to be used by the State government in their 2015 Cultural Policy document as an example of best practice, to demonstrate how state and local organisations can work together to share resources for positive outcomes.
Falemaka’s work for Stitching the Sea consisted of three beautifully woven coiled discs of varying sizes, fringed with feathers and clustered together on a wall in front of another work titled The House of Plenty. This artwork featured four woven panels made from 16mm–35mm film suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. The suspended panels made up an ethereally suggestive ancestral spirit house. Inside the structure was an array of decorations made from multi-coloured plastic tubing, yellow packing tape and film strips taken from a film featuring Native Americans. The audience was invited to enter the space, sit on one of two yellow woven stools and contemplate, maybe even give thanks for all they have — an important concept in Pacific culture. For Falemaka, weaving is not only a way of staying connected to culture but an important part of keeping well and healthy. As with all things in Pacific culture, Falemaka’s work is imbued with important protocols at every stage of the process that help maintain the balance between all things, people, their environment and the universe.
Falemaka is currently represented by Stanley Street Gallery in Darlinghurst and his work is held in the collections of the Museum of Applied Art and Science in Sydney and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Yet, in all his years of living in Australia, he has never featured in any high profile Pacific Art events, such as the Asia Pacific Triennial, nor has he ever been assisted by funding from either State or Federal arts funding bodies. In fact, the very system set up to assist him seems beyond his ability to access. It is a system that privileges a way of thinking and requires an understanding of the language used and a grasp of concepts that go against the grain of many people’s cultures. The system encompasses a particular worldview that privileges the written word over oral traditions, marginalising a large section of society that struggles to have its voice heard.
Falemaka is the host with the most, generous to a fault and humble beyond reproach. His humility, compounded by the inability to self-promote or push himself ahead of others, makes him who he is. Being Pacific is actually that: a way of being, of knowing and relating to the world that differs from the dominant culture of the society we live in. So the cards may seem stacked against Sionemaletau Falemaka, but still he persists to create beauty in the world around him. It seems that, only through the voice of others, a light can be shone on his — but still he persists.