Last week I asked Pou Angela Dimitrijevich about the Samoan art and identity in Los Angeles. During our interview, we spoke about how we have to navigate our lives within our families and with the outside. You can say that we all put up different guards with whomever we interact with - family, friend or stranger. Being Chinese, Samoan or any other ethnicity, you have extra walls to either break down or put up.
Looking like one ethnic group does not necessarily mean you are that culture internally or vice versa. I am a first generation Canadian-Chinese. I grew up in a Chinese household speaking Cantonese and at the same time I wandered a world very un-Chinese outside my door. I ask Pou about her heritage and how it has affected her relationship with the world outside her door.
Ophelia Chong: Your grandfather is a chief and he has the traditional Pe'a tattoo, which has history and meaning for you. What do your bring from your heritage into your art?
Pou Angela Dimitrijevich: If you ask any Samoan what three things are the most important to them, without a doubt every single one would say something along the lines of family, love and respect. These words may sound familiar, but in the eyes of my people they are so foreign from the Western definition.
Family: To Samoans family is your brother, sister, mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, neighbor and stranger.
Love: Growing up there was a saying my mom would always tell us - whenever me and my siblings would argue, it was something her dad told her as a child, and her dad's dad told him. "The oldest must love the youngest and the youngest must listen to the wisdom of the oldest."
Respect: There are about six different ways to say respect in Samoan. This in itself is unique for any culture and reiterates the importance of the act and the word to my people. What is more significant to me is the word faaaloalo - it is the respect you give to someone you meet without any kind of expectation or knowledge of who they are. It is the purest gift one can give and a topic in which I explore frequently in my work.
Reading this over it becomes clear to me, as it did when I was a little girl, that the words family, love, and respect are interchangeable to Samoans.
My grandfather, Ville Euga, is a matai in our village of Salelologa. Matais are chiefs. They play important roles in family, civic, political and religious duties. Traditionally a prerequisite to becoming a matai, was to receive your pe'a, a traditional Samoan body tattoo. It is a milestone in the life of a matai not easily undergone. A ceremonial event, the pe'a takes on average about two weeks to complete, leaving a day or two in between for the inflammation to settle . It can take twice as many people to assist in the tattooing. Women come to sing and massage the head of the man or women receiving the pe'a. While up to six understudies at a time come to prepare the various tattooing combs, mixing the dye and wiping blood away. The patterns of the pe'a vary depending on the section of the body it is covering, some line patterns represent leaves from the Pandanus tree, another is that of the leg of a golden plover, and the crisscrosses are symbolic of a starfish.
My mom describes it as a visual representation of title, respect and bravery. Matais traditionally wear their lavalava's close to their waist exposing the artistic patterns of their pe'a on their legs, thighs, back and stomach.
The values of family, love and respect are relevant in this ritual as they are in the simple basket weaving done to carry taro from one side of the land to the other.
These values and traditions I've carried into my own discipline as an artist and have embedded into the vocabulary of my art.
OC: We live in a world where stereotypes are created to help us navigate through cultures we don't know or understand - they are a mixture of preconceived notions and racism. What about the Samoan stereotype most rings false for you? What rings true?
PAD: The biggest stereotype about Samoans is that they are big people. The truth is, that Samoans are actually very tall lean people. I cannot speak for American-Samoans (those here in the state), but for those on the island, it is very uncommon to see someone who is obese. The are very fit and built. Some attribute it to eating taro every day, but I'd say a large part of it comes from being farmers and working the land, sun up to sun down.
A stereotype that I would say rings true for Samoans is that they have very large calves. Ha! I can honestly say I have not met a Samoan who does not have at least some kind of muscle in their calves.
Images: Courtesy of Pou Dimitrijevich
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.
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