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It seems like few neighborhoods in Brooklyn have been left untouched by gentrification, as our favorite bodegas get replaced with organic coffee shops and the like, we start to lose the stories of the people who have helped build this charismatic borough. It takes a special person to see that Brooklyn isn’t asking for saviors to come change the neighborhood, but rather, for a platform to share the stories of its people. For the last two years, Tongan artist, Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu, has honored her experience in Sunset Park, Bk, by gathering stories of women from different backgrounds and asking them, I repeat, asking them, how they want to be represented. She has used these stories to create mural portraits, under their direction, displayed across Turning Point, a non-profit “serving individuals and families in need through health, education, supportive housing, and social services.”

As a former resident of Sunset Park, the town where I grew up and where my family stills resides, seeing Moana’s work makes me proud to see the community represented in such a thoughtful and meaningful way. Moreover, her work is a blue print for other artists learning how to develop a relationship with the communities that have become their adopted homes.

Can you tell me about your background and the work that you do as an artist, educator and performer?

My name is Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitlu, and I was born in Tonga, raised in Hawaii and Utah. First and foremost, I got started just with my family, I come from a family of artists, so I’m the youngest of five and for my older sisters and parents it was always important to them. Every Sunday was my dad’s time to relax,  he had a record player [where] he’d listen to all of these records from Tongan music to Jazz, to classic rock and roll. That was just so important to him. For my mom, it was important that she taught me to read from when I was 3 years old. She just loved reading us novels, like fiction. She always just brought like crayons and all different kinds of things. She would see my eyes, how I loved it so much. Before I went to head start, kindergarten, I was coloring all the time. Since then, she always knew that I was in love with color, so I always knew I was going to be an artist. So, both of my sisters, they’re writers, poets, so literature, just the arts, were so important in our family.

So, from four to eighteen I grew up in Utah. When I was 18 I was like “I’m moving to New York, I’m going to be the artist of my dreams!” I came to Brooklyn for the first time with a $1.76 in my pocket and I already got accepted into Pratt Institute High School program, [but] I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know where I was going to stay. If I had to be homeless I would because I didn’t want to live in Utah, I wanted to live in New York. Luckily, they accepted me and gave me a place to stay in the dorms but I just fell in love with Brooklyn and growing up in Utah it was so sheltered and suffocating  for me. So, when I came to New York and saw trash on the street for the first time, I was like “I love this place!” and it was so vibrant and people screaming on the street and I was like Yes! That was my first time in New York. I was already accepted to the only women’s art school in the United States, which is the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, so my freshman year I went there and then I transferred to NYU, I was like I must live in New York. I’m so glad I did. Since then, I have been living in New York City.

 

I’m still mesmerized that it was $1.76. How did you do that?

You know, I already had my ticket and the thing was I didn’t have any money, it was my friend who drove me to the airport and she gave me a bag of change. She was like “Moana do you have any money? And I was like no. She was like “Take this, it’s all I have.” So, when I was on the plane I counted it and was like oh, it’s $1.76!

 

You didn’t eat?

I didn’t. I was like Utah I’m out of here. Just think about growing up with white republican mormons. Now Utah is so diverse, but at that time, especially where I lived, it was very white conservative. I don’t mean like the people, but the whole thinking like white supremacists. There were about 5-10 times when my family woke up to, and this is the 90’s,  people who had written “Nigger” on our driveway. Just the the racism, the patriarchy. it’s to the 100th 300th degree where it’s just normal.

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How did this project for murals at Turning point (Sunset Park, Brooklyn) form?

It wasn’t someone who came to ask me, it wasn’t someone that said I need you to paint this. It came from my commitment of telling women stories, women of color stories, immigrant women, indigenous women- families. As I told you earlier, I have been working with Ping Chong and Company for the past 15 years. So, one of the projects he does is called “Secret Histories,” it also has another title called “Undesirable Elements” and what that production is: you interview people in community and tell their stories and he puts it all in historical context. I’m one of the educators that developed that curriculum to bring it to young people. He’s done that with adults all over the world like with the Congolese community upstate, the trans community in New Orleans,  with Mexican communities that were adult survivors of sexual abuse. There are all of these amazing different communities where they tell their stories to the outside world.

So I had a theatre art residency with Ping Chong and Company and PS 94 and Greenwood cemetery to do a production of “Secret Histories “with kids, which was in Sunset Park. That was where I fell in love with Sunset Park. Listening to their stories and building relationships with them and listening to their history and all their culture, I was like I want to do a mural that honors all of this, celebrates all of this. So, I got a grant from Asian Women’s Center last year, and that was when I put it out to the community and asked them who they think should be my community partner. That’s how Turning Point, Uprose and Dedalus [foundation] became my community partners.

What is “Turning Point? and what sort of services does it offer the neighborhood?

So, we are here at the main office of Turning Point. They’re definitely a non-profit organization that serves the community. In the other building next to us, anyone who needs and wants to take a hot shower for free can, and anyone who wants free laundry can come here and do free laundry. In the basement where we are right now, is where they have clothes, free clothes. Especially if you’re going on a job interview and don’t have nice clothes or nice shoes, you can just come and get it. They serve the community in so many ways, also they have free health care, free testing, free HIV testing. They have free needles, they have various services.  They also have an education center which is further, I think of 43rd. It’s mainly for students who do not have their GED, who have not graduated High School. You can be from here, any age, or you can just be from any country and mostly they have immigrants who have come from various countries who are older, in their 40’s and 50’s and want their GED, so they go to that education center.

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Who are the women you feature on the murals?

It’s the Palestinian family, Ahmeny and her daughter, and the Chinese family, her name is Amy and her mother is featured on the wall. She said that in Chinese culture it’s bad luck if a live person is featured on a wall, so that’s why her portrait is not up there. But on the bottom of the mural are children’s drawings, so we had mural classes from February to May of this year where the children and the mothers of that classroom, and Amy was a part of it, designed the mural, created so much art for the community-it was just, these kids were amazing artists! They were drawing, coloring, every Saturday were classes. Their drawings are on the bottom of the mural.

 

What has been the reaction from the neighborhood? Do you feel you would be able to do this work anywhere else?

Yeah, you know- that is my whole commitment. It’s also why I think it’s so important; the whole world would change if there were grand scale images of women of color with their families, in their voices, how they want be seen, not how other people want to show them. That they’re not exotisized, that they’re not sexualized if they don’t want to be. I think it’s so important to have women be seen how they want to be seen and that’s why I keep saying that this is a community mural, it’s not just my take like “let me just go inside a community and do what I want on a wall.” Because I get that as an artist it’s my privilege to have the mic., to have these skills to paint people and that’s why it took me two years to do this project. I wanted to take the time to build relationships with community partners and organizations. I really took the time to talk to people, a lot of the preparation was building relationships, it was only less than 20% building the mural. most of the work was community building, listening and being like “Well how do you want to be represented? What’s important to you?”

I was like, this is where media should be. It should be on Asmaa, the 12 year old Palestinian girl featured on the wall. She’s a leader, just a total world leader. I don’t think mass media would interview a girl from Sunset Park, they could care less and would rather create stereotypes of a whole culture which is so devistating to a people. So, when I interviewed her and asked her what’s important and what’s the future look like for her, she said what is important to her is justice, she talks about how she wants to be a lawyer and wants justice for everyone. She talks about how she wants the real justice, for everyone to have it. She’s 12 years old and I’m like “Wow” of course this should be on full blast for everyone to see and also the relationship she has with her mom. It’s just the love that they have for each other, I’m like lets show that to the world. As a woman of color myself, our love and our inspiration for who we are as people isn’t celebrated in the world. For what I see growing up, what’s celebrated is how we should look like and sexualize yourself and your appearance, so I was like we’re going to celebrate people’s hearts, relationships and challenges.

Do you have any feminist ideals that find their way into your work or influence how you carry yourself?

It’s very intentional to feature women and women of color because I don’t see that. I see it less from just a woman of color’s point of view. I think our whole history of having women in art is always from a white male’s gaze. Being Tongan, sometimes when people see me for the first time, especially if they don’t know I’m Tongan, or from the South Pacific, they’re like “you look like a Gauguin painting” It’s just like, wow, that’s the only reference you have of me, from a French man’s painting. This mural was all about featuring women of color, mentoring women of color, it was very intentional to get young women of color to work with me. Because, I want other young women of color to paint us too, to tell our own story. So, that’s total feminist! I’m so proud of that, that’s like feminista all the way. Women stories, women muralists, and then of course just installing and painting the mural on the wall, it is such a powerful thing; I’ve had so many men and women come up to me and be like” Oh, I didn’t know there was a woman on the lift when I saw you”  or “That’s a woman?” And since going on the lift, I’m with men, people will automatically talk to the man and be like “That’s your art work?” and the men are like “No, it’s hers.”  I’m like “Yeah!”  And they seen me every day for hours, but i’m still invisible.

“It’s very intentional to feature women, and women of color, because I don’t see that.
I see it less from a woman of color’s POV. Our whole history of having women in art is from a white male’s gaze.”

I’m just so happy and proud to be like, as a feminist, I know this is going to happen, I’m aware this is happening and it just gives me that much more “Yes I am here! Yes we are painting this!” And also when they’re like “Why are you painting that?” Because like who is going to do it? I know other male artists in the world who don’t want to listen to women’s stories, they don’t! That’s why we live in this patriarchal world, it’s like just listen to their story! Just spend one hour listening to one girl, one muslim girl’s story, and in one hour you will have the world! So that’s how I see my feminism, as a pathway to get the world, to have the whole world be represented. I’m not just talking about heterosexual women, I’m talking about trans women, gay women-also, the feminine in men, how it can be honored and celebrated. It’s seen as something that’s weak, fragile, but I love seeing the power in it-the strength.

That’s why I come back to relationship, just how the whole knowledge and education-everything can be gotten in relationship. Because, for my father, who I identify as one of my favorite feminists; he didn’t grow up in America, he’s never gone to a feminist 101 class in college, he never graduated from college. But he got his whole schooling of feminism because he had four daughters in a country he doesn’t even know. So, for me, to go to college, come home and tell him what I’m learning and going through-so, in order for him to have the relationship he wanted; loving, let me seem daughter for who she is, my dad had to listen to me. There were many times we had arguments, many times my dad would go back to his traditional conservative ways-what he was taught, but he was willing to be like “Oh man, my youngest daughter is like telling me this and let me listen to this!” I just loved seeing my dad, his transformation and how he would therefore treat me in the world. That to me was just like wow my dad’s a badass feminist, how he would listen and get me and confirm and validate me out in the world. That’s what I think feminism is about; getting people’s voices. People who are more than half the population, but still not given our say in how we want to be seen, heard and gotten.

 

What future projects will you be working on?

Definitely more murals. I think this one’s my fifth mural. Featuring more women of color, stories, indigenous women, immigrant women, so I have another mural coming up here in Brooklyn. Performing with Mahina Movement, always just working-writing, painting, teaching- all that.

Where is your next mural? 

East New York, at an elementary school.

You’re hitting places in Brooklyn that no one ever goes to!

Yeah, that’s very intentional and that reflects myself as an artist because I know what it’s like to be invisible, especially coming from Tonga. People are like what the hell is that. Then growing up in Utah, I know how it is. That has been my experience of invisible vs. visible, known vs. unknown. That shows in my art too, like where do I want to go? Oh, I’m going to choose these places. It’s also [about] seeing structures of our world, what class has to do with it, education you know, even just languages, seeing that I have certain privileges and how I can use this to let me visibalize these people who are [invisible] including myself.