Artist and Pacific LGBTQI+ advocate Tanu Gaga’s (pictured) motivation to put his community’s needs ahead of his own, stems largely from his values upheld by his upbringing and experiences as a Pacific person, part of the diaspora in Aotearoa.
Tanu’s extensive work over the years was recognised in the New Year’s Honours, when he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM), for services to art and the LGBTIQ+ community.
The Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised artist currently also manages a queer indigenous arts collective called FAFSWAG, which mentors and supports queer interdisciplinary artists through collective practice, live events, arts development and community engagement.
It has experienced great success, and last year FAFSWAG’s interactive documentary was presented at the Pompidou in Paris; Moku Pacific HQ in London; and ImagineNative in Toronto, as well as several of the collective’s artists hosting shows around New Zealand and Australia, Tanu says.
Much of his work is fueled by advocacy for Pacific LGBTQI+ issues, specifically visibility and inclusion.
“This work, while it remains creatively satisfying is still created off the backs of people wanting more for themselves as a community of cultural and social outcasts – this is something I’m extremely proud of as a community leader and contemporary Pacific arts practitioner.”
Being named on the New Year’s Honours list is extremely flattering, but acknowledgement is not what inspires Tanu.
What does inspire him, however, is the proven resilience of Pacific people to not only survive through adversity and disparity, but to also fight for what they believe in and use every opportunity to reshape their environments to thrive, he says.
“I’ve been working long enough to understand that acknowledgements are a byproduct of doing something you’re passionate about … it is humbling, but I am not about to become the poster child for Pasifika LGBTQI+ issues as a result.
“There are so many people doing this work in ways that also should be acknowledged – the countless pioneers and everyday heroes who have been working on the ground for decades, creating the conditions that have allowed a person like me to thrive.”
Tanu was brought to New Zealand from Samoa by his adopted mother of Māori / Irish heritage, where he grew up in South Auckland.
He has lived in the area his whole life apart from when he was at 'Api Fo'ou College, in Tonga from Year 8-12; and then finished his last year of high school at Mangere College, before completing a Bachelor of Performing Screen Arts, majoring in Directing and Writing for Screen and the Stage at UNITEC NZ, in 2009.
Tanu’s first experience of community came through the Love Life Fono (LLF), a gathering for rainbow Pacific communities from around the region, in 2013.
“It was my first time as an openly gay Samoan male where I had the privilege of being surrounded by a community of people with shared lived experience and common aspirations.
“Everyone left feeling connected, present and determined to play a role in continuing to hold space for Pasifika LGBTQI+ people and the issues remain important to us.”
The year he attended he was part of an organising committee set up by the then New Zealand Aids Foundation (NZAF) Pacific Community Engagement Coordinator, a role he went on to fill, before it was dissolved in 2018, Tanu explains.
“The role has been held by many of our communities prominent leaders and so my time there often came with grand expectations but it was important to me to do things differently and really take ownership of my time there.”
During his time at NZAF, Tanu helped establish the LLF Charitable Trust with a publicly appointed governance board of young community leaders, who took on the responsibility of delivering LLF, with a holistic community-led approach, looking at ways of holding space for the community outside of an HIV prevention mandate.
“This was something our communities had expressed they wanted and something our current board remain committed to; the past two years as a board has been an invaluable growth period of learning and development and we’re excited to deliver on many of our community objectives in 2019.”
Tanu says while he did not know it at the time, his employment as a NZAF Community Engagement Coordinator and the national youth organisation RainbowYOUTH would heavily inform his advocacy for indigenous queer practice.
“This is something I have helped to pioneer in New Zealand through my creative work as an artist and as part of the collective FAFSWAG; using art to address many of our social, political and cultural issues faced as a community and as minorities.”
Tanu says the ongoing impact of colonisation permeates many of Pacific’s social and political disadvantages.
He is hopeful he can contribute in some meaningful way to levelling the playing field and transforming the social conditions which keep Pacific people disadvantaged.
“I seek to do this through advocating for the continued visibility of my Pacific LGBTQI+ community and through demonstrating creative excellence.
“I hope I can influence more queer Pacific people to share their talent and abilities, stand up for what they believe in and support them to live in their truth and experience their aspirations in life.”