Meet Talei Si'ilata

Girl bosses who brunch is a series which seeks to celebrate the achievements of incredible Pacific women. All of my chats with the various girl bosses take place in a café and we discuss anything and everything ranging from their journey to success to how many people they pashed on the weekend (jokes, kind of). It is my hope that in sharing stories about successful women, this will inspire others to do better and be better.



Talei Si'ilata is Samoan, Fijian and Maori. At only 23 years old, she has stacked up a number of degrees from the University of Auckland. She has graduated with conjoint degrees in Music (majoring in composition) and Arts (majoring in Art History). She has also recently completed her Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Museums and Cultural Heritage and is currently studying towards her Masters degree in Museums and Cultural Heritage. Talei is writing her thesis on Symbolic Adornments of Old Polynesia, focusing on the Samoan Tuiga.

As well as studying towards her Masters, Talei works as an Arts writer for Mana magazine. She is genuinely passionate about the arts and was recently selected to be an exhibition attendant for the prestigious, world renowned Venice Biennale in Venice this year - what an incredible achievement!

Despite her busy schedule, Talei was kind enough to meet with me to have a chat about her academic journey and venturing into the world of art. Thank you Talei for sharing your story with us! 



You've got a really interesting and diverse cultural mix. As a young Samoan, Fijian, Maori woman, how does your culture have a positive impact on your life?

I was born in Samoa and lived there till the age of 5 when I moved to New Zealand with my family. We have lived in Mangere ever since. I come from a strong Christian upbringing. For me, what defines me and tells me who I really am, comes first and foremost from Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour. My faith and my family are very important to me. I was also raised in an environment where I was taught to value and celebrate my cultural heritage. Input from my parents throughout childhood meant that we were taught about the cultures we come from. Visiting or living in the lands and being immersed in the cultures we came from was also influential for me. I identify as a Pacific Islander and this informs everything that I do. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I was always a creative person and was interested in the arts even at high school, so I naturally gravitated to those areas when I started studying at university. I grew up in a very musical home, someone would always be playing a uke or a guitar. We would sing and play instruments in church as well. Both Music and Art History were two different but equally interesting creative outlets for me that I could also see future careers in.

There are a lot of people that are a bit skeptical about studying in this area because they’re afraid of potential job instability and lack of career opportunities. Was this something that you ever considered? 

This was definitely something that I was confronted with early on in my studies. As I’ve progressed I’ve come to realize that yes, studying the arts does not guarantee you a job once you’ve graduated but I don’t necessarily think that this means that there is a lack of career opportunities. I just think that the arts offer different opportunities and different kinds of career paths that may not be as ‘readily available’ as other jobs in other industries. I do think it is possible to study the arts and to have a stable job eventually but I also think it requires a lot of commitment and hard work. I don’t think that anyone who studies the arts is in it to simply have a stable 9 to 5 job, they do it because they're very passionate about it and their creativity is an integral part of who they are.



That's a really cool way of looking at it and I totally agree. You've got an amazing and an incredibly supportive family. I know that for some of our readers however, talking to their parents about pursuing a career in the creative arts might not be so easy. Do you have any advice for young Pacific people that may be struggling with parents/family members telling them that they won’t find a job or get much out of doing a degree in the arts?

The first thing I would say to them is to think very hard about whether or not you want to study and work in this industry. As with any degree, it’s a commitment so you need to be motivated enough to do it. If it is your passion and something you want to pursue then do not be discouraged by your parents or family members. Times have changed considerably and age-old beliefs that many Pasifika parents have about certain degrees or jobs being more ‘suitable’ or ‘legitimate’ than others, is outdated and simply not true. If anything, there is an increasing demand for ‘Pacific’ voices in Aotearoa’s arts sector. There is a desire to ‘diversify’ the current dialogue. Pacific people have a natural gift for creative expression which is inherent in many of our cultural practices and traditions, and this can often make for very interesting conversations/collaborations/exchanges to take place in an artistic context.

Wow, absolutely. Now I know that as well as being a recipient for the University of Auckland's Chancellor's Award Scholarship for Top Maori and Pacific Scholars, you were also selected as a recipient for the prestigious Wright Family Guggenheim Internship last year. They only select TWO art history students, right? And you were one of them! That's amazing!

I was blessed enough to be selected as a recipient in late 2015 and completed a two month internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, in January and February of 2016. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a renowned modern art museum in Italy and the internship itself offers the opportunity to gain first-hand practical experience of museum operations, familiarity with an important collection of modern art, and immerses the interns in the cultural life of the city of Venice. The experience was invaluable for me.

You must be super busy because you've also been working at Mana Magazine. How did you get into that? 

As part of my Honours, I interned as an arts writer at Mana Magazine over the inter-semester break in 2016. When my internship ended I was asked to work for them as an on going arts writer/reporter. I immediately said yes and have written an arts feature for every issue since then. I enjoy my work with Mana for a number of reasons. The main one is that I get to write about the arts in a way that privileges indigenous voices and Mātauranga Māori or a Māori worldview. This also means that I get to interview and feature indigenous artists and curators and write about interesting projects that relate to contemporary art as well as to Maori and wider-Pacific art practices.

Awesome! And now you're getting ready to go to Venice for Venice Biennale. Tell me about the Venice exhibition that you’ve been selected to attend.

New Zealand has exhibited at la Biennale di Venezia since 2001 and it has led to greater national and international profile and opportunities for all of the participating artists. This year The Arts Council of Creative New Zealand selected Lisa Reihana as New Zealand’s artist for the 57th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition is titled Lisa Reihana: Emissaries and will feature her ground-breaking work In Pursuit of Venus [infected].


Lisa Reihana, In Pursuit of Venice [infected].


As the exhibition is on show for the duration of the Biennale (from May-November 2017), Creative New Zealand selected Exhibition Attendants to oversee the exhibition during the 7 months of the Biennale. With the selection process, I first applied for the role, which was advertised by Creative New Zealand. From the initial application round I was chosen to be interviewed and was then selected as one of the Exhibition Attendants. There were over 75 applications from which 6 Exhibition Attendants were chosen.

I applied because I recognized what an amazing opportunity this was. The Venice Biennale is one of the most renowned international exhibitions of contemporary art and so the opportunity to work there and to be exposed to artists and exhibitions from all over the world was hugely appealing. I was particularly interested in the role also because I am a huge fan of Lisa Reihana’s work. As one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary Maori artists, Reihana’s work has always appealed to me as a Pacific person, because I could see her engage with indigenous narratives and histories in new and experimental ways. I also loved the idea of being able to witness our stories and arts being showcased not only in Venice or Europe, but essentially to a world-audience.

I will spend approximately six weeks in Venice and during my time there, I will be the sole representative overseeing the exhibition at Tesa dell’Isolotto on a day-to-day basis.

Congratulations and well done! Now that you've successfully gained opportunities in this field, would you encourage other young Pacific people to pursue a career in the arts? 

I absolutely believe its important for Pacific people to pursue a career in the arts. Despite the incredible and recognizable talent of our current Pacific artists and practitioners, in many ways we still are under-represented in the industry. This under representation often leads to either misrepresentation of Pacific-ness or no representation at all. In this sense the arts is a kind of ‘final frontier.’

I also believe we have a lot to contribute and to bring to the arts sector that is not currently there; our cultural experiences, whether island-born or diaspora-centered, are unique to us and in turn create unique art forms and expressions that cannot be found anywhere else. In short I believe Pacific people have the ability to revolutionize our contemporary art world.



On that note, any words of advice for young people that are considering a similar career path but aren't too sure about where to start? 

Be brave and be bold. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Know that as a Pacific person you embody cultural values and ideologies that are unique to you; you have something to bring to the table that nobody else does.

Vinaka vaka levu Talei! Wishing you all the best, cannot wait to see all the incredible things that you will continue to do.

TSW xx

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