Pac Islanders in New York to protest against Nanette Lepore and her 'Aztec' dress

Photo Credit: 
Ralph Misa Photography/Ralph Misa
Tongan writer, artist and activist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu.

FIJIANS HAVE LAID CLAIM TO DESIGN WORK; TONGAN ACVITIST VAIMOANA NIUMEITOLU WILL LEAD PROTEST

(New York City, NY)--Fijians irate over the naming of New York designer Nanette Lepore’s ‘Aztec’ dress – which they say contain Fijian masi (or tapa) designs – will have their concerns voiced in the Big Apple, during a protest being organized by Tongan writer and activist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu.

Masi – called kapa in Hawai’i, ngatu in Tonga, siapo in Samoa and hiapo in Niue –are decorative cloths made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. The strips of bark are pounded together to make one cloth; the cloth is then dried and decorated, painted and personalized in various ways utilizing motifs and patterns that are unique to each island group.

Controversy over the ‘Aztec’ dress began brewing last month when a number of Fijians blasted Lepore on her Facebook fan page, demanding that she acknowledge the designs are Fijian. The drama came after Women’s Health Magazine ran a spread on Lepore called “Passport to Style”, that features the new ‘Aztec’ dress. While the dress is called ‘Aztec’, a photo caption in the spread informs readers the designs are African. Fijians maintain they are Fijian masi designs.

“The South Pacific Islander community in New York City is very close,” Niumeitolu told tautalatala.com from Utah early this week. “I will be organizing a protest in front of her office building. Whether the whole world has heard or not, Oceania solidarity is in full force. We mean business. We are not going to be silent about this.”

The New York resident has drafted an open letter to Lepore titled “Passport to Stealing” in which she makes several requests. The letter has gained support from people around the world: in Fiji, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, Chile, Spain, Tonga, Canada, Netherlands and the Republic of Korea. An activist in West Papua has translated her letter into Indonesian, for publication.

“My goal, which is also the intent of my letter to Nanette Lepore, is to make a difference,” Niumeitolu explained. “My goal is not to condemn Nanette Lepore. My goal is to educate her. That would make a difference. I actually would love to have a conversation with her and invite her to take one of my educational workshops.”

She says there is an abundance of knowledge and education on art, culture and countries, adding that the days are long gone where one can just “pilfer another one’s art and culture and have people be silent about it.” Niumeitolu alleges the designs of the ‘Aztec Dress’ have been stolen from Fiji.

“I will not be silent in having a major international fashion designer steal designs and patterns from Fiji, especially when this knowledge is so clear for anyone and everyone,” she said. “In addition, she is generating profits from these designs and patterns that are sacred and revered. Furthermore, not only is Fiji and Fijian art not acknowledged but the information (she describes them as Aztec) is incorrect and misleading. I am here to share and stand for the truth. I am here to educate and bring awareness to those who are unaware and unfamiliar.”

The polyester dress has a Made in New York label and the manufacturer’s suggested retail price is USD$398.

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