Island Style: Dancing the Pacific

uv.nlnz.PUBL-0073-128A circle of seated women, their arms raised in a dance. They are watched by French sailors and others travelling on the French vessel Zelee under Captain Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville. Marquesas Islands, between 1837-1840.

uv.nlnz.1.2-038100-FTurn of the century : Well-clad and hatted women and men performing a dance under trees in the Cook Islands, 1900.


Dancers in traditional dress at Banaba, Kiribati. Circa 1906.

These images are from the Alexander Turnbull Library at the National Library of New Zealand exhibition, Island Style: Dancing the Pacific.

The exhibition draws on the rich collections of images, words and sound held at the Library and celebrates dance traditions as a vibrant expression of Pacific cultures.

The exhibition views dance mainly from the perspective of outside observers – people such as travellers, academics and tourists. From early as the 1700s to recent times.

From the Fijian meke to Samoan siva through to the Tokelauan fatele, the exhibition provides a unique view into traditional dance practices in the Pacific region.

Some of the images in the exhibition are available online on the National Library of New Zealand website here.

Online archival collection of images like the one on National Library of New Zealand’s  website reunites the material with the place and community it came from.

How do we as Pacific Islanders depicted in these archival images construct our own history around the memories that are still available?

Or as in my case, memories that don’t belong to me but I can relate to, as it’s in my blood.

As a family historian I have come to remember dates, names, places, ships. My white, Mestizo (‘manila man’), Chinese ancestors arrived in Fiji as early as 1809 and right up to the 1940s.

Their story/my history is written down and documented but never captured in image. And by ‘their’ I really mean only my white ancestors.

On my ‘to read’ list is the manuscript of  Dumont d’Urville, captain of the Zeelee from the first image. Dumont d’Urville was in Fiji in 1838 and had sent a troop of marines to destroy a village on the island of Viwa. In 1834, chief Namisomalua’s nephew had captured the French ship L’Aimable Josephine and killed the captain and most of the crew.

My Spanish born ancestor Frank Rodan was a crew on the L’Aimable Josephine and was lucky to have escaped. I had never thought to check if there were images from Dumont d’Urville travels to Fiji.

And then there are images like this.


Fijian women
coconut oiled bodies
dressed in masi
faceless like my bubus

Fijian female ancestors
never documented
and if written about,
always nameless

*bubu Fijian for grandmother

Do these images speak to you? What do they say? What memory do they evoke?

Island Style: Dancing the Pacific

18 March to 11 May 2013

Turnbull Gallery
Level 1, National Library of New Zealand
Corner of Molesworth & Aitken Streets
Wellington, New Zealand

10am – 5pm, Monday – Saturday



Image credit: Images in this post used with permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

i. Danse des femmes de Nouka Hiva a bord de la Zelee. Legrand d’apres E. Le Guillou [del]; lith Rigo freres et C[ompagn]ie r. Richer. [Paris, Berquet et Petion, 1844]. Le Guillou, Elie Jean Francois, b. 1806 :Voyage autour du monde de l’Astrolabe et de la Zelee sous les ordres du contre-amiral Dumont d’Urville … par Elie Le Gillou … ouvrage enriche de nombreux dessins et de notes scientifiques … par J. Arago. Paris, Berquet et Petion, 1844. Ref: PUBL-0073-128. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

ii. Cook Islands dance, Rarotonga. Ref: 1/2-038100-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

iii. Two dancers in traditional dress at Banaba, Kiribati. Arundel, Lilian fl 1906-1909 : Photographs of Banaba, Kiribati (formerly known as Ocean Island, Gilbert Islands), Nauru, and Makatea. Ref: PAColl-6044-18. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

iv. Seasea, a dance, being performed in Fiji. Hocart, A M : Photographs of Solomon Islands, Rotuma and Fiji. Ref: PAColl-1914-209. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: PAColl-1914-209

Permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any reuse of these images.


3 thoughts on “Island Style: Dancing the Pacific

  1. Mariana says:

    Love your poem Dulcie! I’ve been thinking of my Grandmother today, I wish she’d had the chance to teach me how to siva before she passed over.
    What do these picture say to me:

    the silenced in me
    will dance again…

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