Auckland creative collective FAFSWAG goes global in this must-see doco

Some of the FAFSWAG team outside Basement Theatre.

A new documentary from VICE showcases Auckland art collective FAFSWAG, hot dancefloor moves and hometown hardship.

They have brought their experiences from the suburbs of south Auckland to the forefront of everyday life. FAFSWAG is a collective of queer indigenous creatives founded five years ago to create an empowered space for Pacific queerness. The group’s profile is getting bigger and bigger, following events like the recent Disruption Vogue Ball at Artspace Auckland, and a show called Femslick at Basement Theatre. Now, with the release of a documentary made and launched internationally by VICE (the huge US media company), FAFSWAG are cementing a place for themselves within our mainstream consciousness. And what’s not to love? They are talented, beautiful, intelligent and real – and make incredible moves on the dance floor. Hell, at times, they make me feel physically and intellectually inadequate.

The first FAFSWAG ball was held in 2013 at Te Puke o Tara Community Centre in tara. While FAFSWAG has been instrumental in developing the Auckland scene, they are quick to acknowledge that voguing belongs to the African-American transgender Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s. I can guarantee you have never seen anything like it. Rid your mind of any connotations of a school ball (which I initially thought it was): these balls are a runway-style competition of strutting and dancing, where you represent a ‘house’ and walk in categories such as ‘Butch Queen’ and ‘Dramatics’.

The Auckland rise of FAFSWAG has been simultaneous with the re-emergence of voguing, so much so that people have even confused the two, asking the collective “if they FAFSWAG” and mistaking the collective itself as the dance style. FAFSWAG have never positioned themselves as authorities. Rather, the balls, like the collective itself, were created from within the community for the community, providing FAFSWAG and friends with a safe platform for self-determined expression.

At the same time, they are uncovering difficult and complex layers of the Pacific community here in Aotearoa. Transgender, gender-fluid and queer urban Pacific people face real danger from their own communities. Forget the frangipani-laden Pacific that Auckland likes to boast about. The community FAFSWAG comes from is partly built on homophobia, Christianity and conservatism.

FAFSWAG provides many things for many people, but at the top of that list is survival from literal danger for its members. Since its foundation, the function of FAFSWAG has never had anything to do with popularity, but rather a desire to exist free from prejudice. And so, as mainstream awareness of the collective grows, the co-option of queer Pacific culture begins to make me uncomfortable. Are we supporters, or just culture vultures enjoying the collective’s ‘fruits’ for our own consumption? FAFSWAG’s move to the mainstream has opened up the vogue world to cis-gendered, straight and white admirers, and they can’t get enough of it. But we need to remember that voguing is born out of a struggle belonging to queer people of colour. It’s a dance with deep roots. 

Moreover, this mainstream acceptance for what FAFSWAG stands for doesn’t necessarily translate to our own Pacific communities. VICE’s documentary shows it is Pacific women – the mothers and the sisters – who are the biggest advocates for our Pacific LGTBQI+ people. Pacific men, meanwhile, often struggle to see past a conservative doctrine and the pressure to be stereotypically masculine. It may look like a Pacific Island community is flourishing, but in many ways they are still just trying to exist.

Over vodka and L&P on a balmy Papatoetoe Friday night, I ask FAFSWAG’s Tanu Gago about the collective’s future. Individual members of FAFSWAG are developing their own careers. Falencie now has a regular dance spot at Las Vegas Club on Karangahape Road, and artists Pati Solomona Tyrell and Sione Monu are rising to art stardom (I have had the privilege of working with both of them at ST PAUL St Gallery). Gago says he wants FAFSWAG to be something fun that they can look back on and say ‘yes, we did that’. They’re planning for the future, including distancing themselves from the vogue movement: he says the Artspace Disruption Vogue Ball was FAFSWAG’s last. The collective is rejecting typecasting and the allure of popularity in order to retain control of their narrative.

But don’t fear: voguing is in good hands. Jaycee Tanuvasa, a leader in the queer Pacific community who features in the documentary, is the youngest member of the Love Life Fono Charitable Trust Board and also a part of Ōtāhuhu Māngere Youth Group. She recently facilitated Vogue Talks, a discussion within the Auckland vogue community about the future of the scene, with safety and inclusion central to the conversation. So the jaw-dropping dances will go on, although without FAFSWAG leading them.

Meanwhile, as this new documentary starts popping up on screens around the globe, FAFSWAG continues its mission of striving to make safe spaces for takatāpui, fa’afafine, queer and everything in between. Until those spaces are secured, FAFSWAG will still exist. “Bitch, you’re in my space, you’re in my house now,” is one of the collective’s mottos. And they’re not going to compromise that.