What Pati Solomona Tyrell's photos reveal about being young, queer and Pacific

Auckland photographer Pati Solomona Tyrell's incredible portraits celebrate being young, queer and Pacific

“My life started in Auckland, my real life. I always tell people that for the first 18 years of my life I was holding back. I couldn’t be myself at school, at home, even with my friends. When I finally came up to Auckland in 2011 to study, that was the year I also came out to my parents. It was emotionally hard, the lead-up – being unsure about the outcome. My parents moved here from Samoa in the 1980s and for me, family is everything: it’s my rock, my centre. So it had to work out. It was during one of my semester breaks, me and my sister drove home to Hamilton. I’ve got four sisters and one brother and they already knew – I told my siblings first because that bond is really important. I mean, looking back on my life, if I was my parent, I wouldn’t have been surprised! I have memories of family drink-ups when I was younger and everyone would be like, ‘hey Pati come and dance,’ and I would just do my little hula!

“When we finally got to the house to tell my mum, she was in bed sleeping. I turned on her light and sat by the bed tapping her like, ‘Mum, Mum’. I started crying and she woke up asking, ‘what’s wrong?’ I just said it: ‘Mum, I’m gay’. We sat there. I couldn’t stop crying, and she just started patting my back. Mum told me that I was her son and that she loved me regardless, but she also told me that I was going to have to work hard because there would be heaps of people out there who wouldn’t want me to succeed because of who I am. As soon as I got back to Auckland I was brand new. The relief that I felt was amazing!

“I co-founded FAFSWAG in 2012 with my partner Tanu Gago. In the beginning it was really about meeting other queer Pacific artists and to just make some friends. There’s not much of a Pacific community in Hamilton and there’s an even smaller queer community, or at least one that I felt I belonged to. I wanted to collaborate with people who were just as passionate about being young and queer and Pacific; my art friends gave me that community. They’re the people I’ve photographed here. Representation is massive and thinking about brown male queerness – we couldn’t find ourselves anywhere. The only time we saw representations of ourselves was in sexual health pamphlets or safe sex campaigns and the only other brown male body was ‘Mr. Lover lover’, you know: come and swim in paradise in Samoa! No one was going to do it for us. We had to make our own spaces and represent ourselves as we wanted to be shown to the world.

“The different mediums I work in – performance art, moving image, design and photography – those are my different ways of communicating. Visuals for me are really important. When all the mediums come together, that’s my full message. Photography is sacred to me and that’s why I don’t really want to commercialise my practice. Having a connection with the people I photograph is huge, usually it’s people who I hang out with, my art family, people who understand what I’m about and they’re willing to give their bodies to that kaupapa.

“The ‘Aitu FAFSWAG’ series here was shown last year at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China as part of Ata Te Tangata curated by Rosanna Raymond, and I’m in discussions to show the work in Auckland soon. I’m graduating this year with a Bachelor of Creative Arts from Manukau Institute of Technology and ‘Aitu FAFSWAG’ – like most of the works that I’ve shown in galleries – was another university experiment. I wanted to activate the va [a Samoan concept of a space between] of the physical and the spiritual. I love Raymond’s practice of activation between the va and her objects, and I really admire David LaChapelle’s work – his lighting is incredible, so a lot of different artists influence my practice.

“My art helps me to understand and get through my own journey but there’s definitely more to it than that. There’s an advocacy about what it means to be young, queer and Pacific. People just assume that Pacific parents don’t support their queer children – but my parents do. I feel like when people are able to navigate both their femininity and their masculinity without any hang-ups about it, they free themselves.”

Here, Tyrell comments on each of the photos in the ‘Aitu FAFSWAG’ series:


 “I love the gold and the red flowers,” Tyrell says of this photo from his ‘Aitu FAFSWAG’ series. “Sione is innocent and mysterious and naturally very gifted. His flowers are inspired by Frida Kahlo – she’s one of his favourites! He went back home to Australia in the middle of last year just to see some of her work – he loves Frida that much! He’s a comedian, definitely, but the real word that comes to mind when I think of Sione is stardust. He’s from another world. We have 13 of us altogether in FAFSWAG but only these eight images as a series really worked together, I felt. Tanu did a family portrait of us all together earlier in 2016, which was great because it meant some of the members who hadn’t been photographed before finally got to be part of the magic, and that’s family – involving everyone.” 


 “Check out those kitty cat ears, but with the nifo oti [knife] at the back! Well, I guess when you first meet Manu you think he’s quite innocent. No, not innocent – timid? No, not timid, that’s the wrong word. What’s the word I’m looking for? Fragile? It’s because of his frame, people judge him as fragile, you think he’s really sensitive, but as soon as he opens his mouth, holy shit! Wow! He’s fucking sharp! He’s not fragile at all! Manu is bright. He likes to say, when we do our poetry, that he’s channeling the spirit of an old angry Tongan woman. He’s got so much of that depth in his writing, that quiet strength. You look at Manu and you see this beautiful Tongan boy: skinny, lanky, slightly femme – but man he’s got a mouth on him, and a brain! Don’t fuck with him! And under lighting, his beautiful dark skin – it shimmers.”


 “Moe has a huge following; she’s getting more and more famous all the time, she’s well known in the queer community. That’s a pale [Samoan headpiece] around her neck, she’s using it as a choker. It looks hot. It’s weird talking about Moe. We’ve been friends for a really long time. The ‘Aitu FAFSWAG’ process was natural, I just told all of them: ‘Doll yourselves up as you want to be seen!’ Moe is really sexy – there’s a staunchness and a confidence, but also great femininity to her. It’s important for the T [transgender] girls to own their shit. Especially with the fucking lives they live, it’s definitely hard. I can pass as a straight male just walking down the road – no one hassles me – but for a trans woman, I feel like they have to be really strong every single day.”


 “Nana is the baby of the group, well, at the time of this shoot she was. No matter what she comes up against, she’ll prevail, no matter what. I think you have to face the world like that, with that much strength. She’s looking into the future because there’s so much life ahead of her. These photos are just done at home with one strobe light – there’s one person standing there making the magic happen, the process is nothing like the finish, it’s not glam at all, but it’s real. All three of the T Girls – Moe, Falencie and Nana – their stances are really strong, they each hold a certain presence.”


“Mahia for me, it’s the word chaos, but it’s the most beautiful chaos. You can see it in his personality, and his artwork, he’s spontaneous and really fantastical – he absolutely loves his fantasy work. This photo, thinking back to our discussion about the past and the future, looking at the spikey choker and that over-the-shoulder sort of nonchalant gaze, I feel like Mahia’s looking back into the past. That’s a black bandana on his head, they aren’t flowers and it’s quite dark, super dark, I really like the darkness. Can you tell? This series is all about our own personalities and bringing them out in the images. ‘Imagine that you are the aitu [ghost or spirit] – give me all of you’: that’s what I told them before the shoot. We know each other well enough that I can say, ‘you know who you are, you know what to do, give it to me!’”


 “Tanu. ‘Tulou Bitch’. I feel like that’s really him. He’s definitely a leader. This is also the first image I’ve ever taken of Tanu. Out of all my artworks, it’s the very first photograph of him because he hates having his photo taken! The time was just right; everyone wanted to be on board with it, even Tanu. This photo series is an activation of our spirits and a manifestation of our individual personalities; adopting the narrative that Pacific queer people – Fa’afafine, Fakaleiti, Akava’ine – were once revered culturally as oracles and persons of status. The series is about reclaiming that mana in a modern context through a visual language that derives from my own practice and world view.”


“Cultural drag queen! My eyebrows? I just wanted to red out my eyebrows! It was a basic, don’t-really-know-how-to-do-makeup thing, ha! Cultural hairy drag queen! Just raw. I have bad days like anyone else where I get down on myself, like – oh I’m so hairy, and I’m too fat, and too femme! So a lot of this work is about love and acceptance of self, you know? When I’m talking about spirit, it’s about letting go of ego and being here in this space right now and just having love, just embracing everything that you are. I encouraged all the members that I photographed to let go of their vanity. It’s important to represent all bodies: fat, hairy, real. A lot of the work that I’m making, it’s the learning afterwards that’s important, the critique of the work is important, yes, but also the critique of mindset – how we’re thinking about ourselves.”


“Gawd. How do I explain Falencie? Sex siren, I just think – Pacific Barbie! She’s really confident in her body. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Just look at her! This stance, it’s typical of Falencie: cool, eyeballing in a sexy kind of come-hither but also fuck off-dusky maiden sort of way. And her personality? God, it’s electric! And she’s a bit of a bitch? Ha! In the vogue community we call it cunty. She knows she dresses like a stripper but she’s got a business degree so she is really smart. Looking back on this series, in terms of the visuals, the costuming, the background – what I wanted out of it – my whole practice has been about using the knowledge of the past and bringing it into the present, not just to start something new but to also use that old knowledge in the present and to try and incorporate it back into the culture.”