In Fijian society, genealogy plays an important part when meeting someone for the first time. “O kemuni mai vei? (Where are you from?)” is a question often asked, as it establishes relationships and connections.
Growing up this question caused me much angst, as I never knew what to say. As people of mixed descent, my family occupied an odd position in Fiji’s racially compartmentalised society. My dad was ‘half-caste’, ‘kailoma’, ‘Part European’, ‘Other’, and mum ‘Part Chinese’ , but never Fijian.
Under British colonial rule, race, colour, caste and class hierarchies were standardised and incorporated into official policy. When Fiji gained independence in 1970, these racial identifications were deeply embedded in Fiji’s national identity.
There are two pivotal moments in my life that impacted on how I now identify myself and my sense of belonging.
In 2005, I immigrated to Brisbane and for the first time in my life people identified me as Fijian. In the diaspora it finally dawned on me that I could say I was Fijian. At the age of 26, I finally felt like I belonged.
The second time I felt like I truly belonged was when I got my first tattoo in 2015, around the same time I was asked to be part of The Veiqia Project.
When I approached Julia Mage'au Gray , a Papua New Guinean-Australian tattoo practitioner, I did not realise the impact it would have on my life.
At my first session with her, Julia marked me by reconstructing weniqia (tattoo patterns and designs) based on 1870s sketches of Fijian women that we both had seen online.
Over the years the process changed, the marks became personal and were based on familial designs.
Being marked by Julia is an emotional and personal process with each marking telling a story relating to different parts of your life. Each tap revealing a memory and healing the soul.
Fiji has a tattooing history, yet sadly this was erased from our collective memory. Not many people in Fiji were previously aware that women were once tattooed.
Through veiqia - the female initiation process - girls were tattooed at puberty before being presented ceremonially. With the introduction of Christianity to Fiji around the 1830s, over time the practice was stopped when people converted, and shame was heaped upon those who bore the tattoo marks. Despite this, some remote locations secretly maintained the practice of veiqia until the early 20th century.
My Mum's province, Bua, was one such location. Bu Anaseini Diroko, my great great grandmother, was the last known female in my family to receive the tattoo marks.
On a trip back home to Fiji I was in the bedroom ironing my clothes when my then five-year old nephew William woke up and saw me on the floor. He watched for a while and then pointed at my chest noticing my qia (tattoo). I lifted my hand to show him more markings. He started to trace the black lines on my skin and straight away I remembered a story mum’s sister once shared. As a little girl, my Aunty Mella says she would trace Bu Diroko's qia upon her skin. And there was my young nephew, in the 21st century, doing the same with my qia.
My marks are a visual reminder that grounds me. These are my lines; this is my genealogy.
Dulcie Stewart is a member of The Veiqia Project, a collective of Fijian female artists and researchers inspired by veiqia, the traditional practice of Fijian female tattooing.