I Thought I Recognised Her - Olivia Laita

Image: Brendan Kitto

Image: Brendan Kitto

Olivia Laita talks about finding her way back to her Samoan culture and the reason behind why she decided to get her malu. She explains why she studied chemistry right up to the doctorate level, jumping right into graffiti along the way, to later finding her calling in Arts Management, and how her science background helps with this.

I say I’m from Auckland first, naturally. But if you’re an Aucklander, I’d say Mangere. That’s where I remember everything of me growing up. Now I would say Onehunga, but that’s still new to me. I’ve only been here 5 years.

What I remember most from Mangere is the schools. I guess now I know they were low decile schools, and I didn’t even know what decile meant when I was going to school out there. I didn’t even know that was a thing, that was just my normal. Just going to school, hanging out with friends, and being lazy. Not being naughty, just being lazy and doing what I needed to do. That’s my main memories. Aorere College in particular, because that’s my high school.

My parents spoke Samoan to each other, but they rebelled against Fa’a Samoa, and they didn’t really care to pass down anything because they just wanted us to do the kiwi thing. So it’s actually up to us kids to find our way back. There was a moment, when I was like, "this is your fault". I even said that to them one day, and they just said, ‘No, it’s not our fault. We’re still here, just come and ask us some questions.’

A lot of people of our generation, there’s a disconnect [with our culture]. I didn’t realise for a long time, but me diving into certain projects or even studying, I’m actually distracting myself to put the time in to connect with my culture. I didn’t know I was doing that, but I’ve actually been doing that my whole life. So it’s like in a way I have been procrastinating. It feels too hard. My cousin has a malu, and I said, ‘don’t you have to know a bit more about your culture before you get it?’ And she was like, it used to be like that. But now you just have to be Samoan. And I thought OK, I think I might get my malu. Because if I wake up, and look at my legs, then I’m reminded, ‘stop procrastinating, start learning.’ Start learning the language first, I’m pro-language first. But then I procrastinated again for another couple of years, life just became more of a priority.

Spycc from SWIDT's wife is Sarah and she regularly works out of the same work-space and she speaks fluent Samoan. I’ve never had a Samoan friend that I see regularly, which is crazy. My circle of friends have been multi-cultural but hardly ever Samoan speaking. With her here, I think, OK, this might be my time. Having someone to talk to where you can hear your own voice is something else. I think your brain digests faster, if you say it out loud. I’ve been making an effort. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be more schooled up, and conversational fluent. That’s the goal.

I have found that because the generation of today are quite desperate to reach out and connect, we are doing it in the wrong order. But I think it’s so bad now that I don’t know if there is an order, if we’re making an effort to start somewhere.  

I used to do graffiti, and I kind of did the same thing. I didn’t tag or bomb, I just went straight to piecing, which is the hardest. And then I went backwards. That’s just me, I just want to dive in, to see if I can do the hardest thing which makes everything after that really easy.

It’s taken me awhile to really narrow [what I do] down, but now I can actually say I freelance in arts management. But, it’s a lot of hats when you’re based in New Zealand. To me arts management is whatever you need to do to get the creative job done and make sure that creative vision is met, and that creative vision is the vision of the artist. So I basically work for an artist. Problem solving the whole time. I like to use the word logistics, and whatever needs to happen to make sure that’s all satisfied, I’ll do.

I’d call working with SWIDT project managing. But then I even choose which parts I want to be a part of. I guess I can say I helped project manage the SWIDT e-store.

What I’m doing now has nothing to do with what I studied. I think because I came from a low-decile high school I could only work with whatever is in front of me. So if the basics are maths, English, chemistry, biology, accounting – then that’s all I know at that time. So at that point in time I just knew science was the one that was engaging. I was good at all of them but it was only science that kept me engaged the whole time. So, when university hit - and that’s what you supposedly do, you go onto tertiary - I stuck with science. The first three years I got my Bachelors double majoring in biology and chemistry. The first thing I thought, OK I need to make some money. In science you need to go further with studying to make the good money. So it was at that point I did my masters. I narrowed it down to just chemistry, because I found it more engaging than biology, less words and more numbers and equations. It seemed like less of a hassle. I just understood numbers, straight to the point. I took that all the way to the doctorate level, and then worked for about a year after it, still at the university doing research. So that was my past.

Image: Brendan Kitto

Image: Brendan Kitto

Something I just realised as of today, is how what I did then translates to what I do now. I seem to see a lot of things in the creative world that I guess a creative person can’t see. Just purely coming from a logistics point of view. I realised that doing chemistry for basically ten years at tertiary level, when you do chemistry you’re always trying to make something. Like, make a compound or make a molecule. If it doesn’t work the first time, you have to tweak the experiment and try again. You have to do it a lot until you have exhausted all options. I didn’t realise until today, that’s what I do, even in this creative sector. If someone tells me what their goal is, we try one way. If it doesn’t work, but I can still see what to tweak, we just keep going until it hits. Until we’ve also exhausted all options. A big part of it is, with chemistry it was just me, a very independent solo workplace. It’s just you and your brain trying to figure it out. But in this creative sector, it’s people.

I think when it comes to life fulfilment, it’s better. I feel like I’ve helped someone try every possible way and that makes me feel good. Because it makes me feel like I’ve helped them at least do the action of doing, instead of just procrastinating and wondering for the rest of your life. I find that real life fulfilling. It’s a different thing having to work for people, but I get something out of it, for sure.

I kind of believe that artists, I really respect them and I think my role is to always work for them. I do believe that they’re 80% of the contribution of whatever that vision is, but I’m just that added 20% to finish it. When I talk with my like-minded friends, we always call ourselves the 20%, just to get it over the line.

I am pretty proud of being a part of a specific art movement, called Post Graffiti Pacific. I know my role in helping that movement is educating the general public on what that actually is. An urban contemporary artist is a contemporary artist that works in-studio and outdoors. But a Post Graffiti Pacific artist is an urban contemporary artist who has come from the roots of graffiti. Like, traditional New York, subway [type] graffiti, but is also based anywhere in the Pacific, because that’s further informing their specific type of urban contemporary art: location. I’m really big on knowing where you’re from. Especially if you are a creative, you have to tell a story. If you know where you’re from, I think whatever story you decide to tell through your art, it’s just more genuine and authentic knowing that you know yourself first.

My words of advice, in the creative scene, if you want to survive in New Zealand, make sure your book keeping and accounting is up to date. Book keeping and accounting is the answer to sustainability. If you look at your books and go, "Something is not working, I either need to change something, or can it". But you can’t make those decisions if your books and accounting are not up to date. Otherwise, you’re just turning your back on something without the right information. The creative project is the one thing, but to know whether to keep going? It’s the book keeping and accounting. And that’s a huge problem in New Zealand. You need to make informed decisions with books and accounting, to know whether to keep going creatively or to stop.

Image: Brendan Kitto

Image: Brendan Kitto