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Dear Nanette Lepore,
My name is Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu and I would like to meet you. I think we can learn a lot from each other. Being that you are, as Wikipedia states, “a well known fashion designer based in New York City,” I know I can learn a lot from you. I know I am not a well known fashion designer. Hellooo, I am not even on Wikipedia. However, I, too, am an artist. I am a painter and muralist. I am a poet and writer. I am an actress and playwright. I don’t necessarily identify myself as a fashion designer per se, I identify myself as a fashionista. I am the creator of re:spect, an emerging clothing line, that I say is urban indigenous. I too, am based in New York City. I am also an Educator and Teacher. I have taught in public schools, after-school programs, and universities and colleges all over NYC and internationally for the past 15 years. I say this later identification with great intention because the intention of this letter is to not only educate you (and others who would also like to learn. This is an open letter) but to also make a difference with you. I am committed that this letter actually make a difference for you and therefore, positively impact, inspire and move you into action. At the end of this letter, I have very specific requests of action for you. I know we have just met–ok, not really met, since I have not met you in person–but if you are going to spend some time reading this letter, I do not want to waste your time.
The title of this letter is titled “Passport to Stealing.” This title is actually referring to the fashion spread that features your clothing titled, “Passport to Style.” I like word play. It’s smart, catchy, humorous and can be fun, right? However, at the risk of not sounding smart, catchy, humorous and fun, I gave that title to my letter because I want to call something what it is: stealing. First, I want to give some context to this word, which is a verb, which makes it an action: stealing. When I say the word, stealing, I am not coming from the context of it being bad or good. I am not even coming from the context of right or wrong. I must say this because, normally when we hear the word “stealing,” we go immediately to that it is wrong not right. That is bad not good. And therefore whoever is in the action of “stealing” is seen as a bad person, not doing something right. And therefore, that “bad person” may be experiencing feelings of shame, guilt, and or feeling bad. That is not the context I am writing from. I wrote earlier that my intention is that I am committed in making a difference for you. Making you feel bad or feel guilty or feel full of shame, is not going to make a difference for you or me. Or anyone else for that matter. What would make a difference is accountability. I will write more about accountability later in this letter. We must first make sure we are on the same page. Let’s go back to the context I am coming from with stealing. I am coming from the context of exactly what it is. And what it is, is it’s definition. Let’s go to the definition of stealing. I found this definition of stealing on the free online dictionary. The definition of stealing comes from the word steal:
steal /stēl/verb present participle: stealing
1. take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.
“thieves stole her bicycle”
synonyms: purloin, thieve, take, take for oneself, help oneself to, loot, pilfer, run off with, abscond with, carry off, shoplift;
off with, rob, swipe, nab, rip off, lift, “liberate”, “borrow”, filch, pinch, heist;
“the burglars stole a fax machine”
•theft, thieving, thievery, robbery, larceny, burglary, shoplifting, pilfering, pilferage, looting, misappropriation;
“he was convicted of stealing”
dishonestly pass off (another person’s ideas) as one’s own.
“accusations that one group had stolen ideas from the other were soon flying”
synonyms: plagiarize, copy, pass off as one’s own, pirate, poach, borrow;
rip off, lift, pinch, crib;
“his work was stolen by his tutor”
take the opportunity to give or share (a kiss) when it is not expected or when people are not watching.
“he was allowed to steal a kiss in the darkness”
synonyms: sneak, get stealthily/surreptitiously
“he stole a kiss”
•(in various sports) gain (an advantage, a run, or possession of the ball) unexpectedly or by exploiting the temporary distraction of an opponent.
(of a base runner) advance safely to (the next base) by running to it as the pitcher begins the delivery.
“Rickey stole third base”
2. move somewhere quietly or surreptitiously.
“he stole down to the kitchen”
synonyms: creep, sneak, slink, slip, slide, glide, tiptoe, sidle, edge
“he stole out of the room”
direct (a look) quickly and unobtrusively.
“he stole a furtive glance at her”
Whether you choose part 1 or part 2 of the definition of stealing, I must acknowledge that you have been stealing. The designs and patterns you have been using, which are shown in the “Passport to Style” fashion spread and on your website, Facebook page and elsewhere, have all been stolen. You took these designs and patterns from the islands of Fiji and the Fijian people and did not acknowledge them. These are not yours. I do not understand why you claim they are yours. They are not. Anyone who knows and can see them, can see that the “Emperor has no clothes”–this does not belong to you. You also claim, or have shared, that they are “African” and “Aztec.” (I am referring to the “Passport to Style” caption that states that these designs & patterns are “African” and “Aztec.” You may have shared this same information elsewhere. ) I must say that your claim that you designed this yourself and that this is “African” and “Aztec” is absolutely incredulous and ludicrous. Let me make it real for you and tell you what I mean.
I lived in Florence, Italy for 6 months when I was a Junior attending New York University. This was my study abroad city I chose because I was a Studio Art Major. I wanted to immerse myself in Italian Renaissance art. The semester before I moved to Italy, I spent 1 semester taking an Italian language course. In Italy, I continued my Italian language course, along with my Italian Art History & Culture classes. I relished in seeing live and direct the masterpieces by Michelangelo, DaVinci, Caravaggio and my favorite, Pontormo. I would spend countless hours in churches and museums gawking, studying, and pondering their artwork. I remember looking at a Pontormo painting for 8 hours, no kidding. They had to kick me out of the church because I did not want to go home. That said, I became very familiar and knowledgeable with the Italian language, culture and art history. Even before I looked up the origin of your last name (I told you, I do my research) Lepore, I knew that it is Italian and/ possesses Italian roots. It would be ridiculous for me to say that your name is Fijian or Swahili because that is inadequate to the facts of those languages. For those who know and are familiar with Oceania languages and names, could recognize that my name is Tongan. No one would ever say it is Italian or Irish, that would be ridiculous. It would also be very ridiculous for me to take an exact replica of the statue of David and share it in an international magazine stating that it is Asian and Fijian–and that I was the creator of the statue. First of all, everyone would know that I was not the creator of the statue of David (Ohhh, I think there would be an uproar in the Vatican). And second of all, people would either just laugh and find me quite inadequate (cray cray as we in say in the South Bronx) and/or there would be major upset and rage. For me to even make the claim that I created the statue of David is totally horrifying and an insane claim, right? And that is what I must relate to you. Your claim is horrifying and insane. Another way to say it: it’s like me taking a Scottish kilt and make into a prom dress. I then proceed to market it by saying that I created this dress and that it is Indonesian. Crazy, right? Yeah, that’s what I am saying.
Let me make this more real to you, if it is not communicating. I understand Fiji and Africa may be foreign and exotic places to those who have never been to or lived in Fiji and Africa. People in New York who have never been to or lived in Ohio (I did my research, you were raised there) or Utah (where I was raised) think those places are interchangeable. I know they are not interchangeable because I have actually been to Utah and Ohio. Geographically, they are completely in 2 different locations in the U.S.A. That is why they are 2 different states. Utah is more in the South West part of the U.S.A while Ohio is more North East, which some refer to as the mid-west because it is not located on the north east coast of the U.S.A. I also know, that you and I can talk about Ohio and Utah. We can be able to share similarities and differences between them. Point is, they are 2 distinct places. Just like how Fiji and Africa are 2 distinct places. They have similarities and differences but they are distinct from each other. Fiji is a country. Africa is a continent. FYI: When you say African, I am still unclear. There are many countries, distinct cultures, languages and people in Africa. Do you mean Egyptian, Ethiopian or Congolese? I only mentioned 3. And I have not even talked about your claim of the designs and patterns being, “Aztec.” Fiji is as an island country in the South Pacific. When I write, South Pacific, I am referring to the southern region or also known as the southern hemisphere of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean on planet Earth. Fiji, formerly known as the Republic of Fiji, is located in the South Pacific Ocean. Those designs and patterns you have claimed to be yours are from Fiji. You may not know this because I understand, you may not be familiar or knowledgeable about Fijian language, culture or art. You may not have lived or studied in the South Pacific. I get it. You just didn’t know. Well, knowledge is power, so let me offer you some power.
I know you live in NYC. In NYC, our South Pacific Islander community is small but it exists. Knowledge and an education can be learned if you are willing. I would like to meet you because I would like to educate and share with you the knowledge about Fiji and the South Pacific. In the South Pacific, the context of education and knowledge is not necessarily gaining information or becoming more smarter than others. Rather, the context of education and knowledge is being connected to a community, love, compassion, kindness and generosity. I do not request an apology from you, I request accountability. You just did not know and you were unaware. However, not knowing and being unaware anywhere in the world, causes major upsets and consequences. You can be accountable for your actions and that has power & integrity. You can get into action. Here are my 4 requests I make of you.
1. I request you publicly acknowledge the designs and patterns you have used are indeed, stolen and they belong to the people and culture of Fiji. I request this acknowledgement is not only in written form (that you post on your website, Facebook page and other sources you can share this) but that you also create & share a video of this acknowledgement. This acknowledgment includes a description of what you are going to do (see the rest of the requests below) and have done to make this acknowledgment complete.
2. I request you no longer steal Fijian designs or patterns. I request you no longer steal any Peoples/Cultures’ designs or patterns period.
3. The money you have already received from the dresses and other clothes you have already sold that obtain these designs & patterns, I request you donate this money to Fijian artists. To Fijian artists that live and create their art in Fiji. There are many Fijian artists that exist in the world. They would appreciate these funds very much and use these funds to make a difference in the world.
4. I request you actually travel to Fiji and meet and have conversations with at least 4 Fijian Artists. I request you ask them what these Fijian designs and patterns, the ones you have used and stolen, mean. I request you ask them how they define art, how they define fashion, how they define love. I request you ask them what their dreams are. I request you answer the question, “Why is knowing Fijian art and culture important to me?”
I request you do all these above actions by Oct. 1, 2013. (except for #4. Request #4, I ask you do that by Feb. 1, 2014.) Please contact me when these actions are complete. Of course these requests are what they are, requests. You can say Yes, No, or give a counter offer. I acknowledge you in reading this letter in it’s entirety. I thank you for your time, consideration and generosity. Thank you for being willing to learn, get educated and looking at your work from another’s point of view. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
‘ofa lahi atu,
Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu
Sandy, Utah to NYC (I will be there next week!)
P.S. Please enjoy the picture I have attached of my 3 year old niece, Victoria Niumeitolu in my parents’ dining room. She is standing in front of our Fijia tapa, Fijian masi. See, the designs and patterns you used in your clothing? This is the source. No, not what’s in my parents’ dining room, Silly. I am saying the source is Fijian tapa, Fijian masi, the art form. The source and creator of those designs and patterns are from Fijian tapa, masi, an art form only found in the Pacific. This art form is not necessarily an object or thing, it’s an action. A community action. Tapa can’t be made alone. It must be made within the community. Only through the community’s actions does this art form exist. If this is what you wish to create, it must be done within community. I wish you all the best on the next part of your journey!