Melbourne’s Multidisciplinary Artist: AYSHA NANAI-LEIFI
Interviewed by Vanilla Tupu
Aysha in her shoot for Converse. August 2018
My name is Aysha Nanai-Leifi, I am of Māori and Sāmoan heritage. I was born in Wellington, New Zealand but grew up in Melbourne, Australia.
Are you still in Melbourne? Is that where you’re based?
Yes! I’m in Melbourne. My dad lives in Sydney, more specifically in Edmondson Park. It’s ridiculous how much amazing Pasifika content is coming out of Sydney at the moment though! It’s really cool to watch.
Your work is multidisciplinary, what form does that take?
My creative work is a bit sporadic, still just testing the waters. I do photography, modelling, run events, curate photoshoots and direct. If I were to give it one name, I’d say a creative, an artist.
Let’s talk about some of the work you’ve done. You direct?
Mainly photoshoots and curating/directing events at the moment. Ideally, I want to do more moving image/film-related work which is a long term goal for me. People often forget how moving and still images speak to each other.
In regards to what I direct, I try not to shoot those too. Usually if I direct, I let someone else shoot it. I have done a couple of projects where I do both; if I feel like no one else can see what I’m seeing except for me. But usually, I try for separation otherwise it gets a bit too much.
Link to project: https://vimeo.com/391320659
Can you tell us a bit about when directing shoots and campaigns, what does that look like for you?
Usually when I direct a photoshoot, I start by reaching out and sending a bunch of messages to whoever I want to be in the cast. They can either say yes or no and I don’t really lose anything if they say no. Then yeah, I create a mood board and send out direction for what I want them to wear. Or in some cases I might bring some things that I want them to wear. Usually, again I always get girls. I mean, I don’t struggle working with guys, I just don’t know how to direct them. It’s a learning process. Then I’ll either go out and shoot it myself or I’ll get someone else to shoot it. I haven’t done any studio or campaign shoots yet, usually I just go outside because it’s free to go outside haha! So I go outside, scout locations and find anywhere free that we can shoot because I’m doing everything independently at the moment.
Aysha shooting/directing PolyConnection's launch in Sydney, June 2019
Who are some Pasifika artists that inspire you?
Globally, probably Taika, obviously- that’s just a given with everyone right now. Parris Goebel definitely. She’s a dancer and choreographer but she does so many other amazing things like modelling and directing.
Locally, oh there’s just heaps of people that inspire me. I’m sure you know KILIMI in Sydney- she’s so inspiring. I just love everything she does, everything she touches is just…. she’s amazing! Spvrrow as well; I feel like they’ve just got that untouchable confidence that anything they do, they’re just gonna kill it. And Billymaree - she’s definitely on the come up. There’s just so many more- I could just go on. Mainly women that inspire me though.
Is there a big community of Pasifika creatives in Melbourne?
Yeah there is a big community, not as big as there is in Sydney. It’s about finding them and forcing them out, and telling them ‘come, come let’s collaborate together’. But individually, there’s heaps everywhere. Whereas, I feel like in Sydney, it’s just a whole collective of Pasifika artists, which I always wish we had here - it’s why I’m always flying to Sydney.
You run Polyconnection, a network for Pasifika creatives, tell us more about that:
Yeah it’s what I’ve been trying to do, bring out creatives and force them to collaborate haha. But I’ve just rebranded, so now it’s a magazine which we will re-launch soon. But we did do some work in Sydney which was with all women, actually all Pasifika women. I’m so biased haha!
Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/isle.magaziine/
Tell us a bit more about the rebranding
It kind of came with the current situation. I was always going to rebrand as a physical magazine. But because of COVID-19, I’ve been taking advantage of this situation - interviewing people over zoom and transcribing it; gathering heaps of content and then eventually I’ll launch a few interviews online. Then hopefully when this is over, I’ll have that foundation ready already to do some events in Sydney and Auckland…hopefully. But it’s going well so far. I only learned how to use zoom a couple of days ago.
I don’t know if you know Lady Shaka from London. Anyway, she’s an amazing DJ that’s Tokelauan/Sāmoan and I was like, ‘can you please start the callout because I don’t know how to’ haha! I’ve just kind of been stumbling through it, but it’s been fun gathering the content and I am excited to put it out when it’s ready and when I’ve perfected it.
Do you have a launch date?
Not at the moment. Simply because I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself by having that deadline. I’m working on it everyday and interviewing people every other day. So probably within the next two weeks, or maybe even within the next week because it’s all based on me. It just depends how fast I can write up and work. It’s fun and I’m learning a lot in the process.
On the set of Aysha's global campaign, 'Love Fearlessly' for Converse. November, 2019.
Aysha in LA at Camp Flog Gnaw with Converse, November 2019
Have you come across anyone in the film industry that you’ve interviewed?
Not yet, I’m interviewing a videographer from Auckland who works with Māoriland Film Festival, but I haven’t found that many yet. I have a list of people for the future.
In regards to the Maoriland Film Festival and other platforms like Pasifika Film Festival, what’s the importance of having spaces like that for the Pasifika community?
I think it’s so important we have those spaces that make you feel safe and you can speak openly about this kind of stuff. I feel like there wasn’t enough in the first place and there still isn’t enough. So I feel like the more spaces there are, the better. But I guess it’s kind of like creating that space where you’re all comfortable and encouraging collaboration rather than putting each other against each other – collaboration over competition kind of thing. I think that is very, very important.
Where can we see your work?
At the moment that would be Instagram, I don’t really have any other portfolio platform at the moment. I kind of treat Instagram as that portfolio where I put my work and my achievements, but eventually the website for the magazine too.
Have you found social media to be an important platform for Pasifika communities to express themselves?
Definitely! That’s the only platform I‘ve ever received opportunities or asked people to collaborate on. Without it, I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am here today, I mean, besides the superficial stuff. I really think it’s one of the greatest platforms to reach out to people and for others to reach out to you. It’s basically how I got in touch with all the Sydney girls when we did our shoot together. It can be a bit scary, you know, messaging people you don’t know. But what do you really have to lose?
Earlier you mentioned financial constraints, what are other pressures that are specific to your line of work within the creative industry?
Besides the monetary constraints, I don’t really listen to what anyone else is doing. Take PolyConnections for instance. I haven’t posted or created anything in quite a while, but to me, it’s fine. People ask me if I’m even doing it anymore but trust me it’s all a process- just wait hahaha. I don’t really feel any constraints creatively, especially because I’m not with any agency who might say ‘you can’t do that, you can’t do this’. As my own boss I have the ability to take charge, make those decisions and push some concepts that are a bit more controversial which I like to do.
From a portrait collection of Aysha by @greenpx in December, 2019.
What kind of controversial topics might those be?
I feel like I have a bit more of a free reign to speak more openly and be more of an ally in terms of things (like race, sexism, transphobia and homophobia) and not have to worry about a big company behind me saying ‘shh don’t say anything’. I’m like, well b****, I’m gonna say what I’m gonna say, period! I can portray whatever message I want in a shoot and not have to worry about that backlash.
In your modelling career, how does it feel to inhabit spaces where POC are extremely underrepresented?
It is really tough as I always get in my head about it. But then I think, if I can just start it off or get my foot in the door, then maybe it will make it just a little bit easier for someone else to come through and not be so intimidated. Being the only brown person or POC in the whole cast is a gift. It’s tough. But you’ve got to do it to break down certain barriers, even though it’s really scary. When I was walking at fashion week, it was terrifying! I was the only big girl in the room. I was like, f*** y’all, I’m here for a reason, I got cast for a reason, I don’t give a f***! It was really tough, but I also had to remind myself that this was for a reason. I’m here. I deserve this. I didn’t get chosen for nothing. It was frightening. But it had to be done.
How do you think that the creative industry can make space for diversity- within modelling, within television, within film? What do you think that’s going to look like?
In terms of Pasifika and Māori, it’s so hard because we have literally like less than 1% of representation within the industry. I guess it’s just more people having the courage to be that first person and to not be scared or shied away from being the only brown or POC in the room. It’s a long fight, that’s for sure. There are so many people doing awesome things though, especially in the film industry. There are heaps of actors coming up. We love to see it, honestly, we love to see it and support it.
Aysha at the Global Climate Change rally in Melbourne with the Pacific Climate Warriors. September 2019
What is the importance of moving image and where does that intersect with the campaigns that you currently direct?
From what I’ve experienced and seen, storytelling (irregardless of film/modelling/photoshoot) is not authentic unless you have the right people both behind and in front of the camera. People like the cast, directors, producers, writers etc. It’s really important they’re in all those spaces. I’m forever watching films looking for Pasifika talent. Whether they are full length or short films, I just get really excited to see it. I try and do that with my own productions as well, especially when I get my equipment from this grant- I’m planning on doing some documentary style projects and some fashion short films, Pasifika representation will be a strong throughline in them for me.
I’ve also been considering starting a YouTube channel. Once Corona has eased even more so, I definitely want to start some of the concepts that I’ve been working on internally for quite a while. But that’s definitely a long term project for me, and one that is always in the back of my mind.
For anyone for the Pasifika community, in Australia but also worldwide, do you have any words of encouragement in regards to getting involved in creative projects, the creative industry or starting your own creative projects?
More specific to Pasifika, I’d probably say that if you’re finding yourself struggling to find those spaces or find people, just make your own and don’t be afraid to reach out to people. You know, drop your pride and just reach out to as many people as you can, even if it’s just for guidance. That’s what I would say - still young me haha.