Paradise Lost: Paradise Found

Dr. Max Darby. Arts Education Consultant, Asia Pacific.


Living and teaching in Fiji is different to anything I’ve previously done. And, those who know me realize that’s interesting since I’ve worked in many countries, and in all Australian States. In December I was in Melbourne organizing my busy consultancy and workshop calendar for 2014 and 4 weeks later, in early January, I was in Fiji leaving all of that behind.  


The International School in Nadi (ISN) urgently needed a secondary art teacher. I couldn’t find one at such short notice so came myself. That’s a big call even for me! Paradise Unexpected! If anyone is interested in ‘following me here’ just let me know.


Fiji kind of hits you in quick progressive stages. The welcome at the airport complete with singing and guitar-playing Fijians singing songs of welcome was rather special. It happens for every flight into the country. The deep green, tropical vegetation cannot be missed and the warm “Bula Bula’ (hello hello) and lovely, open smiles whenever you pass people in the street is just lovely. The welcome at school assembly, complete with formal accepting and drinking of Kava and the laying of woven palm leaves over my shoulders by my single final year girl, was tear-jerkingly emotional.  One thing I must say is that the Fijian welcome songs and the Fijian Farewell songs, sung in multiple-part harmonies, are very touching. How I could leave is inconceivable just now.


Horrible roads, horrible driving skills and many horrible smoke-spewing vehicles; too much untidy rubbish left beside the roads; numerous straying dogs that bark and breed all night; lack of essential infra-structure and a general lack of interest in protecting the environment and the air quality quickly make you realize, however, that some preconceived ideas about Fiji are misplaced! Paradise Questioned!


Key Fiji into Google and all you’ll get is luxury hotels, luxury resorts, sea cruises and expensive island holidays. Amazing! This is a country with 333 beautiful islands and a rich cultural tradition that is unique. While the Tourist Industry contributes enormously to Fiji’s economy it’s not the ‘real’ Fiji. Instead, the special mix of Original Fijian people, Indian immigrants (who began arriving to work in the sugar cane fields around 1879 and stayed), Chinese, Europeans, part Europeans and people from many other Pacific Islands combined with its rich history provide a much clearer insight to Fiji. An extensive ‘Expat’ population contributes to this already broad mix.


Originally settled by people who came from South East Asia via the Malay Peninsula and led by Chief Lutunascobasoba, the Melanesians mixed with the Polynesians to create a stable, well-organized society and culture. In 1643 Abel Tasman accidentally found the island nation followed over 100 years later by Captain James Cook, who first visited in 1774. It was Captain William Bligh though, who passed through in 1789 on a tiny open rowing boat from his ship The Bounty following the mutiny of most of his crew, who is credited with the major discovery and recording of the islands. It is interesting to note that some historians refer to Cook’s first visit as one that reflected his fear of the reef that circles much of Fiji due to concerns about potential unfixable damage to his ship. The fast-approaching war canoes laden with cannibalistic and ferocious warriors armed with ‘I Wau’ (war clubs and axes) and spears seemed to contribute to his decision to ‘move on’ quickly! Paradise Left Behind!


Today, like Australia, Fiji is a very multi-cultural and multi-national country.  Generally, its people live in harmony, retaining their connections to their own cultures and identities but working together for the betterment of the Nation. This current state of play conveniently overlooks the 4 major Coups that occurred as a result of political tensions between ‘Ethnic Fijians and Indian Fijians.  Although Fiji is still under the Military Coup of 2006 that lead to Fiji’s expulsion from The Commonwealth, everyone is confidently looking ahead to the free elections here in September this year. Paradise Rediscovered!


Enough history – What about my teaching in Fiji? How does an Australian Art Educator fit in to this exotic mix of history, culture and tradition? And, how does an Art Educator adjust to new International Baccalaureate programmes including PYP (Primary Years Program), (MYP) Middle Years Program and DPL Diploma Level Program (our equivalent to VCE).  With ease thanks to wonderful staff who insist on making things manageably simple. Of course, I’d had some previous experience with the Diploma Level Programme.


At ISN there are students from Fiji, China, Japan, The Philippines, Mexico, France, Australia, Denmark, Holland, New Zealand, The United Kingdom, Korea, Russia, Germany India, Sri Lanka, America and Canada. With only 212 students from Prep to Year 13 my work load is embarrassingly lean and I try to make up for it with other student projects – murals, garden sculptures made from Malamala tree roots and some cross-subject contributions.  There is just one class at each level.  I have a wonderful Primary art teacher, Miss Ashika, who works closely together with me (Mr. Max) to devise and deliver a programme that is as full and exciting as we can possibly invent.  Our art room and equipment is far from ideal but what we do have is ‘great kids’ – and they have ‘great teachers’. Paradise Acknowledged!


We do the ‘usual things’, painting drawing, collage and some digital photography. They’re ‘our’ usual things. Within those major restrictions we vary the topics to challenge and enthuse students. We have no kiln, no printing equipment, no guillotine, no art library (a few books in the main library) little storage space, little paint and paper and only one steel ruler and cutting knife – but lots of pencil sharpeners. 100 pencil sharpeners! As Joni Mitchel once sang “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Paradise Missed!


Our challenging Year 9 theme on The Titanic was a stunning success. Not just about the sinking and that ‘horrible’ Céline Dion song that goes on and on and on and on and on ….It’s about far more. Student research turned up interdisciplinary connections to Technology (designing an unsinkable ship); Building and Construction (I had a photograph I’d taken of the dock in Belfast where it was built); Class structure and struggle; Immigration; Advertising, Marketing and Business: Science and the Environment: Icebergs and the ocean; Communication and lack of it; Safety and Duty of Care; World War 1 (the sinking happening in 1912 just before the Great War); The Wall Street Share Market crash and the Depression, and The Revolution in Russia. More importantly, it was about Life and Death and the often random selection of who died and who didn’t. And, it was about those most affected – some personal interviews of survivors and those who rushed to assist. One student observed honestly that he hadn’t been able to find any interviews with anyone who didn’t survive! A real learning curve for him! Paradise Realized!



 And, tales about the sea and its adventures and tragedies are never far from the minds of Pacific Fiji. ‘By sea’ was the only way people came here at least until Charles Kingsford Smith flew into Suva from America on the first Trans-Pacific flight to Australia in 1928. It is interesting to learn that once he landed, the runway, which can still be visited, was too short to take off and ‘Smithy’ had to dissemble his plane, have it carried to a beach, reassemble it and then take off from there! Paradise Resolved!



Two examples of The Titanic’ theme are included here. Not bad for Year 9 students. Bhumika Patel and Lara Burrows did more than an ‘iceberg hitting the boat interpretation’. And, one student Sam, painted a dark top third of his work and a darker blue bottom two-thirds with nothing else in it and when asked about it he said simply “It’s titled Titanic 16th April, 1912.  That’s’ the day after it sank and there was nothing left to see.”


The controlled handling of design and composition and the application of paint is extraordinary for such young students. The passion with which each student undertook the challenge of investigation and discovery and learning was obvious. I’m not sure about our negotiated choice of topics but tragedy and disaster seems high on our priorities as we are now having a go at The Hindenburg Disaster (just prior to World War 2).


Of course, we also paint and draw exotic plants and tropical fish; and the Sleeping Giant Mountains which surround much of Nadi; and Fiji’s burning sugarcane fields; and tiny trains hauling cane: and market stalls, and colourful fabrics and clothing and festivals and all kinds of things more obviously related to this lovely place. Paradise Interpreted!


 Stacey Subam’s painting Fijian Sunset shows her colourful interpretation of Fiji for a Unit of Work titled ‘My Place’.  Dylan Punja’s Sugarcane fields with Sunset for the same topic is another example from this theme. In Australia, these would all be Semester 1, Year 10 students.


Finally, Jade Barrett O’Connor’s Year 10 multi-media work titled “Selling Fiji” sums up much of what I’ve been trying to say. Fiji is a ‘Fragile Paradise’ with so much going for it that we need to be careful that we don’t package it up for profit, especially via Tourism. Her ‘Bar-coding’ of the tropical plants and the deep blue reef is a strong warning. Don’t give it all away and don’t sell it all off for the profit of others – almost always non-Fijian, or non-original Fijian. The Natural Environment here needs protecting and preserving and the beaches are precious as referenced in her work by the shells. Fiji has Tsunami and earthquake threats, and fears of flooding are real should Climate Change not be addressed here and elsewhere.  And, most of all, its lovely, friendly people with gorgeous smiles and a happy attitude to all that happens around them needs to be protected at all costs.



It all seems familiar to many of us Australians – the value of Indigenous people and rights to the survival of their culture, and practices. Paradise Regained!




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