Mavae and Tofiga: spatial exposition of the Samoan cosmogony and architecture

Refiti, Albert
Engels-Schwarzpaul, Tina
Jenner, Ross
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

How is space constituted and made manifest in the cultural and philosophical context of Samoan society? And how can a primordial concept of space be constituted in the architecture of the fale (house) and then reconstituted as a cultural phenomenon, stretching from pre-contact times in Samoa to the present, in the diaspora? This study undertakes a spatial exposition of how space in Samoan thought arises, inviting an ‘exchange of perspectives’ between different ways of knowing.

This is achieved by carrying out a close study of the Samoan cosmogony, Solo o le Vā, to show how space originally emerged in Samoan thought. Particular attention is paid to the processes of mavae (unfold, spread) and tofiga (to gather and appoint) and how they developed out of the cosmic unity of the progenitors Tagaloa and Vānimonimo. The study examines the role of space and place in the context of vā (relational space), which outlines and structures relations for Samoans, giving rise to social order and compartmentalising it into parcels of territories. These parcels, the thesis shows, are then bounded by the Tufuga in the faletele (meeting house), which grounds social order in place.

By developing a theory of mavae and tofiga, the thesis generates ideas about place and territory in Samoan thought: mavae and tofiga act as a ‘coupling knot’, which connects and codifies relationships as alaga (spatial, relational and geographical networks) and thereby also defines Samoan personhood. The coupling of mavae and tofiga shapes ala (pathways) and fua’iala (village parts) – freeing, and in turn connecting, boundaries and territories on the Samoan landscape. Ultimately, the thesis explores the architecture of the Samoan fale and its conditions as a connector between people – first at the centre of the networks of the Samoan nu’u (village), where it performs the task of corralling, knotting and shaping the vā between the world of men and their ancestor gods. Second, the study examines current understandings of vā as an expression of Samoan identity in the diaspora, and as a generator of new forms of Pacific identity and architecture.

The Tufuga-faufale, the builders and architects of the fale, who played an important role in the development of Samoan architectural technology over a long period of time, no longer feature in the diasporic dynamics: they lost control of the production and circulation of the fale as a sacred building. As a result, most fale Samoa (Samoan-style houses) built today have no recourse to traditional craft. They also lack rituals connected to the soliciting of a sacred house from the Tufuga-faufale, which would connect people to their ancestor gods and their nu’u in Samoa. The new building technologies have completely transformed the way in which Samoan buildings are carried out.

Vā, as a ‘space of negotiations’ for Samoan and Pasifika identity in the diaspora, on the other hand, has taken on a central role. In the diaspora, mavae and tofiga coupling transforms into a mobile concept underpinning the creation and maintenance of a Samoan and Pacific identity in the diaspora – an identity that defines Samoans and Pacific people as different and unique.

The fale survives in an ‘afterlife’, or Nachleben, in which the traditional forms of expression retain symbolic potency, life and mana. The motifs of the fau ‘afa (sennit lashings) of the faletele and faleafolau reanimate and reimagine the potentiality of community life, so that it may continue again over time.

Architectural anthropology , Pacific architecture , Pacific studies , Samoan studies , Cultural anthropology , Pacific Thought and Philosophy , Pacific material culture , Spatial exposition , Design anthropology , Samoan perspectivism
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