By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
Entering Sigavou Studios is a surprising experience. Located in a light industrial area in Nadi, a beautiful mural outside hints at what is to come. The steps you ascend relay a motivational message, and when you get to the top, you are greeted with an explosion of colours.
The founder, Maria Rova, is of American-German descent. “I’m a primary school teacher by profession, but I’ve always loved being creative,” she told us.
Rova’s childhood was no fairytale; she grew up with a single mom, so life was not always easy. A good escape for her and her siblings was gathering sticks and stones, making sculptures, and doing all kinds of creative things to occupy their time. “Especially during birthdays, when there was never any pocket money to go and buy presents, I would just embroider handkerchiefs for my friends,” she recalls.
This natural ability to solve problems helped her later in life, particularly in Fiji. “I would notice art supplies that were there this month, were not there the following month, and of course there are no art shops, and even the materials that I could buy were really poor Chinese-made quality and hard to use.
“So we had a traditional Fijian wedding ceremony and from there, we got a long white piece of masi gifted from our families from Vatulele. I started to cut a little piece out and started painting it, trying it out with some pieces, and I realised just how beautiful the canvas was.”
So started the use of barkcloth in most of her paintings, solving the issue of finding canvases to paint on. The significance of using masi or tapa is rooted in local culture and the Fijian identity; the use of local resources to paint is a bonus.
“Every now and then we will play with different types of materials, for example, the use of paper crit, which is a mixture of mashed up newspaper and plaster to create a really strong and robust sculpture,” she adds.
While Rova experiments with different compositions, and draws inspiration from the rich cultural heritage of her Fijian families, there are consistent themes she uses; the rhythmic, geometric patterns and earth-tones of Fijian ancient barkcloth art find an echo alongside the dynamic, joyful colours and abstract forms that characterises her body of work.
She describes the paintings as a love song to Fiji.
“I feel so privileged to have just ended up here, living on this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, having the chance to just respond to all this, not just the beauty, but the culture, the tensions, and the life here in Fiji.”
Sigavou Studio includes a gallery where you can view many artworks. The studio area is home to talented artists, who Rova mentors.
“There’s a chance to make a difference for local creatives, to provide support because there’s so much raw talent, but then being able to translate it into sustainable income is challenging for most artists.
Creative individuals are often wired differently; crunching numbers while sitting at their desk is not their ideal work environment. But Rova says, if you are going to survive in the industry, there are times where the numbers matter. It can be an “interesting tightrope” she says.
“We are slowly getting into it; they are getting a foot through the door, and that is really satisfying for me to be able to watch some of our young artists that have kind of passed through our doors, picked up some skills along the way, and watch them find their wings and fly.”
Sigavou Studios is a place to view and buy art, and it also runs occasional events, such as a well-attended ‘sip and paint’ night to celebrate International Women’s Day. Rova’s art studio in Nadi is a family affair, and a focal point for young emerging artists from around Fiji who gather there when big projects are needed and extra talent is needed.
The team’s community work includes visiting schools to hold workshops and create murals.
“In those situations, it is always inevitable to find a kid sitting at the back, withdrawn, while others are painting away; maybe they’ve worn out their sandals. As a former primary school teacher, I would bring them up, and it turns out they are brilliant painters.”
Rova says the transformation on the faces of these children shows the power of art to change mindsets, build confidence, and repair self-esteem.
My own children were almost rendered speechless—a very rare thing— at the sheer creativity that surrounded them at the studio.
Shyly watching the artists paint, my daughter whispered that she loved the colours and the flowers. At the suggestion they try a hand at painting, the look of excitement in their eyes was undeniable.
After donning cute little aprons, they started their spin painting. Their handwork is now proudly displayed in our home.
If you are an artist, Sigavou Studios is always looking for people that have good hand-eye coordination “because a lot of this work just needs so much accuracy and patience.”
And if you are a visitor, the studio is a wonderful place to find a special souvenir.
That prompts Rova to plead with hotels and other tourism facilities to make use of local and talented artists, saying they get many calls from travellers who want to see local paintings.
The award-winning visual artist and her family-run art enterprise has proven time and again that when the tourism industry invests in Fijian-made art, the spin-offs are positive and long-lasting for all involved.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.