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FEATURE STORYMarch 5, 2023

Letila Mitchell, Fiji: Mother, Artist, Dreamer

Letila Mitchell

World Bank, 2023

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields.

Letila Mitchell is a practicing artist, arts administrator, producer, academic, and champion of Rotuman and indigenous culture. A self-described mother, artist, and dreamer, Letila is the founder of Rako Pasefika, a collective of indigenous Oceanic storytellers sharing performance, visual and digital art informed by their Rotuman culture and identity.

What inspired you to pursue work in culture and the arts?

Because our family is well-traveled, we were lucky to get the opportunity to see the arts in their best form, supported by beautiful venues and great infrastructure. I grew up as a practicing artist in the region - dancing, painting, and working in the craft space. 

There was no professional education in Fiji for the arts, and my parents saved all their money and sent me for my last three years of high school to a boarding school in Australia with a professional arts program. I went into the program in theatre, choir, and visual arts. Those three years set me up for life.

I had a moment that was a fork in the road for my career. I auditioned for NIDA in Sydney, Australia, and got a place. I thought, ‘Do I go down this track? Because if I do, I'll do well, but it'll be all about me as an independent artist.’ I returned to Fiji instead and did a Bachelor of Sociology and Psychology at USP because I wanted to work in the region. That began my track into the arts and arts activism. 

In your various roles, how have you seen equality evolve in your field?

It's a challenge. Before I took on the role of Director of the Fiji Arts Council, I was artistic director for the Fiji delegations to a couple of other festivals. I was the only person in the region with a postgraduate diploma in Cultural Management who had studied in London, interning at the Barbican and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Yet the first challenge when I walked in the door was that I was a woman. Second, I was young. Straight away, you had three-quarters of the room, not even wanting to listen to you. I always found that difficult because no matter how intelligent you are, no matter how much training you had, no matter how much experience you had, that was the first thing that set you back.

The reality for most women is that you're always a mother, a daughter, and a wife, first. Your creative careers usually become secondary. For most women, even in Rako, over the last 15 years, as soon as they get married, the majority of them are not allowed to dance anymore. We lose so many exceptional female artists just from that stereotyping. It takes very special families to enable women to progress in the arts. That hasn't changed a lot, even internationally. 

What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?

I always knew it would get easier with age. Once you go into your 40s, it's either a thing of experience or ‘I don't care what anyone says anymore.’ I just had to always have courage and was very lucky to have the family that I had. You have to live through those experiences; feel the hurt, pain, embarrassment, and shame. I'd probably spend five years with my older Aunties, getting tricks of the trade, which might have made my life easier. But overall, I don't think I would change a lot. In everything I did, I learned and created pathways in different ways.

This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?

When COVID hit, our Rako team was completely separated all around the world. We were creating a new theatre work and started using digital tools to make all these little digital stories. I then got commissioned to direct a film. That's been my big baby at the moment - directing a film. One minute, I'm a dancer; now, I'm a filmmaker. We did two trips to Rotuma last year, working with elders. The film talks about women's knowledge and how much of women's knowledge and presence was erased in the museums and archives in colonial times. It's about the power of women's knowledge in stories and in practice. 

The positive of digital platforms, social media, and the internet is that women have a lot more access. With the digital space, you can have stay-at-home moms who can become artists and filmmakers and create podcasts, or they can do their visual work and put it up on those platforms. They can be full-time moms as well as artists. It doesn't have to be one or the other. That's been the best thing about having digital spaces. There are so many amazing spaces to learn. You can train yourself, educate yourself, and connect with other people. That helps your innovation and creativity, and it's created that equality and access. 

What do you see as the key ingredients to succeeding in your profession?

In our region, we practice our arts and cultural practices as everyday things. We practice it like we practice cooking. It's ingrained in us. We do it from a young age. Everyone naturally becomes an artist. The challenge is that there is no or very limited infrastructure around that. 

The arts is a profession. You can't expect it to grow and prosper on its own. People think building an industry around it will commercialize culture. But no; it protects culture, sustains it, and gives it a unique infrastructure around artists.

In countries where the creative industries are well established, when people notice you and you become a successful artist, you get an agent, manager, publicist, tour manager, stage manager, costume maker, and lighting designer. In Fiji and the Pacific, artists don't have that infrastructure. An entire band of jobs is missing in the region because the arts need to be taken seriously as an industry. 

We should have producers, managers, agents, and more. None of them are artists, but many love the arts and are necessary ‘background’ people. It's the same in every industry. You can't have an agricultural industry if you only have a farmer. You have to have a distributor; you have to have outlets; you have to have that whole chain.

What are some memorable projects or mentors you've encountered in your career?

The Festival of Pacific Arts is definitely always my favorite experience. My first one was in Palau and was my first big project out of out of my postgrad. I was in the deep end, thrown into the lava pit. It was that kind of experience where I realized I was where I was supposed to be - that gave me my festival bug. I went to New Caledonia and Guam and performed and took teams to many smaller, independent festivals.

I set my sights on bigger events, which then drew me to the Commonwealth Games when I was one of the producers for the opening and closing ceremonies. That was the other extreme, where there were seven producers for the ceremony, had the biggest budgets, and the best people working on it. You come all the way as this small girl from Fiji, and the next minute you're the producer for Stephen Page, artistic director for the Bangarra Dance Theatre. That was just one of those life-changing moments, getting to work with one of my idols. 

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women are in leadership roles?

Women really need to champion each other. That's the only way forward. When you can see a young woman coming into the space, and she's floundering, not to be critical of her, knowing that you were at that point at some time in your life. Take the time to help steer them in the right direction, teaching and helping mentor as much as possible. We all have the capability, skills, intelligence, strength, and mana within us. 

I am doing my Ph.D. I had never even imagined that I would do that. My mentors, [respected Pacific academics, like] Frances Koya, Tarisi Vunidilo, and Konai Helu Thaman, would challenge me, saying, ‘You've always been a thinker. Now, all you have to do is put it on paper.’ 

What advice would you give Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?

In the arts space, there are so many careers. It's not just about that person on stage. It's the thinker; it’s the writer; it’s the researcher; it’s the copyright lawyer; it’s the contract lawyer; it’s the arts accountant. There are so many levels and such a huge ecosystem that can be built. One of my favorites is finding the skill set of different people, finding where they fit in the various companies and helping them build that skill set because it's such a diverse industry.

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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