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Design Through a Pasifika Lens

VĀWĀ exploration model 1/100 scale- Contour topographic map of St Paul’s Street.
VĀWĀ 2020 Speaking Surfaces Gallery One. Sapati Mossiah Avei Fina’i with Speaking Surfaces team.
Sapati Mossiah Avei Fina’i at his 3rd year final critical presentation/marking exhibition.
Using his Samoan heritage, one recent AUT graduate has found his drive to make the intangible come to life.


When it comes to selecting careers and university courses, family involvement often comes with its share of pressure. Not for Sapati Mossiah Avei Fina’i - it’s his motivation.

“A big factor for wanting to design and create was my family. Coming from a big tight-knit family meant I had a lot of people to turn to so I wanted to reflect this support and love for family in my work. Architecturally, family is represented in sacred places like Fale Pasifika and Marae and that’s why I wanted to study and explore spatial design from a Polynesian lens.”

When Fina’i says he has a big family, he means it. 

The 23-year-old of Sāmoan, European and Chinese descent is one of 15 siblings and has always been surrounded in the arts, from his father and uncles’ family band to his own garage band and a love of drawing, sculpture and graphics throughout his schooling.

Building a career

He discovered a passion for the thought process and design/conceptual stages of building and making - which led him to AUT’s Bachelor of Design. “I often wondered how buildings and spaces went from something intangible like a thought/vision to something tangible to touch, hear and see. So my curiosity led me to the space that I’m in now where I’ve been able to speak my own thoughts into existence and draw on inspiration from my Sāmoan heritage and life experiences, all while learning and connecting with others.” 

Fina'i's VĀWĀ exploration model 1/100 scale- Contour topographic map of St Paul’s Street.

Finding the right course took time.  Fina’i knew he wanted to study architecture but was unsure in what capacity. ”The Spatial Design major at AUT was the best fit for me because I wanted to try my hand at different types of practices and with their range of minoring choices I was able to do this.

“I chose digital fabrication as my minor where I learnt a lot more technological skills and software development techniques, before then, most of my art was hand sketching and using hard/physical materials for models. 

“Another reason I chose AUT was for the social environment on campus and the Fale Niu (Pacific Island Student Association) and Office of Pacific Advancement support, the cultural belonging aspect of study was something I wanted for myself. The reason I chose to STAY at AUT was because of the people I met and the lecturers who invested time into my work and ideas.”

Speaking surfaces

Learning to trust his instincts has been a big part of Fina’i’s academic journey, “every single project or piece of work that I’ve done hasn’t had the same or originally anticipated outcome, but been more than what I expected.”  And it helped him achieve a milestone of being involved in the Speaking Surfaces exhibition, a collaboration and experimental design project between St Paul St Gallery and the Spatial Design Year 3 Studio.

VĀWĀ 2020 Speaking Surfaces Gallery One. Sapati Mossiah Avei Fina’i with Speaking Surfaces team. 

This opportunity has really opened up my mind to the tensions and scope of what art can really be and what it means to people in the way they feel and react or engage. Speaking Surfaces is so multi-purpose and diverse as it explores different practices and techniques while protecting traditional ideas and projecting them in a modern and contemporary way.

“It has opened doors to opportunities and networking with experts in the field and I’ve been able to share my voice and work in the place I’ve been lucky to learn in.” 

What the future holds

Sapati Mossiah Avei Fina’i at his 3rd year final critical presentation/marking exhibition.

Fina’i is now working for the Office of Pacific Advancement at AUT, with a desire to break down some more barriers for the Pasifika community. 

“My ultimate goal in life is to give back and share my work with others. I hope to inspire other budding creatives to pursue their goals and use their artistic ‘flare’ to express themselves. Eventually, I’d like to build a centre for creators to explore, develop and finetune their craft in whatever mediums they choose and help contribute to their communities and a new evolution of design in Aotearoa and the Pacific.”

Further education is also appealing to Fina’i, considering adding a Masters to his impressive resume - and he’s unequivocal in his advice to those still deciding how to structure their tertiary future - no matter what field they focus on.

“Be patient and carry your authenticity wherever you go. Trust yourself and be kind.”


Written in partnership with AUT. For more information about the Bachelor of Design programme, click here.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

8 Jul 2020

The Big Idea Editor

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