COVID-19 and the World of Work

MPTF Informal Economies Recovery Project - Entrepreneurs Jouney

Q&A with Irami Buli – An ‘Artrepreneur’ On a Mission

News | 06 June 2021
Contact(s): bernard@ilo.org
Irami Buli is a well-known name in Fiji’s cultural and creative industry. A self-described ‘ARTrepreneur’ specializing in post-modern art, Irami has behind him decades of experience and has had his work exhibited both locally and internationally. In 2014, he travelled to Sydney, to exhibit at the National Maritime Museum of Australia, following a voyage across the Pacific highlighting Ocean Conservation. Later, in 2017, Irami became the first Fijian to exhibit at the Beijing International Biennale National Art Museum in China – cementing his place in Fiji’s ‘hall of fame’. Despite these accolades, my interactions with him immediately give me the sense of a quiet, grounded individual who values his craft more than any award.

As a means of giving back to the local community that has remained his source of inspiration over the years, the BULIVITI Gallery now operates in Fiji under Irami’s watchful coordination. “The aim of the Gallery is to build art visibility in Fiji,” he tells me. “I want to encourage more authentic storytelling through visual interpretations, like painting.”

I ask Irami what it has been like for him as a creative professional since the onset of the COVID pandemic in a country where travel and tourism contribute to about 26.3% of total employment in Fiji. “The beginning of the pandemic in 2020 was so unfortunate for many people – including for my own family and friends,” he explains. “Being part of the informal sector, I was one of the thousands seriously impacted by the shutdown of national borders. Our biggest customer market is tourism and the private sector businesses associated with it. This is where the bulk of our products are channelled towards.”

Although Irami’s story is an increasingly familiar one in Fiji [which is currently experiencing its second COVID19 wave], I am still moved by the unspoken pain I can sense in his voice. The unemployment rate in Fiji, which hovered around 6% before the pandemic, is estimated to have shot up to around 35%.

“The onset of Covid19 is definitely the biggest challenge of our lifetime,” Irami continues. “Local artists cannot readily access global markets at the moment; therefore, we have tried to shift our focus to local consumers. But Fiji’s economy has been disrupted enormously and it is becoming almost impossible to survive. Sometimes it feels like we have no room to breathe.”

Irami’s reference to feeling suffocated is a poignant one. At a time when millions are struggling to physically breathe due to this terrible disease, governments across the world have had to consider whether protection measures like lockdowns pose as much of an economic risk to its citizens, as COVID does a health one.

Without prompting, the artist seamlessly shifts to a determined tone. “This is the time for all of us to reach out and assist those around us in any way we can. We have to bolster unity and share our common challenges with one another. We have to find a sustainable path that works for everyone in the midst of this new normal. There is huge potential in the Fijian and Pacific art scene to develop business models that are durable, sustainable and profitable.”

I know that these are not just ‘nice’ words said for the sake of an interview. Aside from his personal gallery, Irami founded and is Director of Fiji’s very first visual arts association - The Viti Association of Visual Artists [VAVA]; and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. As part of the United Nations Informal Economies Recovery Project, the International Labour Organization [ILO] and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] have joined forces to support Irami and other Fijian visual artists in building back better. The innovative project, funded directly by the UN Secretary General’s COVID19-recovery fund, is exploring concrete ways of increasing opportunity for informal sector enterprises and workers to influence national COVID-19 recovery policies and programmes - through a collective formalised voice.

Formalizing the creative sector allows for greater representation in decision making spaces that influence government policy; provide members with improved access to social safety nets like pension funds; and promote the professional development of the cultural and creative industries in Fiji.

I ask Irami for his thoughts on the direction in which the industry is moving. “I want Fijian artists to know their potential is limitless. There is so much room for this sector to expand and grow into. I’m excited but we will be able to achieve together, and by having a ‘seat at the decision-making table!’”