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Sāmoan first, an artist second

Around ngā motu

Above: Mulipola with his Palestine fl ag remix at a protest in Mangere.

Sāmoan first, an artist second

Comic artist, wrestler and activist Michel Mulipola has become a public face of Pasifika-Palestinian solidarity in Aotearoa.


By Theo Macdonald

Resistance runs through the marrow of Michel Mulipola’s bones. His great-grandfather was Mata’utia Karauna Solomona, secretary for the Mau movement, which used non-violent resistance to protest New Zealand’s colonial occupation of Sāmoa in the early decades of the 20th century. Although Mulipola has long been recognised around Auckland as a comic artist and professional wrestler — brawling under the nom de plume Liger — he’s recently gained greater prominence as a public face of Pasifika solidarity with international calls for Palestinian independence.

North & South meet Mulipola at Arkham City Comics, a boutique comic shop opposite a housing development in Royal Oak. He used to work at the store full-time, but now it’s just three Sundays a month when he’s not in LA taking meetings or marching down Queen Street.

A group portrait of Batman’s foes, drawn by Mulipola, adorns the shopfront. The Joker, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze. It’s a fantasy of good versus evil, and not the type of justice we’re discussing today.

Mulipola, employed by Walt Disney Animation Studios after stints at Penguin Random House and Boom! Studios, speaks with gentle confidence. His self- assurance may result from decades of self-promotion, a necessity for artists living contract-to-contract. Mulipola is a storyteller through and through, whether in comics, wrestling or protest.

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At Walt Disney Animation Studios, Mulipola is a cultural consultant on a project he can’t currently disclose. This role follows eight months of working for Disney as a story artist, all from his garage in Mangere. He takes the responsibility of representing Sāmoa seriously. “In this position, it’s up to me to uphold culture and language, so I don’t care if you’re Disney. I’m Sāmoan before I’m an artist.”

According to Mulipola, standing up for what you believe in is compulsory for artists. “In order to create art you have to have a sense of empathy for the world around you, so I don’t believe any artist can say they’re apolitical. If they are, they’re a shit artist.” Even pro-wrestling, he says, taps into the political anxieties of its audience. Weeks after the September 11 attacks, former US Olympian Kurt Angle won the WWF Championship Belt, a twist Angle later revealed was orchestrated to boost American morale.

Mulipola credits great-grandfather Solomona with his eloquence, political engagement and fiery disposition. At Aso Pogisā (Black Saturday), the notorious 1929 clash when New Zealand military police fired upon a Mau procession, killing eleven Sāmoans — Mulipola’s great- grandfather was wanted for tax evasion. Much as American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes as a protest against slavery, the Mau movement advocated tax resistance as an objection against Sāmoa’s colonial rule. According to accounts Mulipola recently uncovered, Solomona was identified to police during the parade by a distinctive felt hat. A brawl broke out during the attempted arrest, in which one of the police officers got hit with a cornet. Mulipola’s great-grandfather was a cornet player — his family are famous Sāmoan musicians — and his dented cornet remains in the family home. According to Mulipola’s great-grandmother, the dent is from a stray bullet, but Mulipola thinks the dent could be a stray bullet and a police officer’s head.