Last year, Mele saw an old, grainy picture of a women's dance costume from the 1800s and was inspired. No one today makes the fine woven comb that was in the dancer's hair, instead preferring simple bundles of flowers tied onto palm sticks for performances. She went home to experiment, and returned to her craft co-operative several days later with a traditional Tongan comb, crafted using modern kebab sticks she found at the grocery store. Upon seeing it, everyone laughed! What business did she have making an old, obsolete costume piece nowadays, and on top of it all, out of a package of sticks you could find for a dollar? Barely a week later, an American scout from The Field Museum in Chicago, IL, USA came by the downtown craft shop and immediately bought her piece. "Now it's on display in a museum." Mele says with a smile.
I met Mele in the small, corridor-like Langafonua craft shop in downtown Nuku'alofa, and was immediately absorbed by her stories and creative spark. The craft shop is the business arm of the largest womens' association in Tonga, acting as a gallery for their members, who come in as often as every week to collect their commissions from the sale of their crafts.
Although the items might not normally be called modern art, it is almost a disservice to label them "crafts," as a quick look down the aisles reveal ornate carvings, intricate bark cloth paintings, and finely woven tapestries.
Mele and I walked down along light-shafted, Pacific-heat-dusty tables while she pointed out her items. She picked up a pair of woven bracelets from a huge stack, and said "no one else made these in Tonga before I started," and immediately slipped several on her upper arms, grinning at my camera.
Mele has been weaving since 1986, and has been a full-time, professional artisan since she retired, selling her pieces at the Langafonua craft shop. Her work helps support herself, her husband, and the younger of her six children, and she loves what she does.
Decorated weaving for wall or table display
Although she focuses on traditional finely woven mats and formal mens’ta’ovalas (waist mats), she also creates and sells bracelets, woven necklaces, baskets, traditional hair combs, purses, and is the only artisan in Tonga to make woven earrings and woven tissue boxes.
She brings a fine craftsmanship to her work: her traditional items are finely done and well produced, and her more innovative pieces are creative and original. Like the bracelets, they often start a flurry of lesser-quality reproductions among the other craftspeople.
She is inspired by reintroducing ancient styles of traditional Tongan crafts to modern Tongan crafts. Along with her comb, several of her other pieces are on display in the Field Museum, including a women’s formal belt (kiekie) woven out of tiny strips of pandanus fibre.
Having had a lifelong career in teaching, Mele is a natural educator, and loves to explain her craft, which she clearly loves doing and is proud of. She is a charismatic speaker, and is a captivating storyteller, punctuating her sentences with pregnant pauses and quick grins. Her opinion is that “handicrafts make a lady powerful,” allowing the artisan to use her own mind and hands to support herself and her family.
She says that because of skill in handicrafts, as well as many other things, “women here [in Tonga] are strong people.” She certainly fits the description.