Last year, NZ artist Dame Robin White worked with Tongan-NZ artist Ruha Fifita to create two huge works on tapa speaking to the trade of goods and ideas between Tonga and New Zealand.
Each stage in the process of making tapa the traditional way takes hours, days, and months of continual work; time that is filled talking, telling stories, and sometimes singing, and after the work was done, Robin and Ruha kept talking. It was time for the next project.
I stand with the master artists Robin and Ruha in front of the fuatanga. The other contributing artists and I had fun going through each piece and picking out the little parts we'd done: "There's the shell pattern I stitched!" ... "That's my flower there!"
The work started almost immediately after the Kermadec Exhibition left Tonga, and I got to see the final work open last month at Two Rooms gallery in Auckland as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. For this series, two huge, traditional-sized tapa (a launima and a fuatanga) represented Ko e Hala Hangatonu, or The Straight Path. The work represents a pathway, literally and metaphorically, and draws off the Tongan Hala Paini tapa style, or the “road of pines” that leads up to the Royal Palace here in Nuku’alofa.
Each column of designs tells a story, like a traditional tapa does. Many tapa tell the story of an important event or person.
Making ngatu (tapa) in Tonga is inherently a group process; there's just no way one person can go through all the steps alone. Once Robin and Ruha had drawn up the schema and most of the designs for the kupesi (symbols), they came to Tonga for several weeks to work on it here. Lucky for me, one of the main foci of the piece was this value of collaboration and learning, and I got to work on it with several other artists as well as the Havelu Women’s Group who leant their expertise and work in construction and techniques.
Ruha's grandmother to the exhibition and wrote a poem in commemoration of the project
In June/July of this year, the finished pieces will come back for everyone in Tonga to enjoy, and I even get to do it as part of my job: I’m organizing it, as it will be hosted by the NZ High Commission.
A launima-sized tapa is over 80 feet long
After the main work was done, three other locally based artist friends and I started putting together an accompanying exhibition. We’re going to be opening a concurrent show in Tonga to reflect on and go along with Robin and Ruha’s work. Our show will highlight the history of our three respective families and has developed into a comment on the diversity of society today. Collectively with parents and grandparents coming from different island groups and different countries, our families represent Tonga, New Zealand, the US, and northern Europe, and our lives reflect moves between Tonga, New Zealand, the US, the UK, and the Philippines.
The beginning sketches and test kupesi (symbols) of my piece