A Tongan textile group, headed by teacher and craftswoman Lolohea Tupouniua, were the first artists to take up the 2011 residency designed to strengthen heritage art forms of Pacific communities in New Zealand and the Pacific.
Headed by teacher and craftswoman Lolohea Tupouniuahe, the women of the Oto'ota Fahina Society brought their skills to a new generation during the Pacific Heritage Artists in Residence series at our Fale Pasifika. During the month-long residency, this group of Tongan textile artists created a tapa, or ngatu, to help teach and keep the art alive.
Lolohea learnt ngatu-making from her mother in Tonga, a process which has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. “Ngatu-making,” Lolohea explains, “has to be a group activity, you can’t do it individually.” Over the coming month, she and the other women from Oto’ota will work in the Fale from the feta’aki (undesigned cloth) patching, joining, rubbing and painting to create a traditional launima ngatu of 10 langanga (lengths).
As with other Tongan crafts, creating ngatu is not limited to skill and dexterity. The koka’anga or process of ngatu-making involves the ritual of work and food, singing and talking. It is a time to pass on stories and histories explaining the cultural belief systems and traditional Tongan concepts of the supernatural and spiritual. “A time to learn the value of respect and endeavour - always working and creating to please the Gods,” says Lolohea. Design concepts reflect this knowledge, and the symbols and their meanings are readily recognisable to the Tongan community. “Even in contemporary Tongan society traditional ngatu patterns are sought after. Authenticity of design is preferred and held in highest regard.
“Within Tongan society ngatu and mats have a prized status and are of greater value than money," says the artist. A woman must have 50 launima (lengths) of ngatu. They are a must for all celebrations of life, events - without a tapa people won’t come.