The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.1 Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘The ocean in us’, in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2008, p. 59.Epeli Hau’ofa
Robin White and Ruha Fifita, working collaboratively and in association with the women of Haveluloto village, Tongatapu, have taken the powerful living art form of Tongan ngatu (painted barkcloth) into uncharted waters. In absorbing and honouring customary processes and materials and working communally with Tongan makers, White and Fifita have discovered new forms, motifs and styles and have enabled a great Tongan tradition to grow fresh branches and foliage.
Tongan ngatu is a singular form of painted barkcloth made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree that has been softened and expanded by a process of beating into thin sheets of paper skin. Producing ngatu is a lengthy and multi-layered process undertaken communally by groups of women who, in beating, joining, pasting and rubbing small sections of the cloth over kupesi (patterned rubbing blocks) imbue the ngatu with layers of meaning, stories, sounds, textures and resonances. As the lengths of barkcloth are assembled and pasted in a repeated action, the rubbing of their upper surface with brown dye brings out nuances of the pattern from the raised elements of the kupesi beneath, animating the ngatu with its particular materiality, timbre and depth. Key motifs are heightened by hand-painting, creating an oscillation between linear and painterly elements and patterned and plain sections. These motifs are reiterated symmetrically over vast lengths of ngatu to form highly prized launima (barkcloth of immense scale). An integral part of each ngatu composition is the white undyed border, known as tapa, deliberately left on two or more sides, which enables the complex inner section to breathe. Another special form of Tongan barkcloth, the ngatu ta’uli, features a large black void formed by layers of soot derived from burning candlenut, a precious black pigment that signifies unknowability.
White and Fifita’s collaborative exhibition Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean is an allegory of the ocean in its breadth and depth, fluidity of movement and majesty. It comprises three discrete collaborative ngatu projects displayed together for the first time. The first of these, Siu i Moana, 2011, a triptych from which the exhibition takes its name, traces migration patterns of fish species, such as long-finned tuna, as well as humanity and acknowledges the centrality of the sea to life across the Pacific.
The Siu i Moana triptych celebrates the practice of reciprocity and exchange that characterises Oceania. The triptych acknowledges those things that connect different peoples, infusing modern everyday materials such as tinned food and tea packaging with human values that are timeless and borderless, like an ocean. Its two figurative tapa works contain a vaka (canoe) that symbolises travel from Tonga to New Zealand and from New Zealand to Tonga and in which commodities and cultural objects for exchange are placed.2 See Robin White, ‘Walk this way’, in Bronwen Golder & Gregory O’Brien (eds), Kermadec: Nine Artists Explore the South Pacific, Pew Environment Group, Washington, 2011, pp. 132‒41.
A halakafa – at once a pathway and, traditionally, a place for tying rope ‒ runs through all three ngatu, signifying the length of the underwater volcanic ridge that joins Tonga and New Zealand. The focal point of the triptych, the dark-toned ngatu ta’uli titled Rangitahua and centred geographically on the Kermadec Islands, is devoid of pattern and figurative elements. In this barkcloth, two zones of blackness are interrupted by a red vertical band suggestive of a fracture in the earth’s crust, which could suggest the heat and friction of two things confronting each other or, alternatively, evoke the calmer processes of coming together.
The second work in the exhibition, We are the small axe, 2015, portrays links between Pacific cultures and alludes to the struggle of indigenous peoples against colonial rule. The title, drawn from the Bob Marley lyric, ‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe ready to cut you down’, refers to an incident from the Kanak independence movement when a ballot box was smashed with an axe in symbolic protest against territorial elections.3 Robin White in conversation with Paula Savage, ‘Between culture and tradition’, in Art News New Zealand, Winter 2016, pp. 68‒9.
The exhibition also features White and Fifita’s most ambitious project to date, Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path, 2013–16, which features Seen along the avenue, 2015–16. This majestic four-part ngatu installation extends the concept of a pathway to connect East and West, past and present, and the everyday and transcendental. The recently completed, floor-based launima Seen along the avenue was inspired by the Tongan design of the Hala Paini (Pathway of Pines) that represents the road, fringed with Norfolk Pines, leading from the King’s palace in Tongatapu to the royal tombs. The ‘avenue’ of the title references Ben Gurion Avenue in Haifa, Israel, which leads from the shores of the Mediterranean to the foot of Mount Carmel.4 ibid, p. 69. In this launima, stylised motifs of crisis and victory, and life and death, represent alternating rhythms, patterns and vicissitudes of life.
The garden, 2013, continues the idea of the central pathway, with steps ascending through the formal terraced gardens of the Bahá’i World Centre – a famous pilgrimage site and place of meditation and detachment from the clamour and congestion of urban life.5 ibid. The extensive use of black dye imbues the ngatu with a sense of gravitas, as well as a spiritual dimension. By contrast, In my father’s house, 2014, is dominated by an architectonic geometry of pattern, with black design elements unfolding against the natural undyed tapa; and the black void of The crimson sea, 2014, signifies the mysterious depths of the ocean – or that which is beyond human comprehension.
Siu i Moana reveals the understated poetry and materiality of a great Tongan art tradition and the way in which pattern integrates images and conveys ideas that transmit narratives across space. The eight ngatu compositions floating in a huge white cube create a harmonious interplay of expansive colour fields, sections of linear pattern and figurative reflections of the natural environment. Experiential, painterly and tactile, these contemporary works in a customary medium are living, breathing objects in which viewers can lose themselves.
Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘The ocean in us’, in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2008, p. 59.
See Robin White, ‘Walk this way’, in Bronwen Golder & Gregory O’Brien (eds), Kermadec: Nine Artists Explore the South Pacific, Pew Environment Group, Washington, 2011, pp. 132‒41.
Robin White in conversation with Paula Savage, ‘Between culture and tradition’, in Art News New Zealand, Winter 2016, pp. 68‒9.
ibid, p. 69.