Collective keeps culture alive in Auckland
One of the first things Lolohea Tupouniua and her husband Sitili did when they moved to Auckland in 2003 is build a falehanga in the back garden of their family’s Mount Roskill home.
That’s a women’s space. It’s where Lolohea sits with many of her 15 grandchildren and other relatives a couple of times a month passing on the skills and customs around making tapa, or as it is called in Tonga, ngatu.
In the garden is a hiapo, the mulberry tree whose bark is peeled and beaten with four-sided mallets into a strong paper.
Sitili, a former mayor of Nukualofa and MP who now ministers a branch of the Free Constitutional Church of Tonga, wants to see if the trees will grow in Auckland’s climate.
Until some local source can be found, collectives like the Tupouniua’s Fahina Group must get the raw material from relatives back in Tonga as ‘opo’opo, white sheets about 50 centimetres square. They then koko’anga or felt them together to make the large tapa that are then painted on with juice extracted from the bark of the koka tree.
Lolohea has various traditional patterns she teaches, such as a chevron used in the king’s houses or markings for individual chiefs, but there is also scope for the makers to add their own designs.
“We have the patterns and the meaning of patterns. As a girl I learned it from my mum. The main work of women was making tapa and weaving,” she says.
Tapa and fine mats are the fabrics underpinning the social fabric of Tongan life, wherever they live.
They are an important part of funerals. They are given at birthdays and wedding. When a bride gets married, she is expected to have a large ngatu as part of the bedding in her dowry.
Tapa is used for dance costumes, such as the robes the young men wear for the ma’e tu’u paki or paddle dance.
Lolohea’s granddaughter Lauren says since her grandparents moved over, the family has been bound more tightly together, with the sessions in the falehanga a big part of that.
“You not only get familiar with the customs but with the Tongan language as well, because the majority of us grandkids are kiwi born and bred,” Lauren says.
She spent time as a child back in Tonga and remembers her great grandmother leading similar sessions.
“I guess it’s a way of staying in touch with loved ones who have passed, because as you do it you recall memories and you talk about it. You would not normally do that over a cup of tea.”
The family’s ngatu production, and the weavings it makes, all find a home within the group or within their church and school commitments, although some collectives have started producing tapa for sale.
The Fahina Group has held public demonstrations of tapa making, and Sitili is seeking funding for lessons to teach New Zealand-based Tongans how to make traditional crafts like lei and costume elements.
“We want to help them learn and carry on with what their parents and grandparents were doing,” he says.