When Lakiloko Keakea creates the textiles that find their way to art galleries across New Zealand, she doesn't retreat to a studio and she seldom works alone.

Lakiloko, born on the atoll of Nui, Tuvalu in 1948, is part of a community of Tuvaluan women keeping alive traditional island craft techniques including Tuvalu crochet (kolose) and weaving with a needle (lalanga) in New Zealand.

Now living in West Auckland, her home for 21 years, Lakiloko works from the living room of her Rainui house where granddaughter Patricia Filipi says she is constantly crocheting and weaving.

If she's not there, Lakiloko is likely to be with members of Fafine Niutao|Aotearoa, a 100-strong group of women from multiple generations who have met regularly for six years to practise Tuvaluan art forms.


The recipient of a 2017 Creative New Pacific Heritage Art Award, Lakiloko's first solo exhibition, alongside work by Fafine Niutao|Aotearoa members, is now on at Ponsonby's Objestspace Gallery. The opening was timed to coincide with this week's Tuvaluan Language Week.

Lakiloko Keakea with the fafetu made in the last two years for show at Objectspace in Ponsonby. Photo/Greg Bowker
Lakiloko Keakea with the fafetu made in the last two years for show at Objectspace in Ponsonby. Photo/Greg Bowker

Surveying the gallery, home to about 40 of her kaleidoscopic patterns (fafetu) woven around six and seven-pointed star frames, Lakiloko smiles and says she's happy to contribute to making the Tuvaluan community more visible.

Because she doesn't speak English, Patricia interprets and laughs when she adds, on behalf of her grandmother, "I don't see myself as a master artist". However, these works — all made within the last two years — build on a practice spanning five decades and highlight the interconnections of Pacific arts.

Lakilolo was taught to crochet by her mother and, moving to the atoll of Niutao in 1957, expanded this work. In the 1970s, and as a member of an art collective including women from all the atolls in Tuvalu, she learned about using star-shaped designs in fafetu following a trip to the Marshall Islands.

Since moving to New Zealand, she's widen the range of materials she weaves with to include wool, synthetic ribbons, brightly coloured yarn and even plastic cargo ties.

Her latest creations took her in a slightly different direction, so she sought advice from a niece about how to weave using looms. The largest piece commissioned for the exhibition — and Lakiloko's biggest fafetu to date — was woven on a 1.8-metre steel frame fabricated specifically for fafetu and expands her work to a previously untested scale.

She says she wouldn't have been able to make something so large without a purpose-built frame and standing up while working was also a new sensation. By and large, though, she stuck with her favoured vibrant colours and worked intuitively without plans to allow patterns and combinations to emerge as the threads unspool.

While Fafetu: Lakiloko Keakea might emphasise her work, it's been a group effort with Fafine Niutao|Aotearoa members supplying and weaving mats from pandanus leaves for a partner exhibition at Objectspace. As palm-like pandanus trees don't grow here, reams (pufasa) of leaves have been harvested by family on Niutao, Tuvalu, and shipped to NZ for this project.

The collective is now working to continue the art form and is committed to teaching young people from their community to weave — ensuring tactile knowledge may be passed on. Members are also working with the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange in London, with Tuvalu textiles finding a place in ethical and sustainable fashion.


What: Fafetu: Lakiloko Keakea and Fafine Niutao|Aotearoa: To Weave Again
Where & when: Objectspace, until Sunday, November 11