Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Tui Emma Gillies and her family are keeping the Tongan tradition of tapa-making alive by passing it down from generation to generation.
Tapa cloth is decorative artwork that uses natural pigment and stencils called kupesi and is made of stripped, beaten and dried bark from paper mulberry trees (hiapo).
The Kiwi-Tongan family of artists showcase the beauty of their culture through tapa cloth paintings displayed in art galleries around New Zealand.
Gillies has taken Tonga to the world stage by sharing the special and sacred artform through exhibitions in Hawai'i, the United Kingdom, Spain and the US.
It is a tradition that Gillies learned by watching her mother Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows fix, recycle and paint tapa cloth - who, in turn, learned the exact same way from her grandmother.
"My mum's job, growing up in Tonga, was to pick the shoots off her mother's hiapo as they grew. She learned by observing my grandmother make everything from planting the trees to painting the completed piece.
"My bedroom walls, growing up, were covered in my grandmother's ngatu, so tapa cloth was ingrained in me from about the age of two."
Now, Gillies' 8-year-old daughter Aroha practises the traditional artform, having painted their first intergenerational art piece together called Three Generations.
"I often think of my grandmother and the ngatu (tapa cloth) she created - I wonder if she knew her great-granddaughter would be practising tapa art in New Zealand alongside her daughter and granddaughter. I'm sure she would be proud."
Gillies talked about her family background and of her mother's life growing up in the Kingdom of Tonga.
"Tonga is a beautiful place with beautiful people. Mum always told me about how, as a child, she would learn so much from watching her mother and father.
"How they fetched their food utilising their surroundings, working within a community coming together to help each other.
"How they worked with the earth, the sky and sea, only taking what is needed, protecting and respecting the waters surrounding their island village."
Gillies hopes to project some of that beauty and feeling into her tapa cloth pieces, with hers and her mother's latest work - The Last Kai - reflecting that love and pride.
It is their own Polynesian version of The Last Supper.
"It was very common to see the prints of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous work, The Last Supper, in our people's homes and I grew up seeing it in my Pacific relatives' households.
"It is a work many Polynesians have a special affinity with and that had a lot to do with our urge to do our own version on Tongan tapa cloth.
"It represents the current Covid times we are living in with masks being worn by some. We included women to show we are all equal and need fair representation.
"If The Last Supper was happening in this day and age, we'd hope to see a few more women sitting around the table."
The Last Kai is showing at the Ashburton Art Gallery in Canterbury until June 19, as a part of a group show called Gift.