Art and Ancestry

Mother-daughter artists bring the tradition of Tongan tapa-making to campus

Tui Emma Gillies and Sulieti Fiemea Burrows

Editor-in-Chief Rosannah Gosser

Ngatu, or Tongan tapa cloth, is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, soaked in water, pounded flat with ike, or wooden mallets, and dried into soft strips with a texture somewhere between fabric and paper. The pieces are then glued together with tapioca starch and painted over impressions called “kupesi.”

Roen Hufford and Sulieti Fiemea Burrows pounding tapa

Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies brought this process, their art, and their message reminding students of the importance of preserving diverse cultural identities to the UH Hilo campus in mid-October. Of Tongan heritage but now living in New Zealand, the mother-daughter duo’s art manifests their shared passion and close relationship in a hybrid style harmonizing traditional tapa with contemporary elements. Apart from adding color pigment onto designs that are customarily black and brown, their work also integrates themes that deviate from the standard of geometric grids and floral motifs, often featuring themes of femininity, nurturing, protection, and spirituality.

“I can tell mum everything, or 98 percent of everything,” Gillies says. “We bicker, like every mother and daughter do, but especially because we work so closely together.” While Gillies’ straightforward and candid disposition often counters her mother’s soft-spoken humility, their exchanges rarely go without laughter.

Burrows and Gillies’ week on campus began with a Hawaiian kīpaepae, or welcome ceremony, on Oct. 14 in the Pacific Islander Student Center. The artists were greeted on the islands with oli and mele, chant and song, and according to Burrows, the ceremony and friendliness of the people reminded the pair of home. Throughout the week, Burrows and Gillies visited Hawaiian studies and anthropology classes, presented a talanoa – or inclusive dialogue – session showcasing some of their pieces, and led a combined demonstration featuring both Tongan tapa and Hawaiian kapa on Library Lanai for the campus community to participate in.

The mother-daughter duo have presented, exhibited, and sold their art to museums and private collections around the world and were the recipients of the 2018 Creative New Zealand Heritage Arts Award. Their most acclaimed project together launched the revival of Tongan tapa-making in Burrows’ home village of Falevai in the island region of Vava’u, where the tradition had not been widely practiced for two decades. With the help of women from the community, two large ngatu were created, local interest in the tradition renewed, and paper mulberry trees replanted on the island. Burrows and Gillies spent the following two years painting the ngatu in colors both customary and contemporary.

Initially apprehensive about straying away from the traditional style of Tongan tapa, Burrows now embraces the fresh influences and feels astonished by the final product. She continues to insist, however, on the importance of perpetuating elements of Tongan tapa passed down from her ancestors. “I want to carry the traditional knowledge with me so it doesn’t disappear, but Tui brings in more modern art,” she says. “When we work together, it’s beautiful and creates another level. I’ve grown to accept it, but before I was scared to bring in another art form, especially color.”

Tui Emma Gillies coloring a piece of tapa

Burrows and Gillies strive to utilize as many natural resources as they can in tandem with modern materials. Tapa cloth itself is entirely decomposable, and the glue they use to paste each piece together is mixed with tapioca starch, half-cooked until the texture’s right. Their main modern adaptations in creating tapa art include Indian ink and acrylic paint.

What Burrows appreciates most about their art is continuing the practice of kupesi rubbings (shown in photo) and how the art has strengthened the bond between her and her daughter. For Gillies, the final product is her favorite part of her and her mother’s art, although she says she’s often unaware of what it will manifest as during the process and experiences her creative impulse as a transmission of the esoteric into the tangible. “Sometimes you feel like there’s something channeling through that helps us know what to put into the work,” she describes. “It’s almost like a meditative state.”

Burrows and Gillies were connected to campus via a prior colleague, Dr. Tarisi Vunidilo, who teaches as an assistant professor in UH Hilo’s Anthropology Department. Vunidilo worked with the two on the Pacific Collection Access Project at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand, representing their home island nations of Fiji and Tonga, respectively.

According to Vunidilo, describing Burrows and Gillies as a “mother-daughter tag team” was what generated much of the intrigue leading up to their arrival on campus. Vunidilo also hoped to find an indigenous artist to accompany their workshops, and she was able to contact Roen Hufford to represent native Hawaiian kapa-making and showcase the artform during the workshop on Library Lanai. “It makes it very special to see the art in action,” expressed Vunidilo. “It makes a huge difference to get out of the classroom and learn from actual people.”

From both displaying their art and engaging with the campus community, Burrows and Gillies hope to encourage others to remember the importance of preserving one’s cultural identity. “Go out and learn about your roots and where you’re from,” urges Gillies.

“Reconnect with your ancestors because knowing where you’re from helps you know your imprint, your links, and where you’re tied to. In the end, it will help you feel more whole.”