By Mary Lyn Fonua
Spectacular and beautiful Tongan ngatu, kupesi and a variety of treasured koloa may be viewed in a new exhibition at the Langafonua Centre in Nuku'alofa for a month, before the collection moves to Hong Kong for display in December.
Opened yesterday, the exhibition called “Koloa, Women, Art and Textiles” is the first of its kind presented by the Langafonua Centre in partnership with Para Site, an art gallery in Hong Kong.
The touring exhibition is curated by Lady Dowager Tunakaimanu Fieakepa, who was invited by the gallery to compile a presentation based on her life-long research into Tonga's customary arts, and as a caretaker of her family’s heirloom mats, barkcloth and the objects associated with making them.
The exhibition presents the practice of ngatu (bark-cloth), a major form of contemporary art in Tonga, with examples from active women’s groups as well as highly significant historical pieces, loaned by the women of Langafonua.
In opening the exhibition Lord Fakafanua, Speaker of the Tongan Legislative Assembly acknowledged the role of Langafonua ladies in preserving Tonga's treasures. “I commend the work they are doing to protect and uphold our handicrafts legacy for Tonga, because this is something that stands out globally,” he said. “Ladies here have kept treasures, handed down from generation to generation.”
Lord Fakafanua was inspired by the display. “Parliament is there to legislate on behalf of the people –we need to be more cultured,” he said.
Lady Tuna said that much work had gone into the display, laid out in a museum style to highlight the beauty of individual objects. A spectacular Ngatu Uli (black barkcloth) forms the focal point at the entrance. “We in Tonga like to just pile things up everywhere, but we are learning how a museum makes a display of each piece with space,” she said.
Co-curators Cosmin Cosinas (Executive Director / Curator of Para Site, Hong Kong) and Vivian Siherl (Director of Stitching Frontier Imaginaries, Amsterdam) attended the opening at Langafonua.
“The women's work is profoundly inspiring and requires great international recognition for the quality and depth of knowledge that it holds,“ Vivien said.
Cosmin said the art of Tonga needs to be treasured and to be discussed at a global level. “The black ngatu has the same power and visual accomplishment as any abstract painting made anywhere in the world but it is not yet appreciated.”
Para Site's website explains the background to the exhibition. “The art practices of weaving and bark-cloth making in Tonga are called koloa, a term denoting value, understood in this context in relation to the wealth and self-empowerment of women who make these art objects. These artistic languages are extraordinary both for their stunning visual richness and for their significance as contemporary art practice.”
The gallery has commited to returning the objects to Langafonua a Fafine Tonga after the exhibition.
The project is coordinated by exhibition managers Alecs Aleamotu‘a, Tanya Edwards, and Benjamin Work. Koloa in Nuku’alofa is also supported by Tanoa International Dateline Hotel.