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Matala - A week-long celebration of Tongan arts and culture

Tuesday 25 Sep 2012 9:49 a.m.

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Matala, a week-long celebration of Tongan arts and culture, will be launched on Monday, September 24, at the Mangere Arts Centre.

As well as dance, theatre, poetry and music, there will be a major group exhibition of Tongan artists.

One of those artists, Tui Gillies, will be showing her work publicly for the first time. Here, Pacific Profile finds out where the 32-year-old Manurewa mother of two and step-mother of one gets her inspiration.

Tui Gillies was born to be a Tongan tapa artist. Her mother Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows (nee Topeni) was born and brought up on the island of Falevai in the Vava’u group in Tonga and is herself an accomplished tapa artist in the traditional style. As a child, Sulieti would go with her father to the harbour to sell woven and sewn creations to the foreign visitors who would arrive in the boats.

Eventually, she met her future husband Barry Burrows, a palangi yachtsman who crashed his yacht on a reef in Fiji and then, on a whim, decided to have a holiday in Tonga. To this day, Sulieti still says thanks to that Fijian reef.

In the 1970s, when Barry brought Sulieti back to New Zealand to live in Manurewa, mixed Palangi-Islander marriages were still quite rare in Auckland and Barry’s family took a while to adjust. Sulieti continued selling her craft, which now included art on tapa coth, every Saturday morning at the Otara Markets and did so up until 2011.

Tui would join her mother at the markets each weekend. She also began to paint on tapa cloth that her mother would get sent over from Tonga and eventually Tui’s creations were being sold alongside Sulieti’s. But Tui wasn’t bound by the artistic traditions of Tonga. They were merely the starting point from which her expressions of urban life in South Auckland took flight. These days Tui’s pieces are incredibly intricate combinations of traditional Tongan tapa and deeply personal explorations of life as a half Polynesian-half European woman in contemporary New Zealand.

Tui’s bedroom at her parents’ house was (and still is) like a cave or womb lined with tapa art painted by her maternal grandmother. Every surface (the walls, the shelves and even the ceiling) was covered with it. The light shade was actually the bassinet her mother had woven with Tongan flax and in which Tui and her brother had slept as infants.

Tui was naturally left-handed but, as often happened back then, her father forced her to write and draw with her right hand. He didn’t want his daughter to be “cack-handed” and believed he was doing her a favour. He certainly doesn’t seem to have done her a dis-service as Tui’s right hand is steady enough to hand-paint designs on rough tapa more intricate than most people could draw with a pen on smooth paper.

Tui knew very early on that she had a rare talent for art. She remembers on her first day at kindergarten as a three year old, drawing a fully-formed person and noticing that all the other children had drawn “stick figures and potatoes with eyes”. From then on she would do a piece of art every day to give to her father, who was a harsh but appreciative critic.

Tui got her bursary in art at Manurewa High School and then went on to study art at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

One of the main challenges Tui has faced with her art is building up enough work to exhibit. Each tapa piece takes her weeks, sometimes months, to complete and financial need has often forced her to sell them immediately upon completion. One strategy she used on a painting of Mary and Jesus with which she couldn’t bear to part was to make available one hundred prints. She has sold ninety of them, as well as a series of Christmas cards she had printed.

Tui has started painting with colours and has discovered she is able to produce these works quicker. Her work in this medium isn’t as intricate or complex and she can allow herself the freedom to loosen up and go a bit wild. It’s fair to say that Tui’s tapa art and coloured paintings would probably attract two completely different audiences. And it would be a very discerning judge who could pick them as coming from the same artist.

The paintings show all the love of bright colours possessed by the Polynesian people yet often have a gritty, streety, crazy vibe. Painting them has been a very satisfying process, not least because the rush of completing a work is experienced more often. But Tui feels, probably quite rightly, that her most important work will always be done with Tongan ink on Tongan tapa cloth, which is named Ngatu.

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