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How Tongan-Kiwi tapa cloth artist is using climate change for new exhibition

Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai

Tongan tapa artist Tui Emma Gillies on climate change and new works

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

The climate change crisis in the Pacific is the inspiration behind new works by a talented artist who uses tapa cloth as her canvas.

The captivating ngatu (Tongan tapa) artwork of Auckland woman Tui Emma Gillies was chosen from hundreds of applicants for this year’s Pacific Artist in Residence at the University of Canterbury.

The mother-of-three is a proud Tongan and hails from the villages of Vava’u and Falevai.

She joins a long list of some of New Zealand’s and the Pacific region’s best and well-known artists who have been awarded the residence over the years - including Fatu Feu’u, John Pule, Tusiata Avia, Ema Tavola, Tanya Muagututi’a and multimedia visual artist Sheyne Tuffery.

Gillies says she thinks of the words heritage, sacred and indigenous when discussing the significance of Pacific art in this space.

Tui Emma Gillies in her element. Photo / Supplied

The journey has been one of personal growth, during which she will have time and space to work and reflect.

“This allows me to be independent in my own space, which I cannot do at home.”

Gillies will depict the feke (octopus) to help spread awareness of the ocean’s health to coincide with issues of climate change.

“I’ve chosen the octopus because it is intelligent, good at manoeuvring, shapeshifters and intrigues people.

“I am focusing on the ocean’s health because we rely on it so much more than we realise to be able to keep living on this earth - and if we don’t protect it, we are going to be screwed.”

One of Tui Emma Gillies' new pieces, dubbed: Voyagers. Photo / Supplied

Ngatu is crafted from the mulberry tree’s inner bark after being soaked, pounded and bound together with tapioca starch.

The material has a deep cultural significance not only in Tonga but around other parts of the Pacific; including Fiji, Samoa, Niue, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.

In one of her earliest memories, Gillies remembers the tapa cloth made by her grandmother that covered the walls of her bedroom from floor to ceiling.

Growing up in a room covered in tapa cloth

She has never forgotten the intricate indigenous patterns and still remembers the day she first fell in love with ngatu.

“I would close my eyes and wake up to tapa. It was all around me.”

By the time she was 18 years old, she discovered what she described as a calling in making elaborate works using ngatu as the medium for her artistic expression that combined her own vision, as well as that of her ancestors.

She attributes her success to watching her mother, artist Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows, making tapa cloth, growing up.

Burrows would create new pieces of tapa out of old ngatu she would get her hands on.

“[Mum would] turn it upside down, cut it out and fix it all up. I would watch her.”

Growing up in Pukekohe, Gillies often accompanied her mother to sell those new pieces of ngatu at the Otara Markets.

”According to my mother, I started making ngatu at the age of 7. I didn’t take the art seriously, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I decided to take it up as a profession and become an artist.”

Gillies is now preparing for the exhibition she will hold at the end of her residency, which wraps up next month.

She has a few words of encouragement for all other Pacific artists.

“We can be made to feel we are not good enough, but keep going and don’t stop.

“I know my purpose in life is to share my Tongan culture through the arts.”

Hero image: Tongan tapa cloth artist Tui Emma Gillies is inspired by the climate change crisis in the Pacific region. Photo / Supplied

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