The Tradition of Tongan Tapa

Tonga is well-known as one of the Islands in the Pacific to practice the art of ngatu making. From their ancestors, ngatu making has been passed down throughout the generations and it has become deeply embedded within our beautiful culture. The production of ngatu is predominantly a feminine working environment with only minor assistance from the men. The beauty of ngatu making is the various processes involved, time and patience given towards this art.

Pacific Journalist Sara Vui-Talitu wrote an article for Radio New Zealand about a mother and daughter’s efforts to rekindle the lost tradition of tapa-making in a Tongan village was celebrated as part of this year’s women’s suffrage commemorations in New Zealand.. When Sulieti Burrows and her daughter Tui Emma Gillies visited the village of Falevai on Vava’u back in 2014, it provided an incredible opportunity.

The iconic art of making tapa or ngatu had not been practiced in the village on Vava’u for several decades prior.

Tonga Map

Where is Vava’u, Tonga?

Mother Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows said they had helped revitalize tapa-making with other local women, but it also evoked childhood memories, like one of her own mother hitting the bark to make the tapa. “Actually that’s very important because that’s my village. And that is where I grew up,” Burrows said.

Burrows said when she was a child it always sounded as if people were just playing the drums. “And we went over there to do the project and it just reminded me about everything growing up, and I could see my mum sitting over there, beating.”

Tui Emma Gillies worked alongside her mother to produce large scale ngatu (tapa) while encouraging locals to replant. “At the time there were no mulberry trees growing there,” she said. “Just a place where women weaved … no tapa cloth, no mulberry trees and this long piece of wood where they make ngatu on, was just in this abandoned home. So we just pulled it out and started to use it again.”

Auckland Council’s Manager of Arts and Culture Programming Hanna Scott said she saw the pair’s proposal to have a tapa exhibition of their work from Falevai at Mangere Arts Center back in 2016, but wanted to schedule it in later. “And the reason is that this year’s program is centered on the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage,” she said. “I really enjoyed their kaupapa of mother and daughter travelling back to their home village and giving knowledge of how to make ngatu back to their traditional community and thought it had a good place in the 2018 program.”


Tongan ngatu example from

Gillies said they also included old proverbs well known in the area in their work.”Huge work up there called Falevai Moe Famili. Shows symbols of what we see Falevai to be,” she said. “It’s got women, family, the animals.” She said it also had an old proverb about a woman who used to sit opposite Falevai on a rock. “She’s actually a ghost, who used to brush her hair on the rock and men would go over to her but crash on the rock and then she’d disappear,” Gillies said.

Ms Burrows said that she had high hopes that things were still ongoing back in the village, as the duo had been given more funding to continue their work on island. “When we went over there and we came back and then we went back again, they started planting the mulberry tree over there,” she said.”But I look forward to going back this time and see if they still continue or they stop.”

The director of Pasifika at Massey University, Associate Professor Malakai Kolomatangi, agreed that ngatu is dying out in some parts of Tonga, but thankfully not all. He said while their contemporary designs may not appeal to purists of the art, he supports the art. “I agree that the art itself has to be relevant to contemporary audiences and if it is not relevant of course the art dies out,” he said. “And to adapt the motifs and designs to more contemporary tastes I think is a good thing.”


About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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