The World's Authority On Tongan Textiles: The Dowager Lady Fielakepa Curates Her First Exhibition In Hong Kong
In Tonga, there are long-held traditions about wedding presents. “From the boy’s side, the family give lots of pigs and food to the bride’s family,” explains 83-year-old Tunakaimanu Fielakepa, the Dowager Lady Fielakepa, a stateswoman of the Polynesian island nation. “And the girl’s side present koloa to the groom’s family.”
Koloa is an overarching term for textiles made by Tongan women. The practice takes many forms, including ngatu, a cloth normally made from bark and inscribed with intricate patterns and symbols in dark inks; ta’ovala, mats woven from strips of pandanus leaves; and kafa, rope-like creations of braided coconut fibre or, sometimes, human hair. Certain koloa are saved for one-off ceremonial occasions, then stowed away; others, such as ta’ovala mats, are worn multiple times a week. “They are not made to be exhibited—they are private, family things that we use,” says Fielakepa. “They have a purpose—we make them to wear to church on Sunday, and for occasions such as weddings and funerals.”
But last year, for one of the first times ever, koloa was exhibited as art. Cosmin Costinas, director of Hong Kong’s Para Site art space, and Vivian Ziherl, artistic director of Frontier Imaginaries in Amsterdam, travelled to multiple Pacific islands in late 2018, when they met Fielakepa. “We met her at the Langafonua Centre, which is an association for promoting the arts of women that she is very much involved in,” recalls Costinas. The pair persuaded Fielakepa to exhibit works from her extensive collection of koloa, some of which have been passed through her family for generations, and a show was held at Langafonua last August. “It opened my eyes,” says Fielakepa. “They had the ngatu hanging from the wall and the ceiling [ngatu are normally displayed flat]. It was beautiful.”
Across The Seas
Now, in an unprecedented move, the exhibition has moved to Para Site. It is the first time Fielakepa’s personal collection has travelled outside Tonga, and the first major international exhibition to present koloa as contemporary art. “Koloa is not craft, it’s not a different kind of work—it is part of the realm of contemporary artistic practice,” explains Costinas. “The exhibition also features three female artists from around the Pacific—Tanya Edwards, Nikau Hindin and Vaimaila Urale. But these artists are not in the exhibition to translate koloa into the field of contemporary art or to use as reference points—they are on equal footing to the koloa in the show. They all bring different things to the show, and their work references multiple layers of knowledge in the Pacific.”
Although it was only recently that Fielakepa saw koloa as art, she is similarly insistent that these textiles are a contemporary and not historic practice. “Koloa is alive,” she says. “We still make them; we still use them.”
It was also important to Fielakepa, Costinas and Ziherl that the exhibition presents koloa specifically as the work of women, so the exhibition is titled Koloa: Women, Art and Technology.
“Textile art has historically been dismissed for two rather obvious reasons,” explains Costinas. “One is that it was seen as something that was done by women, so from the perspective of men—who were the ones writing art history—that was reason enough to exclude it. Second, from a Eurocentric point of view, this was primarily associated with non-Western contexts, with countries that were colonised by Europe.” Koloa was victim to both of these prejudices.
In Tonga, textiles were particularly important to women as they gave them agency. “The word ‘koloa’ translates most directly as ‘value’,” explains Ziherl. “In Tonga, there are men’s koloa and women’s koloa. Men’s koloa is men’s wealth—land. Women’s koloa is women’s wealth—textiles. It’s ultimately a currency because it’s something that can be exchanged and gifted.” Weddings are a key occasion for the trading of koloa. “Koloa don’t stay with you,” says Fielakepa. “It’s always an exchange. Sometimes you make good ones and receive not so good ones, but that is life.”
Over the past 80 years, Fielakepa has seen koloa shift from being currency in and of itself to something that generates hard cash. “With modernisation has come education,” says Fielakepa. “To send your children to school, you pay school fees. Now, women make koloa to sell so that they can pay for school fees to help the husbands. It’s a great asset, not only for school fees, but also to help the men with keeping the family. Now we have electricity in Tonga, we have to pay for that. We also have water that we have to pay for—something we didn’t pay for before.”
Although she understands why some koloa must be sold, Fielakepa is sad to see some of these textiles leave Tonga. “People from New Zealand, Australia and America have money and they come to Tonga and buy the best koloa,” says Fielakepa. “My koloa are the most valuable to me because they are from my family, but there are [objectively] better koloa that have been sold.” She also advises families to always keep some textiles. “When they sell part of their koloa, they must keep a small amount. What if your grandson elopes with a young girl and gets married? There will be obligations.”
Fielakepa’s interest in koloa began when she married in 1959 to a man who would inherit a noble title. “I was instructed by my aunties and my mother-in-law that I had to start making ngatu because I was a married woman,” she recalls. “There are people with good hands for weaving, and I’m not one of them. I tried weaving the first time and I said to the woman who was behind me, ‘Can you come and take over?’ And I moved to the back.” Since then, when making koloa, Fielakepa has fulfilled the role of instructor, guiding the groups of women making the textiles, which can number up to 18 women if the group is working on a large ngatu dozens of metres long.
When Fielakepa retired from her career as a teacher, she began researching the patterns that adorn ngatu barkcloth. “Each of the symbols is like a codex or index—it’s like cryptography,” says Ziherl. One herringbone-like pattern, Fielakepa discovered, was originally inspired by the footprints of the Tuli bird that snake across beaches in Tonga. Like the bird itself, this pattern is rare. If it features on a ngatu, it indicates that the owner is of high ranking. “The koloa link together the hierarchy of the social and political structure with the natural world,” says Ziherl. “It’s like a secret code.” This pattern is one of dozens Fielakepa has deciphered.
This show in Hong Kong may just be the start. “When we first met you promised that you would live to 100, so that we could tour the exhibition all across the world and have a really big book put together,” Ziherl reminds Fielakepa, who laughs, then turns suddenly serious. “It was never in my dreams that this would happen,” says Fielakepa. “The thing I’d like people to learn from this exhibition is that Tongan people can make beautiful koloa. Koloa make us feel we are Tongan. Koloa are our valuables, our customs, our heirlooms and we still use them. Koloa is alive.”
Koloa: Women, Art and Technology will be held at Para Site until February 23.