Unpacking our ngatu tāhina
11 December 2023
When thinking about how to contextualise the recent additions of Cora-Allan’s works on hiapo within our collection, curator Sophie Thorn couldn’t help but think about the giant roll of ngatu tāhina (decorated barkcloth) tucked away in the corridor of the gallery’s back of house stairwell. Out of the way but never quite out of sight, the thought of seeing the work in its entirety was tantalising. Her goal was to enable visitors to be able to walk the length of the ngatu; to take it all in, to be engulfed by it and understand the sheer scale of collaborative effort that has gone into the making of this piece. Our files on the piece lack detail and, without an exhibition of this kind, were likely to stay this way.
From 12 August—29 October 2023 Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery held A Gift, A Celebration, An Invitation, as part of our exhibition Back of House. This was the second in our occasional series, Aro Toi/Art Collection in Focus, in which we take the opportunity to shine a light on new additions to Ngā Puhipuhi o Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection in the Adam Art Gallery.
In this iteration, our three new acquisitions by Cora-Allan were placed in conversation with the ngatu, a piece that has been in the collection for nearly twenty-five years. In recognition of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s milestone of 100 years of teaching and scholarship, this ngatu tāhina was gifted in 1999 from the University of the South Pacific as part of the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions.
Our ngatu tāhina is over 24 metres in length (this is made up of 50 numbered langanga sections, which when complete in this form is a launima). This remarkable scale is typical of the barkcloth used for ceremonial purposes and speaks to the extent of the collaborative effort that has gone into its making. Listed in the collection database as “Tongan Tapa, makers unknown,” we do not know exactly where it was made and for what original function, and we used the occasion of this exhibition to find out more about its history and provenance. This also provided a moment to reflect on the shifting nature of record keeping and what may have changed over the past twenty-five years.
Made from the inner bark of the hiapo plant, ngatu are made through the process of beating strips of bark with “ike”, widened into sheets called “feta’aki”. Groups of women then work together as part of a “kautaha koka’anga”, a Tongan women’s barkcloth-making collective, to join sections of cloth and to decorate them with natural dyes and pigments. Made within the Tongan gift economy, ngatu represent what is known as women’s “koloa” or wealth and are gifted during significant life events or ceremonially.
Through research in preparation for the exhibition curator Sophie Thorn tracked down the people who were involved in the original gifting ceremony at the University, including Stephanie Gibson the collection manager at the time the ngatu was gifted, who shared fascinating details of the first installation of the ngatu at the university in the Maclaurin Lecture Theatre block. Through the course of this research, she uncovered that the ngatu was originally presented to the University of the South Pacific by the ‘Atenisi Institute in December 1998 on the occasion of Professor Futa Helu’s honorary doctoral degree. Sophie reached out to the University of the South Pacific, staff at the ‘Atenisi Institute and the family of the late Professor Futa Helu leading up to the ngatu’s installation. Serendipitously the exhibition was blessed on opening day by Reverend Simote Taunga of the Methodist Church in Wellington, who revealed that he had studied at the ‘Atenisi Institute as a student of Helu.
Through installing the ngatu we have been able to surmise that the work is much older than originally listed in our records. When seen on full display, faded places in the markings on the cloth allude to long periods exposed to the sunlight. The cloth has no synthetic materials in its making and is of a wider traditional scale to those commonly produced today. In ngatu made since the mid-1980s it is common to find the incorporation of some synthetic materials. We are still hoping to hear back from family members who might have some recollection of this particular ngatu and how it may have been gifted to Helu.
Using the themes underpinning the Back of House suite of exhibitions in the gallery, we also issued an invitation to the wider public, asking anyone who may be able to help us find out more about the history of the ngatu to get in touch. We were excited to connect with our community on campus, have our Facebook posts about the ngatu widely reshared, and receive direct messages on Instagram, which helped unpack some of the kupesi found on our ngatu. Each kupesi or pattern used on the ngatu has a meaning and a place of origin. This ngatu features an old kupesi called the tokelau feletoa, which is said to have originated from the village of Feletoa, in the Vav’u Group located to the north of Tongatapu. This information has now been added to our files to help future researchers.
As part of the exhibition, we invited New Zealand-born Tongan artist ‘Uhila Moe Langi Nai to visit the exhibition and develop a response, which will be included in a future programme at the Gallery. ‘Uhila visited in mid-October. Hosted by Sophie and the gallery team her itinerary included a visit behind the scenes to the Pacific Collections at Te Papa Tongarewa with Te Papa’s Kaitiaki Taonga of Pacific Cultures Grace Hutton and Senior Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures Sean Mellon. We also met with members of Toi art including Rebecca Rice, Isaac Te Awa and Nina Tonga and visited Tibuta – Kinaakiia Ainen Kiribati at Pātaka Art + Museum. ’Uhila’s visit was also filmed as part 2 of the Back of House documentary that will be released in early 2024. We look forward to the ongoing collaboration with ‘Uhila and what she develops as a response.
While the ngatu is now back in storage (with a new Tyvek dust cover) the opportunity to honour the work that went into its creation, to connect with the local community, and to see it in the gallery context has been invaluable. As the Collection’s guardians, we aim not only to adorn the institution but to acknowledge the full range of art being made in Aotearoa New Zealand that exists within the wider Moana Oceania region, recognising the varied ways in which artists inflect and add to the University’s efforts to test, question, extend and create old and new knowledges.