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'A fibre system of knowledge'

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Dagmar Vaikalaifi Dyck and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi at the opening of ‘Amui ‘i Mu’a – Ancient Futures at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga - Hastings Art Gallery in August 2023.

Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi’s art explore a lineage of traditional Tongan artforms. Hastings Art Gallery manager and curator Sophie Davis describes how these threads align in their exhibition, ‘Amui ‘i Mu'a – Ancient Futures.

Dagmar Dyck and Filipe Tohi’s exhibition ‘Amui ‘i Mu’a – Ancient Futures at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga - Hastings Art Gallery is a chance to see two stars of Tongan contemporary art aligning. With previous iterations presented in Nuku’alofa and Auckland, ‘Amui ‘i Mu’a surveys the work of both artists from the 1990s onwards. Part of a bigger research project exploring the legacies of customary Tongan art practices – textiles, weaving, carving, and lashing – the exhibition firmly locates art-making within processes of making home, community, and maintaining connections between the past and future.

The foundations for this exhibition were laid in 2017, when the pair were awarded a prestigious Marsden Research Grant, along with a group of other researchers and knowledge-holders. With this support, they travelled to different corners of the world to engage with treasures from the Kingdom of Tonga in international museum collections. Dagmar says that this was “spiritual” for the pair.

“It’s emotional, because for many of the objects that we were in contact with, a lot of them aren’t being made anymore, or we’ve lost the knowledge around their origins and their purpose.”

Their group sought to reconnect with the material culture, held far away from Tonga behind closed doors, and to find new ways of sharing and celebrating it. The generosity and collaborative nature of this approach fits the way both artists have made and shared their work for decades.

Filipe has worked as an artist for more than 30 years. In 1978, he immigrated to New Zealand as a young man and settled in New Plymouth.  He learned carving in the Taranaki style at the Rangimarie Arts and Crafts Centre, developing his own sculptural language influenced by Tongan and Māori traditions. The exhibition showcases several of Filipe’s works from his Taranaki days. Alongside these, the more recent works Four Kali (2021) pay tribute to Tongan headrests, following the traditional shapes, scale, and materials of wood, coconut sennit (woven fibres) and bone. Though they are some of the smallest sculptures of his in the exhibition, they have a powerful presence and intimacy – made to cradle the back of the head like a pillow, they are literal and metaphorical supports for memories, respite, and comfort.

Ever-present throughout decades of Filipe’s work is an exploration of lalava, the traditional technique of lashing together materials with sennit. Haukalasi, one of Filipe’s “wool paintings”, is a mesmerising example of the lalava lashing pattern. Strands of dyed, everyday yarn are woven together to show an interlocked, gridded system. The diamond shaped forms within this pattern are the building blocks for many of Filipe’s sculptures and paintings. He describes lalava as a “fibre system of knowledge”, resembling the double helix structure of DNA – the blueprint for life. For Filipe, the pattern is a way of thinking about the most profound and fundamental forms of connection across generations.

Dagmar’s prolific, interdisciplinary practice has a similar central theme in koloa, customary Tongan women’s textile art. Dagmar grew up in Auckland, with a Tongan mother and German father, and was the first woman of Tongan descent to complete a postgraduate degree at Elam School of Fine Arts (the exhibition includes early prints from her art school days). Her contribution to Pacific art and education since then is significant - she taught for 10 years at Sylvia Park School and is still an active advocate and researcher within the education system.

In ‘Amui ‘i Mu’a the full breadth of Dagmar’s making is on display – from collaboratively woven kiekie (waist garments, which are worn every day by Tongan women in semi-formal settings), to layered, airbrushed and stencilled paintings which deconstruct motifs from traditional koloa. The work Seven Sisters (2019), a cascading floor-to-ceiling installation of prints on paper, is a compelling focal point within the exhibition, resembling scrolls of mid-century wallpaper. Dagmar’s father worked in interior design, so she spent her childhood surrounded by paint and wallpaper, leaving a lasting influence visible in her reference to Irish designer Orla Kiely’s classic stem print. Immediately recalling the home environment, as well as the great lengths of ngatu (Tongan barkcloths) rolled out in significant occasions, Seven Sisters alludes to the role of koloa in family and community relationships. The title acknowledges the Mataliki star cluster as well as a ‘sisterhood’ of making – groups of women work together to make koloa. This making process gives these artforms meaning, as do the acts of giving and receiving koloa at significant occasions.

‘Amui ‘i Mu’a is a celebration of traditional design and making and the many roles of customary art practices within Tongan life and society. It is an opportunity to experience two artistic practices coming together to uplift the past, present, and future of Tongan art. The artists describe it as a “reciprocal way of working and collaborating. It’s not finished, this is just an ongoing conversation. It’s not like this project has ‘arrived’. We continue to push and pursue, and that comes through meeting new people in our communities who will add to the conversation”.

‘Amui ‘i Mu'a – Ancient Futures was exhibited at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga from August 5 - November 5, 2023. This essay was originally published in the October-November 2023 issue of Homestyle.

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