National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > Vaka Moana series > Arts of tattoos, lashing, house and boat buildings > transcript

Arts of tattoos, lashing, house and boat buildings: Mahina’s Moanan theory of ta and va (time and space)

Siosiua FP Tofua’ipangai (aka. Lafitani), National Museum of Australia, 16 June 2009

ADAM BLACKSHAW: I am going to throw it straight over to Siua who has come today to talk about Tongan culture and about some specific relationships between lashing, tattooing, canoe building and house building, and some of the concepts around that. Thanks very much.

SIOSIUA TOFUA’IPANGAI: Thank you. Thanks for this opportunity, Adam. Maybe our ancestors are not very happy for me to talk about them this morning. This is a continuation of the talk I gave at the National Gallery earlier this year. This is an expansion of the same theory on Moanan theory in relation to tattoos, lashing, house and boat buildings. I will deliver the same speech in Sydney in August of this year and I will probably modify a few things. I have developed and modified a few things since my last talk at the National Gallery.

There is some theoretical background to this talk, but I will skip through it very quickly. There is this new theory by Mahina, which he called Moanan Theory of Time. He claimed to his first student Ka’ili who followed him that it’s a very typical way of looking at reality by ancient Tongan people, especially when they translate the idea of time and space from philosophy and science to the Tongan context. There is some coexistence, some connection there, some similarity to reality as it was developed in the West.

They also claim that form is the abstract concrete dimension of time, which is form in Tonga. We have the same definition in Tonga with form. And then they also claim that content is the concrete dimension of space, and if we go back, vice versa, we go from content to space and we go from form to time.

As you read through this abstract, they didn’t point out a clear connection with the theory of space, time and the categories was were first developed by Aristotle. They touch on in their development - they mention but not clearly define as I am trying to do in part of my work - that there are some connections in their development. They developed some of the ideas about ta and va or time and space out from the classical Western theory of time, space and the categories that was started by Aristotle, by some Hellenistic and Medieval scholars, and in our time by Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Samuel Alexander and John Anderson, the latter two both Australian philosophers.

What I am trying to do in this talk is to fit in or to relate the whole idea of ta and va, space and time, and form fuo and content uho, how they can fit in and how tattoos and lashing and the arts that form kinds of cultural arts. Interestingly, I have come across the fact that we have the same definition of form as it is in the West, and as it was developed from the Greeks. We have different words about form but they have exactly the same meaning. And also for content, we have a variety of words with the same meaning. Ta has the same meaning as time and va the same meaning as space.

You will see as we go through how I have related the ta and va for a new hope, how they are culturally rearranged by Moanan people. We are different from culture to culture because of how we perceive time and space, and how we rearrange it. We arrange it differently according to how we view time and form of things, space and content. In the West, they rearrange time and space - which is a natural phenomenon - according to their upbringing and some of the natural and social settings in which they grow up. That’s why we are different and I will clarify that in my talk.

On this slide, the third paragraph is the important one. Ta and va are related to the doctrine of ontology, how things exist in society and nature. It also has an epistemological side, how it relates, how it’s being used, how ta and va are rearranged according to the cultural setting. It has ontological aspects, but it has epistemological aspects as well.

Why Moana? There is some movement in New Zealand where we used the word ‘Moana’ instead of the word ‘Pacific’. Here are some of the reasons why we claim Moana to be a term that can explain and also reflect how these Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian people arrived in Oceania, in Moana. Also for various reasons, as you have seen, we have a very strong reason why we claim that we are Moanan people. Moana was probably the first term that was used for us. The term Pacific is OK, but it doesn’t really reflect some of the fundamental truths of our island histories.

Helu claims the name Samoa to originate from the Sa Moanan people, meaning people/ lineage of Moana, which Ha’a Moanan in Tongan also means the same. Ha’u’ofa explains moana or ocean as ‘sea of islands’. Moanan-Tongan ta and va (time and space) is Mahina’s Moana general theory.

Some of the Tongan and Moanan definitions or explanations of ta and va: ta is time - time-marker, to mark time, to beat, to form, to perform. For example, ta faiva to perform a dance and ta fafangu to strike a bell. Va is space, space between, social relations, socio-spatial relations, space that relates. For example, faiva to perform, to do rhythm in space; tauhi va and tauhi vaha’a are fundamental terms in Tongan Moanan culture to maintain beautiful and peaceful relationships; taka vaha to be at sea, and so forth. There are some proverbs. Just a few concepts: tufunga and faiva. Tufunga is our term for visual art; and for performing or performance art, our Tongan term for that is faiva.

What I’m going to talk about are all aspects or components of tufunga. In a broader sense, it a work of art with its structure and function producing outside the artist himself or herself within the ta and va of a material medium, articulating by its unique form fuo and content uho, as I briefly mentioned before. It is like ta (time) is equal to fuo (form), and va (space) is equal to uho (content). One is the abstract dimension of the other; fuo and uho are the concrete dimension of ta and va.

Tufunga is literally derived from the prefix tu to beat. That’s also interesting in Tongan culture - a prefix like ta or tu have almost the same meaning. Tu means to break, to cut, to shake, to articulate, to form. So tufunga is literally derived from the prefix tu (to beat or shake something) and the root word funga (mound or peak). Also there is a narrow sense of the word which we speak about in a minute. But they are some important ideas that come in here. Symmetry - when we create a work of art, a tufunga or faiva in Tongan or Moanan art, the whole purpose is this qualitative nature and also there is a utilitarian function. There is the concept to make it beautiful, with some of the concepts that you can see to produce symmetry (tatau), harmony (potupotutatau) and beauty (faka’ofo’ofa).

When you have those elements that gives rise in the context of Tongan dance to warmness (mafana), to happiness (fiefia) and to extreme excitement (tau-e-langi) or reach the sky. If you don’t have the first elements even in tufunga, even in material art, if you don’t have symmetry (tatau), the harmony (potupotutatau) or the balance, then you won’t have beauty. You won’t affect or influence the view of the viewers.

Some of the narrow definitions - to beat tempo or rhythm in material medium. And for faiva, the other part of our art - this is in contrast to tufunga, the material arts - a work of art with its structure and function producing with the participation of the artist himself or herself (producer) within the ta and va, and so forth.

So we have tufunga and faiva. Tufunga (material art) and faiva is about dancers performing or performance art. I won’t talk about faiva today. As I mentioned before, I will talk mainly about tufunga.

This is the theory of space, time and the categories, which in my work I try to expand and elaborate. That’s where ‘Okusi Mahina and Ka’ili partly developed their theory. There is some connection with the traditional theory of space, time and the categories. The main difference is in how they rearrange the statement itself. This is how it’s written in the West: space, time and the categories. With Mahina and Ka’ili, it’s time (ta) and space (va), the reverse, but they haven’t discussed the categories, which is a part of my work. I’ve developed it in this paper, but we won’t talk about it because of time.

This is an explanation of the connection of form (fuo) and content (uho) with ta and va. The explanation in the first paragraph is from John Anderson by Baker, who was a student of John Anderson, and the second paragraph is from Mahina. But they’re talking of the same thing. How Baker explains time and space and form, or form and content, is very similar to how ‘Okusi explained it from a Moanan perspective. That’s very interesting for me because, as I mentioned before, there are real connections, even though Mahina and Ka’ili didn’t mention or discuss in detail categories, and how they got the idea of form equals time and content equals space.

Before we move on to mainly photos and a few explanations, I want to finish this first part of the talk with this person Filipe Tohi, who is the master artist of lashing. He has developed a few art works like sculptures with new traditional patterns out from his study and his works on lashing. Mahina and Filipe Tohi argue that the patterns of lashing or kupesi were the original patterns from Moana people prior to the patterns on pottery in contrast to some of the archaeological and anthropological suggestions that believe our patterns came from pots. With Mahina and Ka’ili they believe in some of the arguments that our patterns came from tufunga lalava (lashing).

Also Tohi relates or equates kohi or line to ta and form, because for him kohi marked the form of this line. The line (kohi) defined the forms of this bottle (water bottle), and with our whole arts that I’m talking about today - lashing, tattoos, boat building and house building - for him it’s about line, kohi, between space va, but the kohi are according to we Tongan and Moanan arrange space and time differently from the West and differently from the East.

Also I have developed by observing the four arts that there is always the principle of curve. This is one view of how we arrange things. A straight line for Moana people doesn’t work in the Western context. Even in talking, even in our poems, even in our songs going straight is very taboo. It’s disrespectful to go straight.

This is our straight line. That’s how we perceive reality. And in all things, most of the cultural creations in our history for how many centuries, this is what we call the straight line - the curve - and it applies to how we interact in society.

Also there is a spiral that is very important, which is another side developed out from curve. There is also circular, which is very similar to curve, and reflection. Reflection in the four arts is very important. I’m going to talk about curve, spiral, reflection. Everything is to be reflected either genealogically from one body to another body, from one work of art to another work of art, or within a body to reflect things - very important.

Tohi himself discovered in our patterns (kupesi), in the tattoo (lalava), in the dance (haka) that there is always this principle of 60/30 degrees for female and 45 degrees for male. So if you see a design that is 45, that’s a male design, male pattern or male kupesi. If you see a pattern or kupesi that is 60/30, that’s a female one. Gender is very important for our culture. Always make sure that they are equal, male and female. The dominance of male was something that was introduced later during Western contact. It’s the opposite of what we developed in our culture.

Also in dance you can find 60/45 principles there. For women when they haka in Tongan dance, this is how they fu and pasi [both different kinds of clapping] - they clap 30/60. They never go out from this boundary. They can do the haka and make sure that it’s going around through 30/60 for female haka. That was explored by Tohi and Mahina. For male in our haka, 45. This is how we fu. And you later on will see that our male pattern (kupesi) are 45. It’s very interesting how you see there are some connections. They developed in the past, no art in Tongan Moanan history or culture was isolated from the other.

We have found in our work the connection of one individual art to another art, either in the context of tufunga or in the context of faiva. But today we are just talking about tufunga. We will start with tufunga (tattoos) or tatatau in Tongan. I mentioned before the principle that tatatau means to beat identically, equally, proportionally, or symmetrically based on line-space (kohi-va) intersections in our material and also in our physical art using red (kula) colour for men and black (‘uli) colour for women. And also you can follow the 60-45. This is a Hawaiian traditional design, kupesi. If you see, you will hardly find any of those kohi lines that are 45; they are confined to around 30 and 60 degrees.

We talk about the curve principle. You see a lot of curves. Also we talk about spiral, circular, reflection. If you draw a line here, this side is exactly the reflection of this side, and you can see that repetition is either within body, reflect, or genealogically. Traditionally speaking it was the same tattoo her mother and her grandmother got if we’re talking about traditional tattoos. It’s either body to body or within body genealogically - so X is Y and Y is X, which is the idea of the reflection.

Also by the same token we have stratification of patterns. There are patterns in Moanan culture for commoners; there are patterns for chiefs; there are patterns for kings. That’s what I mean when we talk about how on the vertical hierarchy there are classifications of patterns according to society and nature, according to social structure. When we go on the horizontal level it’s like we are all equal. So in our old system, on the horizontal level everyone is equal. Everyone belongs to individual tribes. When we talk about the vertical dimension, there is the Tu’i (the female king), and there is the male king - chiefly woman, chiefly man and then go down in the social structure.

This is a Samoan pe’a (male tattoo), again with the same principle of curve, the same principle of reflection. This side here has exactly the same patterns on the other side. You have just half inside here. The line in the middle demarcates one side from the other, and the right is the reflection of the left with traditional patterns. We no longer have that in Tonga. Tattoos were banned in 1838, and it’s revived now but we lost the ceremonies in Tonga - unlike the Samoans. The Samoans still have the ceremonies, they still have the tribal tattoos which can go from body to body. We don’t have that. We revived, but we just follow some of our existing traditional patterns or kupesi.

That’s the only surviving Tongan tattoo that we’ve still got. That’s a Tongan tattoo by Durville, one of Captain Cook’s painters. So it’s not much different from the Samoan pe’a.

With our Tongan women, we didn’t find any clear tattoos. We had tattoos but just a few small species, creatures on their hands, palms and not on the body, which is different from the Samoans and others. The Samoans have the malu (female tattoo), the women have the kupesi here, but the beauty of kupesi like some of the ideas I talked about before.

That is still a traditional kupesi, but modern designs or modern tattoos. You can see there most of us, because we didn’t know that it has to be in a mirror reflection nature, there’s no reflection there. He got the curves; he got some of the traditional kupesi.

Look at this here. This is 45-45. This is called in Tonga manulua and in Samoa manuluaas well. This kupesi is very old - 45-45. This one here tokelau feletoa - a lot of 60-30 degrees. These are two birds. This is the abstract - that is what I meant - this is how we look at things and how we draw things in the past. We look at it not in its concrete form, appearance, but its abstract nature. I mentioned these are two birds - lua means two in Samoan, manulua in Tongan. This is a bird in its abstract form. Our artists in the old days looked at things in the abstract form.

Tufunga langafale (house building) - the same principle as I mentioned before. That was painted by one of Captain Cook’s painters. Also if you see the post - always in a Tongan house in the old paintings you will see four posts - no more than four posts. The Tongan house either is a big house or a small house but always has four posts. More than that was Samoan, and there are social implications of that.

The four posts - they are four men carry the king. But still in here with those beams; it’s called in Tonga fata [catalogue]. Normally that’s where the king sits. There are traditional kupesi patterns called fata developed on that. From this side, you can see this is the social structure of Tongan society in the old days. You have people carrying the fata where the chiefs and the kings are, if you look vertically this way. If you look horizontally, you will see the same principle of reflection. You can see the same principle of curves, power, the same. But they have social implications as well, as I partly mentioned.

That’s a house pole. The other house before was like a national or village house or chiefly house - huge one, again Captain Cook. This is a normal household painting, and you can see the same principle applied. Also you have the pattern there, the lashing. I forgot to mention in the first house, the lashing developed but they found in the old days mainly chiefly houses and only houses of the kings where there was traditional lashings.

For the Pacific and New Zealand that’s lashing - always look at the colour - that is always black and red. This is not a Tongans’ house. They call it fale pasifika. You can see there are more than four posts, which is a Samoan house. But the lashing was done by Filipe Tohi. He is the only one who had got the knowledge and the skills in the Pacific cultures.

I was there last year, and there are a few things that are missed from this house. The lashings are just the bottom fata. And also very importantly within our lashing, there are alphabets and languages, which you will see later. Filipe Tohi developed that language.

It took him 12 years solidly to try to work out, because there was this idea when he studied lashing that there was something hidden by the artists. Because in Tonga, knowledge as you might be aware of pass through the genealogy. It is genealogical through the tribe. So the knowledge of lalava (lashing) was hidden for thousands of years within the tribes or the lineage or their ha’a [clan/lineage].

Filipe was an outside person who studied lashing, and finally he found out - after 12 years of, according to him, solid study of lashing - the alphabet. It’s very hard for us to read but when you understand the language, there is language, there is written stuff, there are alphabets, there are words that explain. As you enter the house of a chief, those people who can read things, you can just look at the lashing and you can read it. Most of the Tongans have no idea of the alphabets or the words in the lashing.

I will pass this around. These are the writings of the lashing in Tonga that have been hidden for how many years, until Filipe - and still the experts of the lashing ha’a, the lineage, they still haven’t talked about anything up to these days. I want to skip through because we have talked about most of the concepts before. You can see here the black and the red. And when he lashes, the red will represent male kupesi, male patterns, and the black will represent female kupesi.

That’s a sculpture he develops out from one of the traditional kupesi - tokelau feletoa. They look different when you look from different angles at both buildings. Tufunga Fo’u Vaka. The same as I mentioned before, and you can still see. When I studied the Au Kalia [double hulled canoe] and boat, they are developed from the same principles I mentioned before. They normally create a new one exactly the same, the idea of repetition, the styles, the mirror, the same.

That’s the Tongiaki, one of the known Kalia that the Tongans used in the old days. It travels up to Melanesia, eastern Hawaii. We have oral traditions and myths that are related to findings of archaeologists and anthropologists. There are some which are not related in explanations.

That’s how they believe the Pacific or Moana was settled. Some of those arrows I don’t agree with and some of the dates. This is by Mahina and in some of our works. There are a series of myths for children. Some of our works are coming out and are going to be launched in New Zealand later this year. This is the cover of one of the books.

This is how we look at things in an abstract form. This is kalia (double hulled canoe). If you look at our tapa you will see how we draw things in the past. We weren’t really concerned with the details, with the contents. That is very Eastern Polynesian. In Western Polynesian we’re more concerned with the shape, the form.

That’s the abstract dimensions of the Lomipeau. Lomipeau was one of the main Kalia for the Tu’i Tonga [King of Tonga]. It was believed some of the stones that were brought to build the royal tombs. About 30 royal tombs in Tonga were brought from Futuna and ‘Uvea by the Lomipeau. You can see also on your left the manulua - the two birds I talked about. Very common, all those small patterns - bits and pieces on Tongan art. The main kupesi here is Manu Loa. And this is the Lomipeau.

That is a Tongiaki seen by Tasman in his trip to Tonga. Remember it’s all lashed - the same principle I mentioned before. This is a fishing boat, canoe. This is in front of the main island Tongatapu.

That’s another Tongiaki, the same Tongiaki that I showed you before. That’s a development in Hawaii and Tahiti, the Hoku Lea. It’s the revival of what they used to call pahi in the old days. Pahi is the main kalia they use. For us - Tongiaki; for them the pahi; for the Fijians and some Melanesians Ndrua (Nudrua), which almost looks the same. If you can see, this is a revival of pahi. A lot of the principles I mentioned before are there, and it looks beautiful. It has that qualitative nature, as well.

At the end of this talk I’ll show you some of our royal tombs. That’s Langi Na Moala - na moala meaning royal tomb. These are some of the stones that were brought from neighbouring Tonga, and also from Uvea and Futuna. This is a small Langi, but that’s the cemetery of the late Prince Tu’ipelehake and his wife Princess Kaimana died the year before. They were buried on the top of that langi. That’s Langi Paepae-‘o’Tele’a. This langi still has its good shape and form. Langi Paepae-‘o’Tele’a was believed that most or all of these were brought from Uvea and Futuna through the Lomipeau, named after the King of Tonga at the time Tele’a or ‘Uluakimata.

Langi Malu’atonga (royal tomb) - four layers. You also have one of the main kupesi designs in Tonga from the langi as you look from the top down, and this is how it looks. This is one of the developments in New Zealand by Filipe Tohi, Uli Lousi. This is when you look from the top down elevation on the top of our langi. Our langi are very similar to the Incas, the Mayans pyramids, because they always have this flat top, and the same with us. We call this Fata-Tu’i-Tonga, the carrier of the Tui Tonga kupesi, one of the most chiefly kupesi in Tonga. That’s the Langi Tu’ofefafa where the last Tui Tonga from the old kingly line was buried. All in the old capital. That’s the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Motu’a, which was believed to be built before some of the langis I showed you.

I would like to thank you all for being here today, to listen and to watch some of the ‘best and permanent productions’ of Moanan minds and souls since ancient times up to our era. Special thanks is given to Mr Adam Blackshaw and the National Museum of Australia for giving me this opportunity to participate in the 2009 Vaka Moana exhibition.

It is a great honour, and I am happy to continue working together with you in enhancing and sharing with Australia and the world the wisdoms of a thousand years, from our past masters in both tufunga and faiva arts.

Te u tatau atu he, katau toki hoko atu (I rest my case here just for now).

Ofa lahi atu (love you all) and Malo lahi (thank you very much).

Date published: 14 August 2009