Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Mother and daughter team up to showcase Tongan craft and culture in China

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Mother and daughter duo Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies photographed at their exhibition at TAUTAI. Photo: Starving Artists.
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Kendall Vano | Reporter

Mother and daughter Tongan artists have been selected by the Chinese World Craft Council to showcase the art of Tongan tapa cloth making at the Dongyang Woodcraft and Bamboo Expo. 

Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies are excited to share Tonga’s rich heritage with the world as they embark on this journey.

“We are excited to share our culture with the world. To give an insight to the traditional and contemporary arts of New Zealand and Tonga.” 

For Tui and Sulaiti the invitation is significant not only for indigenous cultures globally, but with the internet, they are now reaching a wider audience preserving and promoting their cultural legacies.

A group of 18 artists from across the globe were invited by the China Arts and Crafts Association, funded by the Chinese Government, to showcase their talents and share their cultural heritage. Among them were Muslim Cossacks, Indians, Malaysians, Australians, and representatives from Tonga.

72 year old Sulieti, has been enjoying her time abroad, experiencing the wonders of the world and sharing Tongan heritage with the local Chinese community. 

Tui and her team have been deeply grateful and humbled by the organisers of the  Dongyang Woodcraft and Bamboo Expo. 

“It is such a wonderful opportunity for us. We have both worked really hard here in New Zealand and overseas for over a decade spreading our love and insight of our culture, the traditional and contemporary art and it is our goal to continue this for as long as we are able”.

“Our connection to tapa cloth dates back to her childhood, where she was exposed to it through her grandmother’s ngatu. This experience shaped my artistic journey.”

Sulieti has been working with hiapo from the age of five, and now her passion and love for the craft has taken her across the world. 

Tui Emma Gillies and Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows, Fāmili, 2020

While at the Dongyang Woodcraft and Bamboo expo, the group had the opportunity to interact with Master Artists from various regions of China.

Tui says “The Dongyang locals were very friendly and welcoming and loved touching our tapa cloth and just watching us beat the cloth and paint it. Some asked to try the beating tapa process and got a shock at the heavy weight of the ike (wooden mullet) used to beat the inner bark.”

“We took our 100-year-old ike over to really give them a taste of our Tongan culture. A lot hadn’t heard of Tonga before so it was a very good opportunity to share our culture there through our art and craft.”

With their Chinese excursion coming to an end the Tongan artists look forward to their next adventure with the introduction of their latest artist. 

“Our next trip is to Hawaii. We have been invited and sponsored to travel alongside my daughter, Aroha, to present and take tapa workshops at the Malama Honua Conference at the University of Hilo in Hawaii as three generations of Tongan Artists,” says Tui. 



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