On the lawn outside Filepe Tohi's New Plymouth home the grass competes for space with a modern-day Stonehenge. The green blades are barely evident as the land is taken over with super-size stone sculptures. A large totem pole type wooden carving draws its design from Māori, Tongan and European influences, smooth faces peer out from hard rock, a tear drop remains suspended in stone.
Inside, artistic chaos reigns; geometric criss-crossing lines are everywhere, sculptures hang on the walls, rest on the floor and are carved into the beams, tubes covered in layers of string patterns stretch for the ceiling.
Making art is Filipe Tohi's life.
The Tongan artist is well known for his stone carvings that dot the New Plymouth foreshore but Filipe is also a master (tufunga lalava) in the ancient art of lalava - the decorative lashing that was used on houses, canoes and tools in his home country before nails. Thousands of patterns were created by wrapping black and brown ropes into complex geometric forms, binding beams, holding canoes together, lashing a fishhook to a line. Lalava also describes the weaving of coconut fibre to make rope and the play of lines in Tongan art forms including weaving, carving and tapa cloth making.
In English, lalava means lashing - but from a Tongan view lalava is more than that. Lashing is an ancient Pacific language that was used to interpret the environment and represented Polynesian philosophies, says Filipe. The down-to-earth artist has taken lalava and made it his own, putting a contemporary spin on it in a quest to understand the patterns and the language hidden inside the layers of string.
"I have identified a visual language within the lalava that was not only used by our ancestors for voyaging, but it communicated principles of cultural knowledge and history. For me the sennit patterns of the Pacific convey our memories and experiences as well as carry us from place to place."
Lalavaometry and lalavaology
Filipe has called his quest to understand the patterns lalavaometry and lalavaology. He taps a tube covered in red and black string patterns. "For the past 15 years I have been trying to discover what is in there. The pattern is worked from inside out, not outside in. We don't know what's hidden in a pattern. I'm fascinated you can get 1000 variations on each pattern. What is in it is a whole encyclopaedia. It's a metaphor for DNA in modern times."
Fingering a string-wrapped piece of wood around his neck, he says what was seen as primitive disguised a sophisticated world view encompassing engineering, construction, mathematics and navigation. "It may look like a piece of string - but this is my computer."
The artist is passionate about his work - gesturing wildly, pacing up and down, grabbing wooden matchstick like sculptures off the wall to make a point. It's not an easy philosophy to understand and many people grapple to take in the enormity of it.
Filipe describes lalava as the ‘intersection of two strings as they spiral up and down, forming patterns. Without both strings there are no patterns and both must go together.’ Between the strings there is a balance - a male and female which become a metaphor for the world around us. He sees things as lines and space, infinitely intersecting in nature, mind and society. "Look around you everything is like this - even in your body - the blood vessels, the ligaments…"
"This language was there before the missionaries came with their pens and paper and other materials to replace the lalava; our mana changed. Polynesian lifestyle is a pattern and harmony in the physical sense."
Bringing old techniques into the light
In an effort to understand he has deconstructed the patterns, slowly unravelling the intricate designs before literally turning them inside out - creating three dimensional sculptures - beautiful matchstick creations, wool and string and wood highlighting the balancing male and female forms. In this process, he points out he's not trying to revive a lost knowledge, but is trying to understand the cultural knowledge hidden in the layers.
"This is my passion - to bring some of the old techniques into the light - to unravel it."
To arrive at this point Filipe has followed an intricate pathway - much like the lalava patterns he is passionate about.
‘Hey he can draw’
Filipe was born in the Tongan village of Ngeleia, near Nukualofa in 1959. He lived with his grandmother and great grandmother who taught him the skills of story telling and music. He would watch her weave blankets (ngata/tapa) and floor mats (fala).
"When I was six years old I remember the first time I draw something.'Hey hey, he can draw,' says one of the neighbours… A boy likes the drawings so he gives the comics for me to draw and I can keep them." Filipe drew movie characters for a cousin who paid for his tickets to the appropriate movies, stencil printed T shirts for friends and forged a Tongan bank note which he managed to cash in a dimly lit snooker parlour.
But drawing got him into trouble too - his schoolbooks were often filled with sketches of comic book figures and martial arts heroes. Filipe's family wanted him to work hard and get a qualification. "I was near the bottom of the class because I spent too much time drawing."
It was at school that his papalagi (European) headmaster recognised the young boy's talents - awarding him a prize for his paintings.
Joining the migration
In 1978 the 19-year-old joined the Tongan migration to New Zealand where for a while he learnt the Western style of art. The shy teenager ran away from his first day of art classes at the Auckland Institute of Art, "I didn't think I could match the sort of work that was being done."
Several years later he moved south to Taranaki where he met Brian Topless, head tutor at Rangimarie Arts and Crafts Centre. Brian took the young man on as a trainee, his talents began to shine and within a few months Filipe was working as a tutor.
In 1987 Brian and Filipe won a contract to carve the front doors of the New Zealand Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Two years later Filipe held his first exhibition at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.
A blend of many cultures
Since then he has been developing his style - creating a Māori/European blend of art working initially with wood, then stone. Gradually Filipe began to incorporate his work with a Tongan influence -a return to his roots, melding the past and the present. He returned to Tonga to study under the one of the few remaining tufunga masters Tamale, and historian Te Ita Fale who is an expert on ancient Tonga.
The artist now visits his home country to learn from other elders and pass his knowledge on to emerging artists. The ancient stone ruins - megaliths and archways found in Tonga - are part of the influence of his work.
Filepe has experimented with different materials: wood, stone, stainless steel, string and wool. He has lashed beams for the fale at the University of Auckland, created sculptures for a park in China, exhibited work in Sydney, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Tonga and the prestigious fifth Lyon Biennale Arts Festival in France.
In New Plymouth he is known for his stone carvings - but perhaps his most famous local work is Halamoana (ocean pathway) - a 14m stainless steel sculpture based on tufunga lalava that is lit up at night.
Filipe is now regarded as one of New Zealand's leading Polynesian artists and his work is in demand internationally. But it's not about fame and money for this artist.
"Enjoyment is it for me," he laughs. "What it is all about is the key thing for me. In the end it's all nothing - you know? Ultimately everything is nothing.”
First published 3 March 2006
Papers: newspaper cuttings on Filipe Tohi TRC Vertical Files.
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PLACES TO VISIT
Govett Brewster Art Gallery
- New Zealand's foremost contemporary art gallery. Crnr of Queen and King Sts New Plymouth. ph 06 759 6060.