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Tokelau’s traditional artists showcase talent

Tokelau’s traditional artists showcase talent and exchange knowledge with New Zealanders

For Pacific Guardians | by Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a F. Tauafiafi

Mr & Mrs Vasefenua Reupena, Peletava Gasolonga, Hili Sakalia, Makalita Ineleo at Porirua’s Pataka Museum. Photo: Pacific Guardians.

There’s a spirit in the tree. If you have the gift, you will hear its whispering, letting you know if your midwifery talents will born a vaka to sail the South Seas.

But that art and skill of a traditional Tokelau vaka master carver is fast disappearing. Fortunately, a Creative New Zealand initiative has led to one such rare individual coming to Aotearoa and will showcase, demonstrate and share his knowledge as part of an annual Pacific cultural and artistic exchange which coincides perfectly with Tokelau Language Week.

Vase Reupena, is a master carver from the village of Atafu.

He is one of four traditional Tokelau artists (the others are weavers) from the Tokelau atolls of Atafu, Fakaofo, and Nukunonu touring Wellington, Otara and Auckland this week and next week demonstrating and sharing their stories through free presentations and talks.

“You can tell if a tree is right for a sea-faring vaka in the way it rocks when you ‘fulifuli’ (rock it side to side) it,” Vase told Pacific Guardians.

But that is only one of the core components involved in building a vaka.

Surrounding the physical parts of the carving are a complex series of traditional protocols and processes that need to be respected and performed if the project is to be successful said Vase.

“I may have the talent and skills to carve and build a vaka, but one of the first things that I need to gain is the blessings from the senior tufuga (vaka builders) in Tokelau. It is an integral part of our guild that we honour and respect our senior tufuga who have rendered service and added prestige and worth to our service.”

It is here that one of the invisible/intangible treasures and preservation of indigenous heritage often go unnoticed in today’s modern and need for instant gratification society.

For parceled and passed onto future generations within the vaka tufugas’ guild are stories of Tokelau’s history that, if one looks closely enough, are expressed and told in their art.

Stories packaged with knowledge of the ancients including code to keys that allow the tufuga to understand whisperings of the trees.

Vase’s stories from his father and his father before that guide the strokes of his chisel. The units of measure, the twinings and length of sinnet on a particular position on the vaka are codified within the many muagagana (proverbs) and chants of Tokelau.

The strength and depth of gouging hammered in tandem with memories of blackbirders stealing ancestors that murdered lineages of their future generations. The recall of Atafu villagers killing an entire blackbirder crew, torching their ship and sending it towards Samoa – a beacon and warning to future blackbirders to stay the hell away from Atafu.

Of the legendary warriors Taupe from Atafu and Lolo Fala from Fakaofo who jumped a blackbirder’s ship to escape. They survived, washed up on a beach on Rapa Nui.

“At the 1985 Tahiti Festival of the Arts, the group representing Rapa Nui came and said to us that they are Tokelauan,” Vase recalled.

“Their leader told us his father is Tokelauan – that he can trace his lineage to Taupe who he said was one of the two warriors Rapa Nui people found on the beach all those years ago.”

The vaka, a physical symbol of Tokelau’s cultural history and heritage as expressed through Vase’s art was showcased earlier this morning.

It was a special launch of the vaka he built for Porirua’s Atafu community back in 2013. A blessing by the kaumatua and prayer by Rev Leasi Perema paying homage to ancestors while attempting to rekindle the unique essence of being Tokelauan to the younger generations.

A special launch that highlighted the depth of knowledge, tradition, history and heritage that the four artists from Tokelau are/will be sharing with New Zealanders over the next week.

“Creative New Zealand is in its fifth year of supporting the exchange and sharing of Pacific art between New Zealand and Pacific countries,” said Arts Council member Caren Rangi.

“This year’s project provides a wonderful opportunity for Tokelauan master artists to join with New Zealand Pacific artists to exchange skills and cultural knowledge. Such exchanges provide valuable enrichment of the Pacific arts and culture that is already a major feature of New Zealand’s arts landscape.”

The delegation will be hosted by:

Porirua’s Pātaka Art + Museum 2pm- on Friday 28th October.

Te Papalaulelei Church, 11am, Saturday, 29th October.

Ōtara’s Fresh Gallery will host the artists in a free public programme, 12.30-3pm on 31 October. They will also tour Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Māori and Pacific collections.

They will return to Tokelau by ferry on Wednesday, 9 October, 2016.


Makalita Ineleo (Nukunonu): A master weaver from the atoll Nukunonu, Makalita is part of the Fatupaepae Women’s group. Makalita represented Tokelau at the Festival of Pacific Arts 2016 in Guam.

Hili (Niu) Sakalia (Nokunonu): A master weaver from Nukunonu, Niu is a member of the respected Fatupaepae Women’s group and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in her artform.

Vasefenua (Vase) Reupena (Atafu): A master carver from the atoll of Atafu, Vase led the carving of a large traditional vaka for the Atafu community in Porirua, a project funded by Creative New Zealand and earned the Atafu community the Heritage Arts Award 2013.

Peletava Gasolaga (Fakaofo): A master weaver from the atoll of Fakaofo, Peletava brings expertise in special traditional skills from her island.


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