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National Gallery of Victoria opens exhibition of Tongan barkcloth paintings
Robin White, Maori/New Zealander born 1946, worked in Kiribati and Australia 1982–99. Ruha Fifita, In my father's house 2014. From the Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path series 2013–16. Earth pigments, natural dyes and tuitui (Candlenut soot) on ngatu (barkcloth), 652.0 x 364.0 cm. Collection of the artists, Auckland.

MELBOURNE.- Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean presents collaborative ngatu (Tongan barkcloth paintings) by Maori/New Zealand artist Robin White and Tongan artist Ruha Fifita, which narrate powerful and moving present-day stories of migration and patterns of connection across Oceania and beyond.

The exhibition comprises eight recently-painted and large-scale ngatu, the largest of which spans a monumental twenty four metres in length. The ngatu have been produced by the artists in collaboration with the women of Haveluloto village on Tongatapu Island, Tonga. In accordance with local custom, the Tongan woman have softened and beaten the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree into small pieces, which are joined and pasted together, then rubbed over patterned rubbing blocks to form huge sheets of dyed and patterned paper skin ready to be painted.

White and Fifita describe their ngatu as hybrid works that integrate ancestral patterns and design with contemporary imagery and narratives. This is characterised by the use of traditional dyes and painting techniques to depict ideas and stories drawn from current ways of living.

‘The work of Robin White and Ruha Fifita demonstrates the powerful versatility and surprising modernity embedded in many ancient art forms,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV. ‘Through their collaboration with Tongan artists and craftspeople, White and Fifita have added to the artistic vocabulary of traditional ngatu and moved the art form into an exciting new territory of contemporary art and design.’

Highlights from the exhibition include Siu i Moana, the ngatu series from which this exhibition takes its name, which traces the migratory pathways of the Pacific. A triptych of maps that trace the patterns of migration along an underwater volcanic ridge that joins Tonga and New Zealand, Siu i Moana acknowledges the centrality of the sea to life in the Pacific and celebrates the practice of reciprocity and exchange that characterises Oceania.

At an incredible twenty four metres long, the largest of the works, Seen on the Avenue, depicts a road that is fringed with Norfolk Pines which leads from the King’s palace in Tongatapu to the royal tombs. The work also makes reference to Ben Gurion Avenue in Haifa, Israel, which leads in a straight line from the shores of the Mediterranean to the foot of Mt Carmel, drawing a connection between different people and their traditions.

Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean is on display at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, from 10 June — 11 September 2016. Entry is free.

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