Talafungani Finau is an Ōtāhuhu-based artist whose practice is informed and embedded in contemporary Tongan culture, custom and aesthetics. Her lei artistry pushes the boundaries of wearability, edibility and love! I asked her about inspiration and observations of new materials in Tongan koloa…

Your work Hilifaki kahoa in “U Can’t Touch This” for the PIMPI Winter Series is stunning, and smells and looks delicious! Where did you get the inspiration for this work and what materials have you used?

Aww malo Ema! The inspiration derives from my recent trip to Tongatapu thanks to my mehikitanga Sela E Finau… *coughs* high status aunty* lol, where we were able to attend the Coronation (fkmalo lahi atu Ma’ata Havea… oh wait? can we do shout outs on your blog?  hehehe). If it wasn’t for these two ladies, I wouldn’t have been able to say, “I was inside the Centenary Church for the coronation ceremony of King VI, ya’ll!”.  Which is a big deal because it was invitation only. Gangstaa riiight? haha!

The materials comprised of bias fabric tape (used as the bone structure of the lei because the chocolates are pretty heavy and without the bias tape the lei would just rip apart), gold ribbon to tie the Lindt Lindor (quality milk chocolate), and clear masking tape to hold the Ferrero Confetteria Raffaello (a crisp coconut w/ almond centre). Together it forms the silhouette of the red robe worn King Tupou VI.

You’re an experienced lei maker, how did you get into it and what is your favourite style of lei to make and gift?

Well I’m from Texas, and in the States when someone achieves a milestone, we go crazy. Graduations, sweet 16, 21st birthdays, church events, and White Sundays… we honour them all. I really got into it back when I was a student at Trinity High School (T’s UP!) where our Polynesian Club sold candy leis to raise money. And the competition is real out there ya’ll. Everyone brings out their LEI-game when it comes to graduation season too, so that’s where it started for me. My signature style of lei to make is actually the big personalised candy leis with the BEST goodies, and pretty shiny wrapper foils because I like that bling bling look lol.

I love that your work in the exhibition is perishable, and begs to be eaten! It changes the kind of presence and value of your workmanship, did you consider using non-perishable materials, or does that change the meaning and mana of the idea?

Yes, I did consider making a non-perishable lei… went out and bought the materials for it too… but for me it did change the mana. I understand leis to be perishable: floral or candy. So much hard work goes into a lei, and they can’t be preserved. So whats the point? Well… that’s what love looks like. It’s so beautiful when you give and receive one; the feelings and emotions that come with it, it’s not tangible, kind of like how a lei itself isn’t forever.

There are some interesting developments in the ways particularly Tongan artists utilise modern and readily available materials available here in New Zealand to create customary items such as lei / garlands, dance costumes and kato teu – I’m particularly taken by the innovative use of plastic grapes as the basis of the new genre of kalepi style. Are there any new styles or innovations that have captured your attention, or inspired you?

This may sound hella bias, (#halacare) but my mother is known for her kalepi leis in the States… I supply her grapes from here because she says they’re better quality than what they have available there in America. Her kalepi leis are extremely detailed it’s often mistaken as the real Tongan leis from Tonga.  Much of my talent comes from her, but my hard work ethics is definitely my dad haha!  But of all the kalepi leis I’ve seen here in NZ and overseas, hers are the best and I plan on learning that from her when I go back to Texas in November. She knows her Tongan flowers really well, how the shape or form of the Tongan kahoa looks… I’ll ask her to make you one! 😉

U Can’t Touch This
16 July – 1 August
Featuring Talafungani Finau, Sione Monu, Siliga David Setoga, Daisy Tavilione

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