Kava, fashion, and teenage life: Co-collecting with our Tongan communities

Pacific Art curator Nina Tonga introduces Pikipiki hama kae vaevae manava, a new initiative that sees Te Papa team up with Tongan communities in Auckland to explore the rich cultures through fashion, kava, and youth experiences.

Since 2016, the Pacific Cultures team has been exploring new ways to engage Pacific communities to co-curate collections that better represent themselves at Te Papa. At the heart of our thinking is mana taonga, one of Te Papa’s core principles that recognises the important role whānau, hapū, iwi, and communities have in enhancing our understanding and care of collections.

Putting this principle into practice has challenged us to create an inclusive model of collecting where we share our curatorial authority with our communities.

Students pose together for a photo at Te Papa

The Pikipiki hama kae vaevae manava team. Photograph by Lu Davidson. Te Papa

In February we launched Pikipiki hama kae vaevae manava: joining our vaka to share our breath or life stories a co-collecting initiative with our Tongan communities in Auckland.

This initiative is focused on building our Tongan collection and inspired by the volunteer fieldworkers programme run by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre since the 1970s.

Through this programme fieldworkers are trained in an annual workshop before they set out into the ‘field’ to collect cultural material and document knowledge on a range of topics.

Following this model we engaged Kenneth Tuai, Czarina Wilson, Edmond Fehoko, and the Year 13 Tongan language class from Sir Edmond Hillary Collegiate to work on three short co-collecting projects that address everyday youth experiences, Tongan fashion, and Kalapu kava Tonga (social kava drinking clubs).

Each of our participants were invited to an intensive two-day training workshop at Te Papa. They were given insights into our collections through back-of-house tours of the Pacific Cultures and History and Textiles collections. Curators spoke about the practicalities of collecting and the curatorial decisions that inform and eventually shape what we collect and how it is displayed.

Curator Stephanie Gibson shows students an artefact during a back-of-house tour

History and textiles collection tour with Stephanie Gibson, Curator Contemporary Life and Culture. Photograph by Lu Davidson. Te Papa

A core part of our workshop was to shift our museology into the real world and empower our participants to take the curatorial lead in designing the brief and scope of their co-collecting projects.

To achieve this we ran workshops that encouraged our participants to think beyond the walls of the museum and to privilege the ways collecting and collections are part of their everyday experiences.

One workshop included a Tongan-inspired starter pack meme activity inspired by the social media trend that involves posting a collection of pictures that represent a list of essentials associated with certain situations or personas.

After scouring the internet our participants presented a hilarious suite of starter pack memes for themes such as ‘growing up Tongan’ and ‘faikava’ (social kava drinking).

While laced with humour, the memes helped to reveal the many ways collecting and collections have the power to tell stories that reflect who we are and where we come from.

Students sit in a circle during a workshop

Tongan starter pack meme session at Te Papa. Photograph by Lu Davidson. Te Papa

By the end of our two-day training workshop our participants named our co-collection initiative Pikipiki hama kae vaevae manava: joining our vaka to share our breath or life stories – a Tongan proverb that reflects the ethos of our collaboration.

They also developed three projects and re-defined their roles to replace the generic ‘fieldworker’ title.

Our Year 13 Tongan language class have adopted the title of ‘Youth Agents’ and are working on Project 83: Small things Matter. This project was inspired by their back-of-house tour of the Pacific Cultures collection and the way that even the smallest of objects can hold the most significant stories.

Our youth agents will be developing a collection that reflect their lives, offering a diverse snapshot of Tongan youth experiences in Auckland.

People pose for a portrait with the museum in the background

Czarina Wilson and Kenneth Tuai, Cultural Advisors-Fashion Curators, Tufunga Teuteu, Faiva Teuteu: The Tongan Material Arts of Fashion Making and Performance Arts of Fashion Wearing. Photograph by Lu Davidson. Te Papa

Czarina Wilson and Kenneth Tuai our ‘Cultural Advisors-Fashion Curators’ are working on a project that explores Tongan fashion in Auckland entitled Tufunga Teuteu, Faiva Teuteu: The Tongan Material Arts of Fashion Making and Performance Arts of Fashion Wearing.

This project surveys various modes of fashion from adornment to tatatau (tattooing), creating new parameters for our collection.

Lastly our kava expert, Edmond Fehoko, is our Cultural Consultant for Pukepuke Fonua II, a co-collecting project offering a unique insight into the landscape of kalapu kava Tonga in Auckland.

The history of kalapu kava Tonga is under-represented in the collection and this project will help us to document a constantly evolving practice.

Edmond Fehoko poses for a portrait

Edmond Fehoko, Cultural Consultant, Pukepuke Fonua II. Photograph by Lu Davidson. Te Papa

Our team of cultural consultants, fashion curators, and youth agents have been busy working on their projects for the past few months. From our regular catch-up sessions we can see our co-collecting practice evolve through our team and the avenues they are creating for new stories to be told.

In the coming weeks our team will be sharing some of these stories and the amazing objects they are collecting.

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