Tongan ngatu (tapa cloth): a visual record

Tongan ngatu (tapa cloth): a visual record

As part of celebrating Tongan Language Week: Uike Kātonga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga (1-8 September) the Pacific Cultures team are highlighting some of the Tongan items in Te Papa’s collection. This is the  fourth blog in our series.

Tongan ngatu also known as tapa cloth is an important part of Tongan art and tradition. Te Papa’s collection of about 60 ngatu range in style and use. Some ngatu include symbols of the Tongan royal family, while another records the sighting of  Halley’s comet in 1910 (see below).

Ngatu (tapa cloth); FE012487; Purchased 2009; Te Papa
Ngatu (tapa cloth), circa 1911, Tonga, maker unknown. Purchased 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE012487)

Other ngatu have  words and names inscribed on the cloth. These give us a clue about the people who were once associated with the ngatu. For example a ngatu dated 1932 has the name ‘Siaosi Taufa’ahau’  and images of cricket cups and the crest of Tupou College (see below). The name referred to the late King  Tāufa’āhau Tupou IV when he was a school boy at the College.

Ngatu (tapa cloth); FE008724; Gift of Valerie Morris, 1989; Te Papa
Ngatu (tapa cloth); FE008724; Gift of Valerie Morris, 1989; Te Papa

Another style of tapa cloth is called ngatu ‘uli (black tapa cloth) where the cloth is intensely dyed using candlenut soot, although other dyes are also applied. The ngatu ‘uli below has what appears to be a layer of red clay underneath the candlenut soot.

Ngatu 'uli (black tapa cloth); FE010584; Te Papa
Ngatu ‘uli (black tapa cloth); FE010584; Te Papa

In 2009 for the exhibition Tapa: Pacific Style, Te Papa worked with the Otaota Fahina Society led by Reverend Sitili Tupouniua and his wife, Lolohea to film Tongan tapa-making in Auckland. To view some of the footage and interviews, click on the links below:

Watch Feletoa Fa’apoi making ngatu

Watch an interview with Lolohea Tupouniua


  1. Hey Susan… the writing you’ve described seems to be the very common words ‘Ko Otua mo Tonga ko hoku Tofi’a (God and Tonga are my heritage) birds with spread wings are most likely our ikale kupesi (the eagle design) … You probably have a section of a bigger piece where the design with little crosses and the words might have run up the centre.

    #50 corresponds to the section and was written up the sides as it was being pasted together … so your piece was from something that was at least 50 lalanga long known here as a Launima (roughly 80feet long) or could have been from a bigger Lauteau- double that and 100 lalanga.

    feel free to email pictures .

    Ric – keen to know more about your study of ngatu too? might email you.


  2. I have a large tapa, appears to be Tongan has #50 on it with birds with spread wings and design with little crosses and the words Koeotuam and otogak for instance, do you recognize any of this. Also is in rust outline is darker brown. would appreciate any info you can give me or where i can go to identify my tapa. thankyou. Susan

    1. Hi Susan, it doesnt seem like you’re having any lucky so far…But from your description it could be anything Tongan, dear! tell you what studying Tongan ngatu at the moment, if you are able to send me a photo of your tapa I may be of help, as we studying in great details each type of Tongan ngatu there is. Cheers
      my email is cheers

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