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Formal Analysis Of “The Tongal Lupe” Mural

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The Lupe mural, which stands at a tremendous three stories high, was painted in Nuku’alofa, Tonga in December, 2017 by a group of friends who decided that it was time to brighten up the streets of the Kingdom one art piece at a time. Charles and Janine Williams work and travel extensively throughout Aotearoa and around the globe, creating visual stories that connect people to the land and conversation they encounter along the way. Their creative practice is the outworking of their passion for their Māori heritage, presenting it in an urban context that features modern interpretations of cultural design along with birdlife. Tanya Edwards is a half-caste Maori Tongan who grew up collecting flax for her cloak weaving grandma. She is a part time professional photographer who makes memorial headstones for a living in Tonga. She paints on cloth made from tapa, with mud and dyes, incorporating her memories of her grandma into her artworks. She has recently started using aerosol cans to paint iconic Tongan images on paper .She holds exhibits at galleries in Papakura and Otara every year. Benjamin Work, a South Auckland graffiti enthusiast, is a member of the Tongan art collective, No’o Fakataha loosely translating as ‘tying to a post on a wharf’ which means all boats are on a journey but come together to form a meeting point. Benjamin is also a member of international art collective, TMD (The Most Dedicated). He steadily develops his interests and research into aspects of Tongan history and culture.

The mural is part of “Project Paint The Pacific”, described by the artists as their modern day journey across the moana. They visit islands, aiming to enhance the natural beauty that, over time, has been lost in many places due to colonization and the effects of environmental issues. The artists want to bring more awareness to their treasures like birds, people and/or places.

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Through personal fundraising and the help of local organizations, Project Paint The Pacific has spread to 3 nations and 4 different islands so far. The initiative was created and run by artists Charles and Janine Williams, Creativity involves two processes: thinking and producing. Because the mural was part of an umbrella project, it involved processes of thinking, discussing, research, conversation and dialogue between the artists and the local collaborators. After organizing the actual location of the mural, accommodation for the artists, paint and materials, they started the production stage where the artists painted the ideas from the conversations and research, forming the creativity and the story for the communities to learn. The ways urban contemporary artwork, or murals, communicate is through symbolism and story.

All “Paint The Pacific” works are symbols used, like our ancestors did, as communicators. Every symbol and design has a meaning, a story, a conversation, and when these symbols are placed together, they unfold pattern and story.

Media and social media have become the biggest platforms to communicate their stories and messages, more than ever before in history. You can quickly learn about what’s happening around the world- good and not so good, fake and real. The Lupe pigeon, painted by Charles and Janine, is a native bird to Tonga. It has no exact definition for any symbol, as all symbols are open to interpretation and birds are no exception to this. The symbolism of birds can vary greatly depending on different cultures and religion. Everyone has a bird story and connection to birds. The paint drips underneath the branch were Charles and Janine’s ‘street art’ touch to the mural. There is a lot of representation and natural bird traits that our ancestors observed which become a part of the way of doing life, death, morning, night, storms, fishing, eating, migration, clothing, design, dance, protection, and so on. The bold blocks of color on the left side of the image, chosen to be similar to the color of the Lupe pigeon, are Benjamin’s contribution to the mural. They represent a pigeon snaring mound, seen from above. Pigeon snaring was the sacred sport of chiefs in the 1700’s. Tonga’s pigeon-snaring mounds were about 35 meters in diameter and 5 meters high. On the tops of the mounds were smaller, beehive-shaped mounds with vertical slits in them large enough to conceal a human. From these blinds, the king and princes would swing nets on the ends of 12-foot poles to catch the pigeons. Tanya’s ‘kupesi’ along the bottom of the image comes from a traditional pattern from Vava’u known as “Amoamo Kofe” which means “to rub with a bamboo stick”.

My understanding of this is that the village where the pattern was produced is surrounded by the rustling sounds of long bamboo bushes blowing against each other. The inclusion of the pattern, a variation of the design/motif, is an acknowledgement of the Tongan island archipelago. The pattern is used in traditional Tongan Ngatu and often seen alongside images of the dove in the bark cloth designs. The design itself also looks like a row of feathers and could also be interpreted as the webbed footprints of a bird. The strength of the image lies in its size as well as the use of the bird as an iconic image of Tonga. Each piece in the work was designed to be part of a whole story. The size always makes the work attractive and becomes a massive draw card for all walks of life. Audiences become inquisitive, interacted and inspired. The mural is located on a main road which gives the Lupe a lot of exposure. The mural is not affected by direct sunlight which should hopefully give it longevity.

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