Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi was born in Ngele‘ia, Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, and immigrated to New Zealand in 1978. Tohi’s contemporary paintings and sculptures are imbued with his island heritage. He incorporates Pacific and Maori iconography in his work but it goes deeper than that. Tohi is a Tufunga Lalava, a master craftsman of the traditional art of lalava – the Pan-Pacific technology used on houses, canoes, and tools before the introduction of Western materials. Tohi has studied the construction of lalava to understand the patterns and language hidden inside the layers of sennit, which he recreates in his own contemporary art of ‘lalavaometry’. During a 2004 project for the Samoan Head of State, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese, Tohi lashed a Fale Maota at Nofo’ali’i near Apia with a theme of the intertwined history of Tonga and Samoa. Tamasese bestowed the title Sopolemalama (‘bringer of light’) in appreciation for his efforts.
“I have identified a visual language within the lalava that was not only used by our ancestors for voyaging, but it communicated principles of cultural knowledge and history. For me the sennit patterns of the Pacific convey our memories and experiences as well as carry us from place to place.”