Adam Rish: Very crazy tapa

Posted: 05 Aug 2004

People never quite know what to make of Adam Rish, a wiry, kinetic character with a maniacal laugh, a head of hyperactive hair, and a flair for forging friendships with people who don't even speak his language.

You will never find him lazing in a swanky air conditioned hotel, or following a guide book in a foreign country. When he visited the Western Desert in central Australia some ten years ago, he was most often to be found out in the bush, under a tree, painting termite mounds decorated with television sets, on canvas. Sitting alongside him on a piece of blue tarp, in the boiling vibrant shade, a local artist would slowly, rhythmically add dots to the wacky landscapes, exchanging grins as friends and relatives watched with some bemusement. What was this silly white fella up to?

These works were later exhibited at Michael Nagy Fine Art in Sydney, joining the long line of collaborative art - batiks, ikats, kilims and ochre paintings - that Rish has made over thirty years in places as diverse as Indonesia, Turkey and inland Australia.

He calls it "world art", like "world music", employing traditional techniques and adapting them with modern technological and domestic images - replacing traditional abstractions of flowers, birds and clouds, with cars, planes and television sets. But the works are also about friendships, cultural exchange, and making art together, rather than alone.

Veitongo Tonga 1999

In 1999 Rish became aware of the potential of tapa cloth through an exhibition at Sydney's Djamu Gallery. A selection of the Australian Museum's Niue collection was shown in conjunction with New Zealand based, Niue lineage artist John Pule.

A trip to Tonga saw Rish throw himself into collaborative tapa pieces with Palema Tualau, in Veitongo, Tongatapu. A gabfest between the co-artists about imagery and the narratives associated with it, produced a dazzling array of works made on site in Tonga and/or finished in Rish's Sydney studio.

They incorporate recycled ngatu, traditional, 'kupesi' generated motifs, and computer manipulated images inkjet-printed onto tapa cloth. These pieces are then felted onto the larger ngatu and over painted with traditional tongo dyes.

In "Supa Mahei Ngatu" or Very Crazy Tapa, local Tongan floral motifs are interspersed with televisions, cars and assassinated kings. "Nagtu Fakaleiti" concerns the islands' cross-gender transvestite culture. "Ko'e tau 'alu Ki fe/Where are we going?" refers to Gauguin's (1897) painting "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" which also takes a Western proto-Existentialist view, of the Pacific. The title is written in French and in Tongan with the writing forming a major thematic and decorative element. "Vision" says Rish, " is preconditioned by language in much of Tongan art - and my own."

Other locally derived and observed imagery includes ladders (with nailed rungs), armed guards and various means of transport. A border of telephones derives from the traditional motifs of human shapes.

Unfortunately, due to plant and water shortages, no new tapa has been made in Niue since 1930. "Kings and Glass Castles" shows a line of cut out kings (themselves like glass) just visible beneath the skyline of lower Manhattan. "Carpark in Paradise" employs Niue designs based on plant forms.

In "Where There's Smoke" everything is decoratively smouldering - a mirror of Tongan politics and a population torn between a fierce, monarchist nationalism and a deep, social, economic discontent.

These collaborative works represent a dystopic world - the very opposite of a utopian view - moderated by a comic humanism... 'another rotten day in paradise'. For our media saturated society, addicted to spin doctored reports of stylised terror, they become relevant as souvenirs of front page violence tamed into soft, hybrid, folk art forms.

Tapa Toe To Tonga

The production of tapa cloth, which probably dates back 3000 years in the Pacific, is booming in Tonga and Fiji, although it's become extinct elsewhere. The Tongan term for the cloth is 'ngatu', and it was traditionally used as clothing, room dividers and decoration. Ngatu were also central to 'koloa': the still active "gift exchange economy" which preceded modern currencies. The cloths may cost over $2000 each - the average annual wage of a Tongan family (much of which is derived from money sent from family members overseas).

Tapa is made from the beaten, inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) or 'hiapo' in Tongan. The production of the unpainted cloth is very labour intensive and the rhythm of the wooden 'ike' beaters may be heard everywhere on Tongatapu. The 'tutu' pieces are felted (feta'aki) together using beating and the glue from the arrowroot. An attempt to introduce mechanical beaters in the 1980's failed due to their disastrous effect upon the social, labour relations of the (female) economy. The machines were subsequently left to decay.

Natural dyes are prepared from bark of the 'koka' tree combined with juice from the 'tongo' plant and the candlenut ('tuitui'). These are made in red and black and then mixed to make shades of brown. A background pattern is applied using a rubbing board or 'kupesi' made from patterns sewn with palm leaf fronds. Areas of the rubbing may then be over-painted. The painted cloths are usually very large 5 metres by 15 metres (or even up to 2 kilometres) long making them some of the world's biggest visual art forms - a fascinating contrast to the small, thatch roofed cottages of the traditional village.

Villages and individual artists have shared the unique kupesi motifs (some of which have lost their meanings) such as trees, plants, animals and crowns. The imagery may commemorate special events such as victories, coronations, the introduction of the gramophone, Queen Salote's visit to Wimbledon, or Tonga's wartime contribution of a Spitfire. The designs are often metaphoric and abstract ('heliaki'). Further symbolic meaning is generated in the relationships between the combination of kupesi employed in the production of a single cloth. There is an element of competition between artists and villages in the painting of the most beautiful cloths.

Image: Nagtu Fakaleiti, Adam Rish and Palema Tualau, Veitongo Tonga 1999, natural dyes on tapa, 200cm x 260cm. Photograph by Greg Weight. Courtesy of the artists.

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Issue 38