The production of tapa cloth has a 3000 year history in the Pacific but is currently only practised extensively in Fiji and Tonga. The Tongan term for the cloth is ‘ngatu’. The pieces are used as clothing, room dividers and decoration. Their main function, however, is as a part of ‘koloa or kula’ (gift exchange) economy whereby they are given on ceremonial occasions. The cloths are made from the beaten, inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) or ‘hiapo’ in Tongan. The pieces are felted together using beating and the glue from the arrowroot.


Natural dyes are prepared from bark of the ‘koka’ tree combined with juice from the ‘tongo’ plant and the candlenut. 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 overpainted. Often the painted cloths are very large – even up to 2 kilometers long. Villages have shared and unique kupesi motifs (some with lost meanings) such as trees, plants, animals and crowns. Often these motifs are designed to commemorate special events such as victories, coronations, gramophones. 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 in the painting of  the most beautiful cloths. Contrary to current trends for most indigenous artforms the production of tapa in Tonga is booming.

Supa Mahei Ngatu (Very Crazy Tapa) 1999
Adam Rish with Palema Tualau
natural dyes on tapa, 200 X 230 cm, Tonga

Carpark in Paradise 
2001 natural dyes on tapa cloth 72 X 58 cm

Adam Rish has employed images made in Tonga, with Palema Tualau, in 1999 and 2001 on  recycled tapa cloth. In place of using a traditional ‘kupesi’ to achieve a regular pattern, he has computer generated images and then inkjet printed them onto raw tapa. These prints have then been collaged onto the works and over painted with traditional tongo dyes.


Supa Mahei Ngatu (Very Crazy Tapa) was our first collaboration in tapa and the title relates to how the locals regarded my work (probably quite justifiably). Ngatu is the Tongan term for the painted cloth.  The image includes cars, kings (stabbed in the back – Tonga being a monarchy with some discontents), planes and televisions interspersed with Palema’s traditional motifs.

Orang Kosong/Hollow Man  2007
natural dyes on tapa with wooden top and bottom frame,
210 X 140 cm

Nagtu Fakaleiti 1999
Adam Rish with Palema Tualau
natural dyes on tapa
200 X 260 cm, Tonga

Hieroglyph 2004 
natural dyes, inkjet ink on tapa cloth
58 X 72 cm

Ko’e tau ‘alu Ki fe/Where are we going? 1999 
Adam Rish and Palema Tualau 
natural dyes on tapa 290 X 183 cm, Tonga

Carpark in Paradise has edge motifs derive from old tapa designs from Niue incorporating drawings of plant forms. A goon guards the ladder of success, which has nails in each rung. Unfortunately no new tapa has been made in Niue for over a century.

Where There’s Smoke shows everything – birds, cars, guns, houses – smoking in the most decorative way.          

An Alembic is an alchemical still. In this version two doves – one of peace and one of war – are flying past a typical Tongan motif which I have made into a kind of radio telescope, or spirit-catcher.


Transformer is about anthropomorphism so all the objects – cars, fish, rockets, televisions – grow legs and go walkabout.