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How Buying Aotearoa Art Can Help Tonga's Tsunami Recovery

Tui Emma Gillies with her work The King’s Coronation (2014) Framed and painted using Tongan tapa cloth, umea (red earth from Vava’u) and mixed media.
Feeling helpless seeing their homeland hit by natural disaster, Tongan artists in New Zealand are rallying together to use their creativity to make a difference.


We may be separated in distance by more than 2000 kilometres, but the devastation that has hit Tonga has been felt acutely on our shores.

The Tongan community in Aotearoa is a passionate, proud and patriotic one - sharing every success. Take when Mate Ma’a Tonga play rugby league tests in New Zealand; you’d be forgiven for forgetting which is the home side, such is the domination of Tongan red and the cacophony of joyous noise in the streets and stadium.

They share just as viscerally in their nation of origin’s pain as well. 

Tears for Tonga

The volcanic eruption reported to be 500 times the power of Hiroshima and the following tsunami that ravaged Tonga on 15 January brought Tongan mother and daughter artists Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies to tears.

Burrows explains “it breaks my heart to see my homeland suffering and all the people hurting. I cried all day when I first heard about it.”

Like Gillies and Burrows, the inability to get in touch with loved ones was difficult for fellow artist Benjamin Work. He told The Big Idea “as soon as the volcano erupted, I was desperately trying to contact family and friends in Tonga. 

“All communications to and from Tonga were taken out in an instant, leaving the Tongan diaspora desperately trying to contact their loved ones back home. As the days went by our anxiety grew with no information from on the ground, all we could do was pray that they were safe.

“A week is a long time with no information and after 134 times of ringing, we finally got through on a shaky line.”

Gillies too finally got hold of her family - but her worrying hasn’t ended. 

“We know there were a lot of people in Tonga already struggling before the eruption and they’ll be even more desperate now. We’ve heard of people not being able to afford a face mask to go out and of others having their crops stolen.”

Andrew J Steel's Hieroglyphics for Tonga (2022), 760 x 1015mm, acrylic, enamel and resin on stretched canvas part of Peau Kula fundraiser.

Work was living in Tonga with his wife before returning to Aotearoa during the pandemic.  “For a two year period I had reconnected with my fonua (land), moana (ocean) and kāinga (extended family) in Tonga, I lived and worked with the local arts community and began to re-engage with indigenous Tongan ways of being. 

“One of the most shared videos of the tsunami was filmed as the waves crashed into our friends’ home at Ha’atafu Beach Resort on the Hihifo coastline of Tongatapu, a place we knew intimately as we had spent a lot of time there. Outer islands such as Atatā, Mango, Fonoifua and Numoka were severely damaged and many families fled with only the clothes on their backs, losing everything.

“As Tongan artists, we were deeply impacted by the destruction that our kāinga experienced but also knowing that the damage to crops from heavy volcanic ash fall had killed most of the crops and plants used in the production of weaving and Ngatū (tapa cloth) making. 

“This impacts local practitioners as Tongan arts is not only based on form but also function, both beauty and utility, made for our cultural obligations and as a source of income.”

Rallying together

Askew One's Digilogue 15 (2021), acrylic, spray paint, clear gel medium & UV pigment, 250 gsm BFK Rives,  495 x 647mm, part of Peau Kula fundraiser. 

Work’s attention soon turned. “I knew we had to do something to help but I wasn't in the right frame of mind. That’s when my good friend Elliot ‘ASKEW’ O’Donnell reached out, offering to help put together an art fundraiser within our collective TMD. We were overwhelmed as this quickly grew beyond our collective to include artists not only from Aoteroa but USA, Australia and England wanting to donate the proceeds of their work to the people of Tonga.”

The result is a fundraiser called Peau Kula, which loosely translates to red wave -  it’s the ancient Tongan name for Tsunami. It launches today (Thursday 10 February) and will be open for a week or until the artwork is sold out.

Shaun Naufahu & Kaveinga Tu'itahi's For Marsela (2021), Inkjet print on paper, 500 x 710mm (B2), framed, Ed. 1/1, part of Peau Kula fundraiser.

Work enthuses “we have artwork from Tongan artists like Terje Koloamatangi, Dr. Sione Faletau, Sione Monū, Telly Tuita, Tui Emma Gillies, Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows, Dagmar Dyck, TK Hards, Fatu Feu’u, Gavin Jones, Dietrich John Soakai, Saia Tu’itahi, Ercan Cairns, Shaun Naufahu, Kaveinga Tu’itahi, 'Ahota'e'iloa Toetu'u whose practices are shaped by our stories of old, informing new experiences as Tongan diaspora here in Aotearoa. 

“We’ve also had a great response from our Māori whanauga, artists like Shane Cotton, Darryl 'DLT' Thomson, Nigel Borrell, Charles and Janine Williams. Also Elliot 'ASKEW' O’Donnell, Andy Leleisi’uao, Sylvia Masters, Mark Cross, Andrew J Steel, Toni Moslely, Brendan Kitto, Jason REVOK, Gary Stranger, Joel Van Moore, Mica Still and many more.”

Shane Cotton's Untitled (2019), Acrylic on paper, 570 x 770, plus frame, part of Peau Kula fundraiser.

Work is in touch with local artists Tanya Edwards and Serene Tay-Siasau who are both living in Tonga to determine how money raised through Peau Kula will be distributed. “They will guide how and where the funds are most needed for the families who are directly affected at this time. It is important for us to have the funds distributed by locals where they see the need rather than instructing them from abroad.”

Gillies agrees “We also know the two things that are needed most after a natural disaster are water and money. That’s why we’re keen to get some money into the hands of people who need it most.”

As well as being part of the Peau Kula collective push, Gilles and Burrows are launching their own art auction on Trade Me (going live at 9pm Thursday 10 February and running for a week) titled Let’s Go For Tonga!

Moana Loloto (2022), Tongan tapa cloth, kupesi stencil, umea (red earth from Vava’u) and mixed media. Collaboration between Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies, part of the Let's Go for Tonga! Fundraiser.

There will be five original works, including a couple of new pieces from the artistic collaborators who have recently been exhibited at Tautai Gallery. “We paint on tapa cloth. Tapa cloth is life to the Tongan people,” Gillies declares. “We are hoping our tapa art pieces will raise good money and raise the spirits of those in need.”  

Tui Emma Gillies' The King’s Coronation (2014), framed and painted using Tongan tapa cloth, umea (red earth from Vava’u) and mixed media, part of the Let's Go for Tonga! Fundraiser.

All money raised from Let’s Go for Tonga! will go directly to the people of need via Akanesi ‘Aho, a community worker of Tonga married to Dr Siaosi, practising at the Viola hospital in Tongatapu. Before the volcano eruption and tsunami, Akanesi and Dr Siaosi would travel to Vava’u, Ha’apai and Tongatapu advocating and encouraging people to get immunised against COVID. 

ī (fan) (2021). Tongan tapa cloth, tongan pandanus and mixed media. Collaboration between Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies, part of Let's Go for Tonga! Fundraiser.

Burrows says “we Tongans are very emotional people but we are also very resilient. I have been praying for my people ever since the eruption and I know they will bounce back with a smile very soon.”

Work adds “we are so grateful to the overwhelming response Aotearoa has had in supporting the people of Tonga, to all those who have given one way or another we say fakamālō, thank you so much.”


If you want to support the Tongan recovery through these artistic fundraisers, the details are below.

Peau Kula via - from 9am Thursday 10 February for a week or until sold out.

Let’s Go for Tonga! via (user name tuiandsulieti) from 9pm Thursday 10 February or until sold out.



Written by

The Big Idea Editor

10 Feb 2022

The Big Idea Editor