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Book Arts in Tonga part 2: Learning Tongan Design and Making Books

March 31, 2011

Once we had made the tapa cloth and the koka dye, we had a bit of instruction on Tongan design, then three of us from the group gave a basic bookbinding demo. Next, we were shown some printmaking techniques, and finally we set to work to create our own books.

I am sad to say I don’t remember our Tongan art instructor’s name. But he showed us the basic principles behind Tongan design and their names. The sketches below are his. Each design/ pattern has its own name.

The seed thing below is used as a paintbrush. It is dipped in the koka dye, and the designs are then painted on the tapa cloth.

These women had obviously worked with tapa all their lives. They painted their designs very quickly and without any hesitation.

For special occasions or people or rank or special guests or ceremony etc, tapa cloths are laminated together with tapioca glue to make huge tapa cloths.  When a large tapa is made, the stencil below is used to make a sort of template for the tapa design. The stencil is placed under the tapa, and ink is dabbed gently on top, the transferred ink effect is similar to a crayon rubbing.

Here is a large tapa that was laid out for us to see.

It was fun that we had just made the tapa and understood the process, because on our flight back from Vava’u to Tonga Tapu, the queen of Tonga was on Shannon’s and my flight, which explained why they were laying out a huge tapa outside the plane (for the queen’s boarding of the plane):

I didn’t get any photos of me and my friends Shannon and Jenny giving bookbinding demos. Go figure. But we made several fun little models and demonstrated how to put them together. We tried to stay basic but offer enough options to get creative juices flowing. Next up was printmaking techniques.

Jenny and Linda demonstrated how to make a photopolymer plate using a scratch board and the sun. They rigged up the contraption below to use as an exposure unit. (The design is Joe Ostraff’s)

Processing (washing out) the plate:

I have to say it worked like a charm (as long as the sun was shining) ;)   They had also brought a couple of those little to-it-yourself letterpresses/ kits that you can buy at the craft store, and the end result was not bad for do-it-yourself printmaking on a remote Tongan island (sorry I didn’t get any photos of the printing process, but some of the printmaking will show up in the post showing the finished books).

Our Tongan artist/instructor whipped up the linoleum carving below: (A bunch of us used it to make tee-shirts) :)

And finally we were ready to get down to the business of making our books. Below are photos of people hard at work.

Ethan made his woven book cover out of snack chips packages.

Maddison’s book was made by adding one folded tapa section at a time, the sections progressively growing. As they built up, it curled like a snail shell.

The next Tonga report post will show the final works of the artists. I’ll try to have it up soon. :)

Book Arts in Tonga part 1 / part 2 / part 3 / part 4

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2011 11:02 pm

    I am happy that I found this blog. It is so interesting.
    thank you for sharing everything you do.

    • Lili permalink*
      April 4, 2011 7:44 am

      Lena, thank you for leaving a comment! It led me in turn to your very interesting blog, which I look forward to following :)

  2. Ellen Uasi permalink
    August 28, 2016 9:15 pm

    This was very helpful in trying to find some meaning in relation to Tongan design.

  3. Toiahi permalink
    September 12, 2016 1:26 pm


  4. Maureen permalink
    September 16, 2018 4:00 pm

    Thank you this is such an interesting topic and hard to find. Look forward to following.


  1. Books as art « Binding Obsession
  2. Books as art | Binding Obsession

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