2023 Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi Laureate receiving the John and Jo Gow Sculpture Award
The work of Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi redefines the traditional Tongan form of binding or lashing known as lalava. Tohi was born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga in 1959. He immigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1978 as a 19 year old, and settled in Taranaki where he learned how to carve in wood and stone from a group of local sculptors. Ten years later he returned to Tonga, keen to explore his homelands’ art forms, which were at that time endangered, with a declining number of specialist practitioners. He sought out examples of lalava – an intricate system of architectural lashing using sennit (formed from cords formed from coconut husk fibres that have been soaked, formed into tough flexible lengths and dried in the sun). Tohi’s work considers the uses of coconut sennit including the holistic, ecological and metaphorical applications of this material. Tohi learned to read the patterns of lalava, which hold a dual role of conveying visual language and joining parts of architectural structures, and has sensitively shared this knowledge through his work, through community workshops and mentorship.
Since the 1990s Tohi has been working as a professional artist, and he has continued to study Tongan and other Pacific cultural objects and practices (including the collaborative research which manifest in the exhibition and book Amu'i Mua - Ancient Futures with Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck). He has respectfully drawn on customary knowledge and experimented and adapted practices through bringing lalava patterns into flat form grounds, and re-worked patterns and forms to translate into three dimensional wood, metal and stone sculptures, often of considerable scale, and more recently digital drawing and collage.
Tohi’s training has not followed traditional Western academic routes – but rather, he has learned through making, experimenting, researching customary practices, learning from generations of Tongan makers, and learning through deeply understanding Tongan forms of cultural expression.
Tohi regularly participates in stone symposia around the world and his work is held in collections around the world. He is a featured artist in the Tangata O Le Moana permanent exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa and has held residencies in Japan, Cook Islands, Fiji, England and the USA. Tohi was awarded his Samoan title, Sopolemalama, by Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Tufuga Efi in 2004 for lashing his Fale Maota in Nofuali’i, Samoa.
"Filipe Tohi is widely recognised as one of our senior artists in Aotearoa, with extensive reach into creative communities through the Pacific, North America and Europe. He holds advanced cultural and creative knowledge and has shared this with communities through his commissioned and exhibited art works in public space, within galleries and museums, through his involvement in significant architectural projects, and through community workshops.Tohi has demonstrated throughout his professional career spanning over thirty years a stellar creative trajectory, centred in Tongan principles of Fefaka'apa'apa'aki (mutual respect), Feveitokai'aki (sharing, cooperating and fulfilment of mutual obligations), Lototoo (humility and generosity) and Tauhi vaha'a (loyalty and commitment). He has undertaken close studies of customary practices, and he has developed original contributions to artistic and architectural practices. He has been an innovator – developing applications and visual languages that respectfully draw on customary narratives, and bring into play contemporary materials and forms. He has shared his knowledge with unfettered generosity and he has been highly influential for generations of contemporary practitioners, in Aotearoa, through the region of Moana Oceania, and further afield."