Modern Design of Hala Paini

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Map of the Hala Paini


    On the journey of learning about kupesi design meanings, I roll out a map of the Kingdom of Tonga. My eyes follow the roads with one route standing out from the Palace to the Royal Tombs, called Hala Tu‘i.

                In front of my eyes, the map starts to wave and transform into a kupesi drawing. I see two lines of pine trees along both the bottom and the top framing the picture on the tapa cloth. Within it is a painting of the Tongan Coat of Arms, a lion, an eagle and three black dots.
                Staring at the picture, it becomes blurry. As it comes back into focus, I see a computer screen, and the Tongan Kupesi Workshop Facilitator explains that the drawing depicts its origin from Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga.

                She says the trees were kupesi representations of the Norfolk Pines lining the road called Hala Tu‘i or King’s Road, which leads from the Palace to the Royal Tombs.

                She then invites me to identify any symbols in the picture. I point to an easily recognisable Tongan Coat of Arms that looks like a shield with three stars, a crown, three crossed swords and a dove carrying an olive branch.

                Looking at the picture, she then asks me if I spotted anything else, and I point to the Lion. She explains the Lion, or in Tongan language, Laione represents the eastern half of Nuku’alofa called Kolofo’ou.

                When I see the easily recognisable eagle, I’m told the Tongan word for eagle is ikale and represents the old western half of Nuku’alofa called Kolomotu’a.

                Pointing to the three black dots on the computer screen, I say, “That’s the Hea plant kupesi motif. You taught me earlier it originates from Vava’u.”


    The drawings combined represent what is known as Hala Paini or, in English, Pine Road. Hala is the Tongan word for road, and paini being the Tongan word for Pine Trees.

                Feeling the chair beneath me, I watch the memory go blurry until it refocuses on the map of the Kingdom of Tonga.

    This journey of pictorial storytelling through kupesi motifs has made me wonder what other stories are told by the symbolism of Polynesian drawing.


    Copyright © Richard J Bell 20th April 2021




    Tongan Kupesi Meaning: Laumanu (Flock of Birds)



    Tongan Kupesi Design: Laumanu (Flock of Birds)

    Along my journey of reconnecting to culture, I looked back to some of my previous artworks from years gone by. My eyes landed on the bird kupesi motif  I had designed in my first pieces printed on glass and exhibited. Staring at the work I named Pacific Ocean Cultures, I saw the image start to blur and transform until all I could see was the bird design.

                    I remember looking through a book I was learning from and saw the designs had variations of other Polynesian symbols. So I decided to create my own, which resembled a bird. I started one with a triangle head, pointed outward to resemble a beak and head.   I then made two upside-down 'L' shapes to create wings that crisscrossed to give the impression of a fantail as some birds have.

                    The image on the surface of the glass morphed as it evolved into a more evolved version of the first one. It looked like a diamond head joined to a body and drawn like a long dress tie that came to a point to represent the tail. The wings bent at three points to look like wings in flight.

                    Feeling proud about designing my own kupesi symbol, I remember giving it a meaning of flock of birds to resemble community.

                    The image on the reflection then transitioned into what looked like a movie projected onto the glass, but it was a memory of my Kupesi Workshop Facilitator and me. She was asking about the different symbols I had made on the artwork. I explained I wanted to draw birds, so I made my design.

                    'This needs a name,' she said. 'It's your own kupesi, and it needs a unique name.'

                    So we looked up the Tongan Language Dictionary and found under a flock of birds the translations of laumanu.

                    I felt the seat beneath me in my study, and the movie-like memory faded into the artwork behind it. Creating my own kupesi and naming it in true Tongan Language style gave me a real sense of satisfaction.

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Aotapu - Turbans of the Tongan Empire

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Aotapu - Turbans of the Tongan Empire



    I was seated on the beach, a tree branch hanging overhead, and thinking about the old Tongan kingdom and their wars. The sea breeze stilled as a screen slowly dropped down from the branch and started playing a memory of mine.

                I watched with intrigue as I saw myself with my Tongan Kupesi Workshop Facilitator. She showed me on her laptop a Tongan cultural kupesi motif called, Aotapu. She that the Tongan word ao translated in English as turban worn in war by a champion and the tapu translated to the word sacred.

                The kupesi motif was a circle inside a square with the lines representing the coconut fibres joining in the middle. When they are placed next to each other, an elaborate diamond-shaped pattern is apparent.

    She told me the turbans were sewn together with coconut husk fibres in times of war.

    Through the eyes of an artist, I saw how the circle could be a birds-eye view of the warrior and the coconut flowers sewing the turban together.

                The screen rolled back up into the branch as I was left looking at the blue ocean in my vision. The waters lapped gently onto the white coral shores of the beach.

                I never knew such Polynesian wars existed or even that they wore turbans.

                Watching the waves crash over the reef, where the coral joined the shore in the sparkling blue water, I saw the ghost-like outline of a traditional Tongan warship. Made up of light shades of grey, it had two canoes joined with planks of wood, and I could still see the water through the grey transparency. The sail moved in the wind, and it drifted past.

                The screen emerged from the branch again and started playing a YouTube video called Polynesian Discovery. I remembered seeing it before as it said the woven mats on the floors of people’s houses were used as sails in the time of the Tu’i Tongan Empire, which conquered countries Samoa, Fiji and other neighbouring islands.

    Feeling the sand under me, the image of the short film faded into a screen of Wikipedia. Reading the projection, I saw the Tu’i Tongan Empire started in 950 CE and ended in 1865 CE.

    There was also an account of Captain Cook in 1777, which I noticed mentioned many foreigners in Tonga, especially the darker people from Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. It said in 1616, when the Dutch explorer William Schouten and Jacob Le Maire had spotted Tonga in a canoe off the coast of Niuatoputapu.

    The screen gently rose back into the branch. It amazed me how much I didn’t know about the Tu’i Tongan Empire or the kupesi motif Aotapu.






    Tongan Kupesi Design: Manulua

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Manulua


    In the Art Gallery of Tongan kupesi meanings, I stand in front of a framed picture of the Manulua. The kupesi motif consists of a square, made up of triangles, created by diagonal and crossed lines that meet in the middle.

                The picture frame starts to blur, and a memory forms inside the frame, as if it was a television from my eyes, and there I am with my Kupesi Workshop Facilitator. We sit in the room as she tells me how kupesi designs were only made by women of high status in Tongan society. But she adds now anyone can do kupesi art, which relaxes my male awkwardness.

                The kupesi mentor explains how the language is alive in the motifs and designs. The Tongan word Manu is translated as animal in English, and lua means two hence it specifically refers to two birds where some believe they symbolise chiefly status.

                I’m taking notes as she points out the Tongan word ua, meaning two in English, is used here in its ancient form of lua.

                Looking at the Manulua return picture while I am still within the Art Gallery of kupesi, I’m amazed at the wealth of culture hidden inside a simple kupesi design.

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Kalou

    Tongan Kupesi Design: Kalou


    I'm seated in my house, surrounded by kupesi drawing on tapa cloth in frames, and my eyes are drawn to one called the Kalou, which translates into a variety of breadfruit. The TV suddenly switches on, and on the screen there is a memory of me seated in the artist studio learning kupesi designs.

                My Tongan Kupesi Workshop Facilitator tells me how the drawing represents a variety of breadfruit and leaves. The middle circles are like a soccer ball, with leaves on either side of the fruit, then repeated on top of each other, and they are presented symmetrically inside a diamond-shaped motif that gets repeated.

                There are many tapa cloth breadfruit designs as she shows me the varieties across Polynesia.

                I remember seeing them painted on tapa cloth, so I asked how it is made.   I knew breadfruit bark was beaten to create the tapa cloth.

                The Kupesi Workshop Facilitator added that while that's one of the traditional methods, these days, they use the bark of the mulberry tree which is softer.

                Seated back on my couch, watching the television flicker off, I'm fascinated with integrating the breadfruit into my art as a design.

                I recall the big breadfruit tree at the side of Grandpa's house and how we climbed it on our holidays there. We shallow fried the yellow flesh of the breadfruit in the frying pan. It has a texture like hot potato chips, but I have not had it since I was eleven.

    I remember going to the kingdom of Tonga when I was seven and eight, and the family used to panfry breadfruit that we'd eat it like hot chips. The soccer ball-sized fruit wasn't available during our winter visits, so our family would save it for us in the freezer.

    How disappointed was I in my twenties being told by my mother: "You're not kids anymore. You don't need breadfruit. You are an adult now."

                There are breadfruit symbols in cultural drawings all over Polynesia, and the symbolism of this remarkable food forms a significant part of many lifestyles, not just in Tonga.