Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows

About me

Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows wearing traditional Tongan kahoa heilala and ta'ovala

Mālō e lelei

Mālō e lelei means ‘hello and welcome” in Tongan.

My name is Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows. I was born in Falevai, in the Vava’u group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga.

I now live in Auckland, New Zealand with my daughter, artist Tui Emma Gillies, her husband and my three grandchildren.

I am honoured to bring you my tapa artwork and handicrafts, which combine traditional methods of Tongan artistry with contemporary textiles and methods. I am proud to be continuing these traditions and raising awareness of the beauty and intricacy of Polynesian art forms.

Everything I have learned, I learnt from my mother.

I am now passing on these skills and knowledge to my daughter and granddaughter so that these ancient ngatu methods can be preserved and celebrated. 

About Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows Tongan tapa artist
In 2020, Burrows was awarded recognition as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her efforts in revitalising Tongan art and education.
Sulieti carrying granddaughter Aroha on her back through her home village of Falevai
Sulieti carrying granddaughter Aroha on her back through her home village of Falevai

Ever since I was a small child in Falevai, Tonga, I followed the example of my mother making a range of traditional Tongan handicrafts. 

As a young girl, I remember following my dad on his trips to the main harbour to sell my mother’s handicrafts to the tourists that would come on the ships.

As a child, one of my jobs before school was to prune the trunks of the paper mulberry trees in my family’s orchard so that the bark used for making tapa wouldn’t have holes in it.

I met my husband Barry, and moved to New Zealand with him in the 1970s.

Since I haven’t always been able to access the same raw materials as in Tonga,  I learnt to create my work using a range of modern and recycled materials available locally. 

I used to support my family by making Tongan handicrafts such as tapa art, kahoa heilala necklaces, kiekie, fans and other handmade items. I would sell them at the Ōtara flea markets near my home in South Auckland.

Handmade Tongan kiekie for sale
A close-up of Tongan kiekie made by Sulieti from recycled materials
Sulieti rubbing the feta aki (Tongan tapa cloth) to prepare it for painting.
Sulieti rubbing the feta aki (Tongan tapa cloth) in preparation for painting.

Over the last few years, I have been returning to my roots in Falevai. The art of making ngatu, or tapa, hadn’t been practised in decades. With the support of a grant from Creative New Zealand, we were able to return to my village and work with the women to revive these traditional ngatu practices.

And we went over there to do the project and it just reminded me about everything growing up, and I could see my mum sitting over there, beating.

I want to carry the traditional knowledge with me so it doesn’t disappear. I love to create my tapa and kupesi designs, as well as Tongan kahoa heilala garlands, using a mix of traditional and contemporary materials.

My daughter, Tui Emma Gillies and I are passionate about keeping the art of tapa making alive and sharing the beauty of this traditional art medium.

We are regularly invited to deliver workshops in our hometown of Auckland, as well as throughout New Zealand. 

We have also been privileged to spread our knowledge of tapa cloth creation internationally through teaching classes in Fiji, Hawaii, Spain, the UK and Austria.

Sulieti and Tui inspecting Hawaiian tapa art laying on a table
Sulieti with her daughter, Tui Emma Gillies, inspecting Kapa (Hawaiian tapa) and tapa works at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii. October 2019
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