Kupesi in Colour

Nexus Arts
6 min readFeb 6, 2020



Nexus Arts Gallery
6 February — 13 March 2020

In this exhibition, Tongan/Australian artist BAY investigates the ancient art form of Tongan Kupesi. The traditional method of storytelling through pattern and metaphor is sadly being lost. By focusing on traditional elements and cultural symbolism, colour and identity will combine to breathe new life into a forgotten art.

BAY is an Adelaide based visual artist whose work explores mental health and her Tongan ancestry. Cultural symbols and metaphors in Polynesian design have inspired her most recent body of work, investigating the traditional Tongan art of Kupesi. As she forms a deeper connection with her heritage, her paintings become a platform to communicate lost culture and Pacific storytelling.

Identity Found Through Art
Essay by Sosefina Fuamoli

Throughout the islands, storytelling has remained an integral part of Pacific culture, stretching back many, many years. It is the way histories are shared, evolution of communities are charted, and in the sharing of these stories — documented in words, song and visual art — identities can be found.

Kupesi In Colour is an exploration of the above. An exploration of one’s culture and one’s place within it. Utilising the traditional Tongan practice of Kupesi (pattern making), Tongan-Australian artist BAY connects her culture with the contemporary Australian landscape in which she currently creates and operates. An opportunity to not only share an element of her heritage that stretches back centuries, but also to introduce cultural awareness to Western audiences, Kupesi In Colour is rooted in education and connection.

Just like the ancient art of tattooing in the Pacific, the practice of Kupesi and creation of tapa cloth patterns are artforms that have been taken for granted; the stories and significance behind the symbols and patterns we see inked onto cloth and skin are slowly being lost. However, out of this struggle, we see contemporary artists becoming part of a resurgence in bringing light back to the artform. Teaching a younger generation about the importance of keeping these traditions alive and following in the footsteps of ancestors — keeping history alive through storytelling, across all types of delivery.

BAY: Pasifika (Purple), Acrylic on Paper, 2018, 640x490mm

“The Kupesi are a unique way to tell stories through symbols,” BAY explains. “The meanings behind each design are not obvious at first, they are created to intrigue and it is up to the viewer to ask about their meaning.”

“Sadly, Tapa and Kupesi are taken for granted by younger generations in Tonga. What I discovered is that the majority of people are familiar with the imagery, but not the meaning. And because of this, the meanings are slowly being lost. There is also a reduction in new designs being made.”

The Kupesi In Colour exhibition has seen BAY introduce new elements to her craft that not only educates the viewer, but encourages them to become involved in the process too. Kupesi and tapa cloth making is traditionally a familial, communal process. Creating an exhibition that gives the viewer a deeper sense of Pasifika culture, BAY utilises a mix of contemporary and traditional materials to elevate the experience.

“After considering different ways of including different sensory elements, I decided to make the exhibition a completely immersive experience.” says BAY. “I hope that people feel transported when they enter the gallery space. I have ocean sounds playing for the duration of the exhibition and have also covered the gallery floor with sand. I want people to feel the sand beneath their feet when they are viewing the work.”

The exhibition serves not just as a gateway to Tongan culture through an Australian lens. It has served as a healing tool for the artist, whose process has been rooted in a journey of self-discovery.

Growing up in Australia with little connection to her paternal roots, BAY embarked on a journey to discover this significant part of her identity on her own. Making her way back to Tonga, she was met with family and a new grasp on cultural connection that had been missing in her life through into young adulthood. Her works in the years that have followed reflect this connection, as it reflects overcoming mental health struggles and coming into her own.

“Since forging new relationships with family who I have met over the last decade and moving into adulthood, it [Tongan culture] has become more and more important to me. We have lost most of our grandparents’ generation, and cultural knowledge along with them. It is so important for me to stay connected with my family, so I don’t lose grasp of that cultural connection.”

Kupesi In Colour — in its vibrancy and execution — speaks volumes to those who may relate to BAY’s journey in their own way. The contemporary Australian landscape is one brimming of many cultures meeting, uniting and forming new connections in their own way.

BAY at work in the studio

However it can be a tough landscape to find comfort and acceptance in as a person of colour, or simply as a non Anglo-Australian. Finding meaning in all aspects of your personal being and exploring these connections is integral to long term personal and creative growth. Through her art and creative process, BAY has found identity that has long been missing — the result of which has been created with modern textiles upon a traditional platform that has been at the core of Tongan culture and the Tongan experience.

“Early struggles with my identity really affected me, so it’s been a bit of an (unplanned) process to move from completely abstract painting and slowly introducing some sort of semblance of structure into my work through cultural symbols. The more I learn about my heritage, the more I find things that resonate with me. People, landscape culture and storytelling. All these pieces help complete my puzzle and slowly enrich my practice.”

Sosefina Fuamoli is a music journalist, editor, radio host and publicist. An ardent supporter of young writers and music professionals, she has been a champion of a more diverse Australian music culture, while also profiling and reviewing some of the world’s biggest music festivals and artists in the United States and Europe.

As a freelance writer and content producer, Sosefina’s recent credits have included triple j, Double J, Red Bull Australia, Time Out Sydney, LNWY and Cool Accidents, while she has also contributed to Rolling Stone Australia, Stella Magazine and The Guardian in the past. Sosefina is the current Hip-Hop columnist for Beat Magazine in Melbourne, and co-programs digital radio station Play On Radio.

An accomplished member of the Australian music industry, Sose has hosted panels and conversation sessions at Melbourne Music Week, Splendour in the Grass, CHANGES Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival, among others.

2020 will see her launch a new project focused on telling the stories of Australian/Australian-based musicians of colour, and exploring the unique connections between diverse cultural upbringings in an Australian landscape and contemporary music.

Sosefina is a current Australian Music Prize judge, and has also served on judging committees for events including the ARIA Awards, South Australian Music Awards, the National Indigenous Music Awards, Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition, and NT Song of the Year.

BAY is an Adelaide based visual artist whose work explores mental health and her Tongan ancestry. Cultural symbols and metaphors in Polynesian design have inspired her most recent body of work, investigating the traditional and dying art of Kupesi (Tongan pattern making). As she forms a deeper connection with her islander heritage, her paintings become a platform to communicate lost culture and pacific storytelling.
A recent collaboration with Madame Flavour Tea, saw the artist’s painting featured on the packaging of their Melbourne Morning Blend. She also donates $5 from every artwork sale to Headspace Australia, the national youth mental health foundation dedicated to improving the wellbeing of young Australians.