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Fijian breastplates inspire contemporary artist

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Fijian breastplates inspire contemporary artist

by Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai - Monday, 24 March 2014

Paper breastplates series.

Paper breastplates series.

© Tavola, Ema. 2014.
I recently attended #Tattoo4Tonga: Pacific Artists fundraising for Ha’apai held at Fresh Gallery, Otara where a series of paper breastplates by Ema Tavola caught my attention. They were abstractions of prestigious civavonovono, Fijian chief’s breastplates of whales tooth and pearl shell, which she saw in Auckland Museum’s Pacific collections.

Ema is an independent writer, curator and arts administrator under her own company PIMPI KNOWS. She was one of a group of artists, that included Tongan tattooist Stanley Lolohea, who organised the event to raise funds for people of the Ha’apai islands devastated by Cyclone Ian in January.

Ema visited the museum in early February to join Associate Curator Māori, Nigel Borell, for a back-of-house tour of the Ethnology collections when she came across some civavonovono. In the information that accompanied the paper breastplates Ema writes that:

I was inspired after a visit to the Auckland Museum storeroom where I encountered some exquisite Fijian breastplates kept in dark little drawers. Being so close to them without a glass cabinet between us, I felt attached and energised by them; I’ve been intrigued with Fijian breastplate design for a long time. Although I was able to photograph them, I was asked not to share the imagery. I loved encountering these beautiful objects and wanted to tell the world! As a social media creature, I found this proposition quite challenging… So, this series came about.

So in an ingenious way Ema then created works that she could share and discuss on social media and her blog.

Ema’s experience highlights the importance of museums not only having collections on display in the exhibition spaces – in which we currently have five civavonovono displayed – but also providing back-of-house access that allows for closer, more personal experiences and encounters with collections. This also provides opportunities for quiet research and study.

Auckland Museum has many and varied stored collections here for the public to enjoy, which can be accessed with some advanced planning. Providing access to our collections helps to demystify museums and museological practices, creating more awareness and understanding of why we do what we do.


A civavonovono from the James Burton Turner collection.

A civavonovono from the James Burton Turner collection.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnology 13336.
This image is of one of the civavonovono from our Pacific collection that inspired Ema’s paper breastplate series. It comes from the Hon. James Burton Turner collection, which includes over 200 other items from Fiji. Turner was born at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in 1849 and educated at Wesley College and Auckland Grammar School. He lived in Fiji in the late 19th century and later became the mayor of Fiji in the early 20th century. During his time in Fiji Turner accumulated a significant collection, which was gifted to the museum in 1925.

This civavonovono is made of four pieces of whale ivory. They are bound to the central polished civa (or black-lipped pearl shell) with hibiscus fibre and then attached to a braided sennit cord.

Civavonovono like this one are said to have been made by Tongan and Sāmoan master canoe builders for Fijian chiefs. There are similarities in the techniques that are used to make civavonovono and canoe hulls, where binding is on the inside and can’t be seen from the outside. They are worn around the neck during dancing and in combat.

A modern reinterpretation

Ema’s series of paper breastplates are made using pages from magazines and journals about Auckland, Renaissance art, American muscle cars, contemporary art, oceans, Fijian arts and culture and the Bible. This reflects some of the historical and cultural landscape within which some civavonovono have been created, as well as mirroring the contemporary context where the breastplates exist today.

Her paper series are each beautifully framed and have in turn become adornments to be hung on walls. For me, they are a wonderful reminder of the value that museums have as guardians of our koloa tukufakaholo (cultural heritage) and provide a rich source of inspiration for artists such as Ema Tavola.

Further reading

  • Pacific Jewellery and Adornment by Roger Neich and Fuli Pereira (2004)
  • Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760 – 1860 by Steven Hooper (2006)
  • Yalo i Viti: Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue by Fergus Clunie (1986)
  • Visit Ema Tavola’s website to view the full series of paper breastplates
  • Post by: Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai

    Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai is Auckland Museum’s Associate Curator Pacific.

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