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Tongan Turtles PDF Print E-mail
Written by Lyn Portter   

 Lyn Potter from Marcellin College in Auckland had the opportunity on a trip to Tonga to take an art class with intermediate students at Takuilau College.

On a recent visit to Tonga, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a group of intermediate students at Takuilau College. The students had very limited access to pastels, paints, brushes and drawing pencils but, with a box of donated art materials, I was able to take up the challenge.


In my experience, art lessons which are based on an aspect of the student's own environment work well. The village, in which Takuilau College is located, is alive from dawn to dusk with the sound of women beating tapa cloth. From time to time, I would see gigantic sheets of newly painted tapa lying in the gardens with their proud owners standing beside them. For these students, seeing tapa patterns was part of their daily experience and I wanted to tap into this knowledge.

There was a turtle preserved in the local museum which was one of two turtles that had been presented by Captain Cook to Queen Salote's father as a symbol of friendship between the two races. For some years, the Queen asked the sisters at the convent where we were staying to look after one of the turtles.


I decided that the focus would be on turtles, tone and pattern. The turtle is often used as a motif in contemporary tapa. I had only one morning to cover a lot of ground but I felt that if everyone worked well it would be achievable. Brother Mark had brought in a giant turtle shell that was hung on the wall so that the patterns on the back were clearly visible.

I started with an exercise in tonal drawing. Each student was given a small piece of paper on which 5 squares had to be drawn and shaded from white-light, grey-middle, grey-dark to grey-black. After this they did a realistic pencil drawing of the turtle on A4 size paper. The challenge was not only to do an accurate observational drawing but also to make sure there was a good tonal range.


In the second part of the lesson I wanted the students to transform the turtle from a realistic image to a pattern. They redrew the outline but this time they had to fill the shape with Tongan patterns. I did briefly show some turtle motifs on tapa greetings cards but then I put these away. These students did not need examples of patterns in front of them while they work, as they are very familiar with them. I thought they would use very traditional patterns but they were very loose and expressive in their pattern making.

Time was running out and we had still not done the major part of the work - the large turtle paintings I had planned.


(Sources: / From Primary Colours Issue No 17, April)

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