Ruha Fifita

Ruha was born and raised in the Island Kingdom of Tonga and continues to engage with the Pacific region as an interdisciplinary artist, and through her work as the Curatorial Assistant for Pacific Art at the Queensland state Gallery |Gallery of Modern Art. In 2006, whilst still living in Tonga, Ruha co-founded ON THE SPOT Inc. (OTS) - a community-based arts organisation – with the initial focus of engaging youth in creative projects aimed at contributing to the achievement of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals at the local level. As an artist, she works closely with her siblings and extended family, developing a practice which focuses on collaboration, community engagement and connection with indigenous methods and materials. Her creative work has afforded her many opportunities to work, engage in discourses and exhibit throughout the Pacific region in settings such as the Auckland Art Festival, Pataka Art Gallery, The National Gallery of Victoria, and the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. The various endeavours she continues to engage in are linked as she consciously pursues opportunities to learn about some key questions, perhaps most simply summarised as; what is the role of religion, the role of young people and the role of the arts and artists in contributing to the spiritual and material advancement of civilisation?

Original Action


“...Ke pehe ‘ae ngaue’i hotau famili
Ke nofo ‘i he uouongataha moe fe’ofo’ofani
Koe palataisi ‘ia ‘oe mo’ui...” (extract from a poem by Akesa Fifita, January 2013).

Our grandmother - ‘Akesa Fifita - is a bountiful poet and artist, and our late grandfather -’Isileli Fifita- is remembered as a captivating orator and exceptional agriculturalist.

Our grandparents’ lives and words have taught us to look at the natural world with wonder, curiosity and reverence. To honour the interdependence of all things and to see ourselves as co-creators of the culture and communities we are a part of.

Our experiences together have taught us that who we are and who we can potentially become in the world is deeply connected to the sense of purpose, values, and dynamics that characterise relationships and interactions within one’s family and extended family as a distinct social space. A growing number of our family are learning about the role that collaborative art practices - which connect us to our homelands, our language and our ancestors - can play in shaping, elevating and enriching this space.

For the 52 Actions Project we share the process of testing a new design and different painting approaches as we work to add to a series of designs titled ‘Ko e Ngoue Manongi (The Fragrant Garden)’.

The process of creating ngatu is layered and rhythmic. Every stage builds and the quality of the step before and each attempt reveals new insights and questions regarding how the process can be further refined. In pursuit of this refinement and learning, we continue to create, enquire, grow and honour connections through this practice...

“...May you become as growing plants. May the trees of your hearts bring forth new leaves and variegated blossoms. May ideal fruits appear from them in order that the world of humanity, which has grown and developed in material civilization, may be quickened in the bringing forth of spiritual ideals.” (Abdu’l-Baha)



Tui Kupesi: Sew base design on rubbing plate.

Kupesi designs are intended to be repeated and combined to create a variety of patterns. They are reused multiple times to communicate shared values and narratives.

“The being level speaks the language of art, music, color shape and pattern directly -- a language that requires no words -- is not limited by words -- nor does it have the specificity of words and thus cannot be broken onto parts that can be manipulated or analyzed by the intellect. It must be swallowed, whole not parsed, sorted and justified.”

(Thomas Campbell)


Koka’anga: Print kupesi tui (sewn design rubbing plate) and join layers of feta’aki (unjoined, unpainted barkcloth).

“The kupesi is a part of the tangible cultural heritage of Tonga, but it is the thought and the idea behind the kupesi that give life to the creative designs it reproduces. This is what makes it meaningful and interesting... Tongans admire the art of speaking and composing songs and poems. The use of indirect heliaki discourse in language is an art, for it is regarded as rude and coarse to speak directly. Likewise, with the design and creation of the kupesi, its meaning was heliaki. The background of the kupesi urges its beholder to wonder what it means, why it was made, and for whom it was made. Tonga’s ancestors placed much wisdom into the creation of their designs.”

(Fielakepa, Tuna Kaimanu Tonga. 2014. Kupesi: A creative tradition of Tonga, In Traditional Knowledge and Wisdoms. Themes from the Pacific Islands. UNESCO/ICHCAP)

"In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it."

(Christopher Alexander)


Tava draudrau (Fijian): cut/prepare stencils.

For this work we have experimented with a combination of printing methods using kupesi rubbing plates and stencilling.

(Thank you to our close friend and mentor Tamari Cabeikanacea from Moce Island of the Lau Islands in Fiji has gifted us with natural materials for this project and accompaniment in learning about use of stencils and the historic links between Tongan and Fijian ngatu-making)


Kesakesa (Fijian): printing on bark cloth using stencils.

Using stencils to print allows fine –lined designs to be replicated across large areas of bark cloth with great precision.


Tohi ngatu: Painting the barkcloth.

We use three natural pigments to explore how familiar ngatu-painting aesthetics and experimental techniques can be woven together to speak to new conceptual underpinnings.


Tohi ngatu: Painting the barkcloth.

As an outcome of this process we have been able to familiarise ourselves with the possibilities for this design ngatu. We have identified adjustments to make to the earlier stages and the potential for this design to speak to others in our collection.

The work itself was solely intended to assist us to collectively envision and refine design ideas towards a larger collaborative work and will subsequently be kept in the care of a family member.



Penrith Regional Gallery, 2022

Wangaratta Art Gallery, 2023

Ruha Fifita, 2022. Installation view, 52 ACTIONS, Wangaratta Art Gallery, Wangaratta. Photos: Marc Bongers

Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, 2023

Ruha Fifita, 2022. Installation view, 52 ACTIONS, Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, Jervis Bay. Photos: Leanne Windsor