The Art Of Punake
The Art Of Punake

About This Project

The Fading Art of Punake is a documentary that explores the lives of Tongans who are identified as Punake, socio-eological poets, composers or choreographers. In our contemporary world, Punakes are critical for the creation of artistic beauty, the preservation of history, and the conservation of ecology. The late Professor Futa Helu explains that the Tongan word punake is "an abbreviated form from two words, puna = to fly, and hake = on high. The full meaning of punake (poet) is a person whose sensibility goes up as if flying to heights but non-poets are not endowed by those gifts and so are held down on to lowly, very mundane emotional levels." As artists, Punakes are the composers of taʻanga, poetic songs, and choreographers of faiva, performances. Tongan historical anthropologist and poet, Hūfanga Professor ʻOkusitino Māhina, classifies Tongan arts into three general categories: tufunga (material arts), faiva (performing arts), and nimameaʻa (fine arts). Punake encompasses tufunga and faiva art forms. The composition of taʻanga (poetic songs) is a tufunga, material art, while the performance of taʻanga (poetic songs) is a faiva, performing art. This documentary focuses on the intersection of punake and fonua (land, people, plants, fragrant flowers, trees, mounds, ponds, ocean, sea shores, animals, birds, fishes, marine life, historical landmarks, stars, moon, sun, etc.) in their works. Contemporary Tongan Punakes such as Sēmisi ʻĪongi, Nau Saimone, Peni Tutuʻila Malupō, Feke Tutuʻila, ʻAlamoti Taumoepeau, Malukava, Fakatava, Honorable Veʻehala, Queen Sālote Tupou III, and many others have paved the way for the preservation of this Tongan art. This documentary explores the phenomenon behind the usage of fonua (environment) in poems and composing of music and traditional choreography. The documentary also examines the works of contemporary Tongan punakes surrounding nature to help guide the interviews with our participants. In addition, the documentary highlights emerging punakes, in Tonga and abroad, who are trying to craft their art while holding on to the traditional core values of a traditional punake.


The Tongan title Punake applies to a poet, composer, and choreographer. A Punake excels as a pulotu faʻu (composer of poems or taʻanga), a pulotu hiva/pulotu fasi (creator of melodies) and a pulotu haka (creator of dance or a choreographer). To earn the Punake title one must master all three areas of pulotu (composer, creator). The art form of Punake (poetry, composition and choreography) plays a vital role in the preservation of Tongan history and conservation of nature. With its oral traditions, Tongans learn from the teaching of their forebearers surrounding the importance of traditional protocol and the formalities of cultural practices. The Art of Punake looks at the art form of Tongan compositions from both a traditional and contemporary perspective. With the arrangements of songs (lyrics, rhythms, melody and harmony) and choreography (movement of the body) Tongan Punakes are able to articulate and preserve historical events while venerating nature. One of the most fascinating aspects of this art form is the inspirational usage of nature (flora and fauna) in the punakeʼs composing of poetry and choreographing of dance. The inspiration from nature is derived from the love and identity that Punake share with the fonua of their ancestors. The Punakes' love grew into an act of duty to preserve the lands natural beauty and scenery. The conservation of nature is fundamental for this art form to prevail and live on for centuries to come. This art form was a way for Tongans to help maintain their eco-system. This fading art form of Punake is slowly deteriorating among the younger generation. The usage of nature metaphors is being replaced with materialistic substances. There is a great need to educate the public on the importance of this art form and bring awareness to the public eye. If we do not hold on to this art form, then we will lose cultural knowledge surrounding the works of Punakes in the past.

Why this art form is important?

The connection Tongans share with the land is embedded in their traditional cultural practices and way of life. Like the rest of Oceania, Tonga also, deals with the environmental factors that are currently destroying their landscapes and seascapes. Renowned Tongan anthropologist, Epeli Hauʻofa, wrote: “Our landscapes and seascapes are thus cultural as well as physical. We cannot read our histories without knowing how to read our landscapes (and seascapes). When we realise this, we should be able to understand why our languages locate the past as ahead or in front of us. It is right there on our landscapes in front of our very eyes…. It is essential not to destroy our landmark, for with their removal very important parts of our memories, our histories, will be erased.” The revival of this art form of Punake is a means of saving the cultural dynamic of oneness with landscapes and seascapes; the teaching and knowledge of this craft serve as a connection of the Tongan identity to Fonua. The preservation of this art form and conservation of flora and fauna are important for traditions to evolve and live on to the future. By saving this art form you are saving an island, a nation, a people, a rich history and generations of Punakes to come.

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