Kalani Tonga is embracing her “hafekasi weirdness” in Midvale. Originally from Allen, TX, Tukuafu now calls Midvale home and was able to celebrate her personal heritage with her neighbors as part of the Midvale Main Street Mural Festival.
Tonga’s father is from Tonga and her mother’s family has Swedish origins and the Tongan word for biracial is “hafekasi.” “I like to think of my artwork as reflecting my ‘hafekasi weirdness’ because I take traditional Pacific Island patterns and use them with a nontraditional color palette and in nontraditional configurations,” the artist explains. “I think that the patterns are kind of like words — each has a meaning by itself, but they tell a complete story based on how they are put together. The story this mural tells is one of strength, growth, and of coming together, and these are all things that I think our community hopes for with the revitalization of Midvale Main Street as an arts and culture hub.”
Tonga is new to both art and mural painting. She only started painting in 2019, but her burgeoning career was a welcome boon when tragedy struck her family. “My husband passed away a little over a year ago, and he was our primary breadwinner, so painting has really helped me take care of our five young children in his absence.”
She enjoys painting alone, in her room, where a work can quietly take on its form layer by layer, so she wasn’t sure she would enjoy working outside on a mural. “I worked mostly early in the morning and then in the evening until it got too dark for me to see, and being outside when the sun was coming up and when it was going down made me happier than I expected it to. It was also kind of fun to work in a public space with people walking by and seeing the process.” Her three daughters helped paint, and her stepmother flew in from Texas to assist. “It was really a family project for us, and it was nice to spend time doing what I love with people that I love.”
Tonga has completed a small panel on the Jordan River Trail, but Midvale works is the first mural where she had to get serious and use a lift to paint something beyond the reach of her own arm. “The biggest issue I ran into with this mural was that the original mock-up design went up to the top of the wall, but the lift wouldn’t take me that high due to a combination of uneven ground and low hanging wires.” Once on site, she had to make significant adjustments on the fly. “The bottom half of the finished product looks a lot like the original mock-up, but the top half was completely improvised on the spot. I feel like this is pretty par for the course, not just in my art, but in my life.”
Kalani Tonga is the recipient of a 2022 Utah Artist Fellowship from Utah Arts & Museums. You’ll find more of her work on Instagram. In addition to her paintings, her work is available on a variety of apparel and products. She is also an author and editor.
During the month of June we’re featuring articles on several murals and muralists in Utah. You can discover several for yourself by visiting our Art Lake City map.
With our In Plain Site byline we feature publicly viewable art, both official and street art, throughout the state of Utah.