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Unknown: Tapa Cloth

The  Work of Art

Unknown Tapa Cloth

Tapa cloth (or simply tapa) is a barkcloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but as far afield as Niue, Cook Islands, Futuna, Solomon Islands, Java, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii (where it is called kapa). In French Polynesia it has nearly disappeared, except for some villages in the Marquesas.

The cloth is known by a number of local names although the term tapa is international and understood throughout the islands that use the cloth. The word tapa is from Tahiti and the Cook Islands, where Captain Cook was the first European to collect it and introduce it to the rest of the world. In Tonga, tapa is known as ngatu, and here it is of great social importance to the islanders, often being given as gifts. In Samoa, the same cloth is called siapo, and in Niue it is hiapo. In Hawaiʻi, it is known as kapa. In Rotuma, a Polynesian island in the Fiji group, it is called ‘uha and in other Fiji islands it is called masi. In the Pitcairn islands it was called ahu, and in New Zealand as aute. It is also known as tapia.

All these words give some clue to the origin. Masi could mean the (bark of the) dye-fig (Ficus tinctoria), endemic to Oceania, and probably the one originally used to make tapa. Somewhere in history, during the voyages of migration the hiapo or siapo was introduced from Southeast Asia, the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). The bark of this tree is much better to use, and put the use of the dye-fig into oblivion. Only its name remained in Fiji. Tapa finally has the meaning of border or strip. It seems likely that before the glueing process became common to make large sheets (see below) only narrow strips were produced.

Tapa can be decorated by rubbing, stamping, stencilling, smoking (Fiji: "masi Kuvui") or dyeing. The patterns of Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian tapa usually form a grid of squares, each of which contains geometric patterns with repeated motifs such as fish and plants, for example four stylised leaves forming a diagonal cross. Traditional dyes are usually black and rust-brown, although other colours are known.

In former times the cloth was primarily used for clothing, but now cotton and other textiles have replaced it. The major problem with tapa clothing is that the tissue loses its strength when wet and falls apart. However, it was better than grass-skirts, which usually are either heavier and harder or easily blown apart, but on the low coral atolls where the mulberry does not grow, people had no choice. It is also labour-intensive to manufacture. Tapa cloth was made by both the men and women in ancient times. An example is the Hawaiian men, who also made their own weapons.

Nowadays tapa is often worn on formal occasions such as weddings. Another use is as a blanket at night or for room dividers. It is highly prized for its decorative value and is often found hung on walls as decoration. In Tonga a family is considered poor, no matter how much money they have, if they do not have any tapa in stock at home to donate at life events like marriages, funerals and so forth. If the tapa was donated to them by a chief or even the royal family, it is more valuable. It has been used in ceremonial masks in Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands (Mangian masks). It was used to wrap sacred objects, e.g., "God staffs" in the Cook Islands.

In New Zealand, presumably early Māori settlers created clothing from the Broussonetia papyrifera trees that were brought to the islands to be cultivated, however no archaeological evidence of this exists. The New Zealand climate was not suited to cultivate large amounts of tapa cloth, so early Māori adopted the use of harakeke (Phormium tenax, or New Zealand flax) instead. By the 1770s, the primary use of tapa cloth was to create a soft, white cloth used for fillets or in ear piercings by high status men, however barkcloth textiles disappeared from use in the early 19th Century, coinciding with the tree's disappearance from New Zealand.

The following describes the fabrication of Tapa cloth in Tonga, where it is still part of daily life.There may be small or large differences for other locations.

In Tonga hiapo is the name given to the paper mulberry tree. It is not usually grown in whole plantations, but portions of a yam or other vegetable garden are often set aside for it. They are cut and brought home where the first task is to strip the bark from the trees. The strips are about hand wide and person long. The wood left-over is named mokofute. The bark consists of two layers; the outer bark is scraped or split off from the inner bark. This work is called haʻalo. The outer bark is discarded; the inner bark, named tutu or loututu, is left-over. It is dried in the sun before being soaked.

After this, the bark is beaten on a wooden tutua anvil using wooden mallets called ike. In the beating the bark is made thinner and spread out to a width of about 25 cm. This phase of the work is called tutu (or tutua). The mallets are flat on one side and have coarse and fine grooves on the other sides. First the coarse sides are used and, towards the end of the work, the flat side (tā-tuʻa).

The continuous "thonk" beats of the tapa mallet is a normal sound in Tongan villages. If several women work together they can make a concert out of it. In that case there might be one who tukipotu, beats the end of the tutua to set the rhythm.

When the strips are thin enough, several are taken and beaten together into a large sheet. Some starch from the kumala, or manioke may be rubbed on places which are unwilling to stick. This part of the work is called ʻopoʻopo, the glue is called tou and the resulting sheet of tapa is called fetaʻaki. It then consists of two layers of strips in perpendicular direction, the upper one called lauʻolunga and the lower one laulalo.

A knife or sharp shell, named mutu, is used to trim the edges, and the pieces fallen off in this process are called papanaki. When the white fetaʻaki is smoked brown, it is called sala.

Often the women of a whole village work together on a huge sheet of tapa. A donation is made to the church or their chief at an important occasion. Such sheets are about 3 m wide and 15 or 30 m, or sometimes even 60 m long. The 15 meter pieces are called launima (meaning five-sheet, because the sheet is five squares), and the 30 m pieces are called lautefuhi.

The University of Canberra has two examples of Tapa Cloth in its Art Collection.  Both are by unknown artists, the first is a highly detailed example  that shows  a series of borders with geometric shapes in black and white. The second, is a large textile with patterns  that resemble  something akin to islamic script on a brond background.