Tapa, or barkcloth, is probably the most unique and labor intensive of the textile arts. It’s history goes back thousands of years to southern China and South-East Asia, and many archaeologists believe – to the Lapita, the mysterious and ancient ancestors of many of the Pacific Island cultures. Tapa was historically used for ceremonial robes, cloaks, seating mats and spirit masks, but today it is used for many more mundane purposes: Tablecloths, bedspreads, tapestry type wall hangings and seating mats. On many of the Pacific islands a gift of tapa is one of the highest honors a guest could receive, and the quality of the tapa in a young woman’s dowry is an indication of her clan’s wealth and class rank. Though each island has its own style, design and uses for tapa, the method for producing the basic cloth has changed very little over the centuries.
The vast majority of tapa is made from the Paper Mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera, though Breadfruit Tree, Banyan, and at times even Hibiscus wood is also used. The Paper Mulberry is sterile in the islands, so cuttings are carefully tended for the sole purpose of tapa making. Small groves of the tree can be seen behind the houses where the greatest tapa makers live and work, each sapling tenderly guided to grow straight with no branching or knots that would mar the bast, or inner bark. When a sapling has reached the desired height – this being dependent upon the use for which the tapa will be made – it is cut down, and the process of creating the tapa begins.
First of all the bast is separated from the bark. A cut is made down the length of the wood, then using teeth or a knife, the inner bark is pulled away from the center until the piece can be rolled inside out. This rolling helps to loosen the outer bark so that it can be removed from the bast. Using a knife or a sharpened seashell the bast is scraped until all traces of the bark are gone. It is during this part of the process that the quality of the piece is initially determined. If even the slightest brown of bark is left on the bast, the color of the finished piece will be affected; therefore the master tapa makers will take the most care with this part of the process. Keeping the piece constantly wet, and scraping downward on a sloped board, the master will work diligently, removing bark particles that you or I would never see.
The second part of the process is one I would employ children to do, but the masters would never allow it. The bast is pounded on a wooden anvil or smoothed log to separate the fibers, softening and spreading them to create the cloth. This pounding is usually done with a four-sided wooden beater, somewhat resembling a cricket bat. Each side of the beater has grooves carved in it, that range from coarse to fine, used progressively to perfect the finished piece. I said I would use children for this part, because kids love to hit things repeatedly and that is what is done at this stage. To a rhythmic chant, the tapa is pounded for hours and hours until it has reached the consistency that the master decides is perfect. It is quite easy to tell the difference between tapa created by a master, and that created by a student…the softer and finer the piece, the more skilled the maker. A great mystery to me is getting the piece soft and fine without having it lose its connectivity, and just falling apart in your hands.
After the piece has been pounded to the desired consistency, any slight imperfections can be patched or other pieces can be attached for a larger piece. This is accomplished traditionally with a paste/glue made from arrowroot. The piece of tapa is then laid out on a floor mat or outside on the grass and weighted down to dry completely. After it has dried, the tapa is moved to a carved pattern board upon which the initial coloring powder has been spread.
Turmeric -yellow, red ochre, soot from burning the nuts of the Candlenut tree, Aleurites moluccana, for black, or the bark of the same tree for brown, give the first layer of color allowing the pattern to be transferred from the board to the tapa. The piece is rubbed on this pattern board with an arrowroot tuber or sea sponge until the pattern has been transferred to the entire piece.
The patterns of decoration on the finished tapa are items of great discussion and dispute among art historians and archaeologists. Many patterns are clan indicative, yet these clan patterns can be found on widely separated islands, and on pieces from various time periods because of the dowry and gift practices. Many patterns depict great events in a clan or island’s history and become a new identifier for that clan…confusing the provenance of the piece from a historical perspective. More and more often these days, when clan identification is not as imperative as it once was, the patterns and designs on tapa are as varied and colorful as the islands themselves. Flowers, fish, seashells, birds, even rifles, are depicted on the finished pieces.
These designs are painstakingly added by hand, interwoven amongst the initial patterns.
The finished piece of tapa can represent weeks or even months of work. If you take into account the growing of the wood - you are looking at a piece of textile art that was two years in the making. Art historians and archaeologists can debate, study, and examine for years and never really understand the temperament that would go to so much time and effort to create a cloak, a tablecloth, or a wedding present. But a gardener, admiring the beauty and form of a particular tree, would understand and just might wonder what could be made from it.
For more information, I suggest:
Pacific Tapa by Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast 1997 ISBN 0-8248-2929-8
Pacific Arts The Journal of the Pacific Arts Association NS.volume 3-5 2007
Picture of the child's dress is from a display at the Peabody Museum