Made from the bark of certain trees, tapa is an important part of the cultural heritage of Pacific Island societies. As an object of prestige as well as for everyday use, it is in French Polynesia where the fabrication technique has been perfected like nowhere else. Ethnoarchaeologist and tapa expert Michel Charleux, who lives in Tahiti, has directed a collective publication dedicated to tapa.
Tapa has its origins in Southeast Asia, more specifically in the Guangxi region of Southern China along the border with Vietnam. The oldest stone beaters (the beater is a tool used to beat bark to make tapa) discovered in this region by archaeological excavations date back 8,000 years to during the Neolithic period. During the great migration movement that began at least 3,000 years ago, Southeast Asians brought their ancestral know-how with them to the Pacific all the way to the extremities of the Polynesian Triangle, New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island, and most likely South America. This is why tapa is found in these parts of the world. In French Polynesia, oral traditions attribute the origin of tapa to the goddess Hina, the first to have beaten bark to make beautiful white fabric. Archeological digs on the island of Huahine in the Leeward Islands confirm the historical presence of tapa in French Polynesia with the discovery of wooden beaters dated between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Tapa: Technique and Use
Obtained from vegetable fibers, tapa is a soft fabric made from the inner part of certain types of bark. It is beaten on an anvil so as to interweave the fibers and create a kind of felt. Three species of trees were used for the production of tapa: the breadfruit or ‘uru (Artocarpus altilis), the paper mulberry or aute (Broussonetia papyrifera) and banyan or ‘ōrā (Ficus prolixa). In French Polynesia, creating tapa was a woman’s role, unlike in Melanesia where it was mandatory for men. Once the tree was cut down, the first step was to separate the inner part of the bark, or plant tissue, by scraping the outer part with a clam shell. The bark then fermented for a few days on a banana leaf then was beaten on an anvil made of wood (or stone as in the Marquesas Islands) using a very hard wooden beater. The square-shaped wooden beater made of ‘aito (Casuarina equisetifolia) had wide grooves on the front. The other sides had grooves that were increasingly thinner. The cloth was first beaten with the front of the beater with the large grooves, followed by the finer ones, until it gradually reached several decimeters in width. In order to make a piece that was considerably large, strips of tapa were assembled together and beaten again so that the fibers could interweave. They were then dried in the sun, bleached and sometimes decorated. The most beautiful tapa cloths were appreciated for their suppleness and the finesse of their execution.
From birth to death, tapa was a part of all stages of life. It was used for clothing and house linens on a daily basis. Newborns were wrapped in the most supple, soft tapa cloths. Women used tapa to make päreu (pareos) that they wrapped around their waists. Men wore the maro, a strip of tapa passed between the legs and knotted around the waist. The tïputa, a dyed and decorated type of pinafore, and the ‘ahufara, a cloak worn on the shoulders like a shawl, were also made of tapa (The Museum of Tahiti and the Islands- Te fare Manaha preserves magnificent pieces of tïputa and ‘ahufara). The tapa pieces also served as sheets and blankets, or in the case of Fiji, as turbans.
In social relations, tapa cloth was a sign of wealth and prestige. Inside the fare (house), it was exposed as a hanging, partition or mat. This is still practiced in parts of the Pacific, such as Wallis and Futuna, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. During great social and religious ceremonies, tapa was offered as a sign of recognition and distinction. At the moment of death, the deceased was wrapped in a shroud made of tapa. There were also tapas that were sacred, reserved for the tikis on the marae. These were made by the opu nui, the guardians of the marae.
Tapa: Intangible Cultural Heritage
As a symbol of power and authority, tapa could be artistically embellished. The oldest tapa cloths in Tahiti are decorated with geometric lines and concentric circles. Elsewhere in the Pacific, these geometric motifs can be found in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. For coloring, natural elements were used. Only tapa reserved for domestic and social use were decorated. Tapa for religious purposes remained in its natural state.
Today, the ancient tapa technique is still practiced in Tonga, Western Samoa, Fiji, Wallis and Futuna and Papua New Guinea. Marquesans on the island of Fatu Hiva continue to make perfumed tapa for their daughters’ puberty initiation ceremonies. Since the 1960s, Marquesans have been producing tapas with motifs inspired by tattoos, which very popular with tourists. Throughout the rest of the Marquesas and French Polynesia, tapa is but a distant memory. Dress codes imposed by the missionaries in the nineteenth century and the importation of new fabrics put an end to this ancestral practice.
Throughout the rest of the world, tapa is found in South America, Madagascar, among the Baoulé in the Ivory Coast, and in Uganda. Since 2008, the creation of bark fabrics in Uganda has been included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Ethnoarchaeologist Michel Charleux, who has carried out excavations in French Polynesia, intends to take the necessary steps to obtain UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage label for tapa in the Pacific, as in Uganda. This entails demonstrating that the tapa technique in Oceania is not only a tradition inherited from the past, but that it remains a contemporary practice particular to all the peoples of the Pacific, connecting them to one another.
Tapa in the spotlight: a book and an exhibition
Michel Charleux is very involved in the knowledge and culture of tapa and has led several projects around this theme. He was the chief commissioner for Festival des tapa, liens culturels d’Océanie (Tapa Festival: Cultural Ties in Oceania) held in Tahiti in November 2014, which brought scientists together (archaeologists, ethnologists, museum curators, etc.) who are recognized experts in French Polynesian artists and materials. From this project evolved the idea of a book devoted to research over tapa. This was a successful venture. Under the direction of Michel Charleux, Tapa d’Océanie, de l’écorce à l’étoffe, Art millénaire d’Océanie, de l’Asie du Sud-Est à la Polynésie orientale (Tapa from Oceania: from bark to fabric, ancient art of Oceania from Southeast Asia to Eastern Polynesia) was released in bookstores on September 6, 2017. It assembles sixty authors specializing in the subject (scientists and local experts). Adrienne Kaeppler, anthropologist and curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington and recognized as the world’s leading tapa expert, agreed to participate in this project. The book examines the fabrication and different uses of tapa cloth from Indonesia to archipelagoes throughout the Pacific. Notably, it highlights the remarkable work of a Chilean team that studied genes to trace the path of the paper mulberry tree during migrations. This book provides a collection of knowledge, some of which has never before been published. The book was presented in Paris from September 12-17 as part of the 2017 Parcours des Mondes, the major international fair dedicated to the first arts of Africa, Asia and Oceania held annually in the Saint Germain-des-Près district. This year, the event featured French Polynesia and supported the launch of this publication, which is already recognized as a reference book.
Tapa d’Océanie, de l’écorce à l’étoffe, Art millénaire d’Océanie, de l’Asie du Sud-Est à la Polynésie orientale, under the direction of Michel Charleux, 610 pages, bilingual French and English, Somogy éditions d’art, 95 € ($115USD), available after September 6.