A small tree with long leaves, the pandanus rules on the island of Rimatara. The Ancients’ material of choice for weaving, it is processed on the island for export, but also and always skilfully intertwined by expert craft women.
6:30 AM. The large circle shaped Mutuaura bay barely wakes up to the roosters’ crowing. Low transverse sun on the tall aito, the trees called “iron wood”, which dip into the lagoon and border the road. Mama Faora approaches with a nonchalant walk. She opens the door of the fare – craft, a small wooden building with a ni’au roof that is also facing the sea and was built in 1990 to house the Vahine Punarua Association. She is soon joined by 8, then 10 women, each bringing a small basket. Inside, everything is quickly organized, everybody sits at her usual place, all sitting directly on the floor on large pe’ue, these large mats made of vegetal fiber, that cover the wooden floor. In seconds, everything is said, all of Rimatara’s weaving creation gets busy in their hands, fibers are stretched, strands vibrate, knots are tied.
Outside, the sun has dried out the morning dew, it is time to take out the bundles of long leaves of pandanus, a small tree whose leaves can reach 2 meters (6-foot) in length.
Tied together with a long braid, these fibers have spent the night protected in the fare. With a wide motion of their arms spreading the long golden fibers, Jeanne and Vaimiti lay them on the floor, so the sun can dry and bleach them, before they can work with them.
The preparation of pandanus leaves requires indeed lots of time and work. Three to four weeks are needed to dry them in the open air, up to eight weeks if it is raining. Then one by one, the leaves are smoothed out, day after day, inside and outside, using short wooden sticks to give them the best possible flexibility. Separated form their extremities which are too thin, the leaves, about 80 of them, are rolled up one over another in big pandanus rolls called pipita. The fiber is then ready to be weaved!
Bleached pandanus, which is used for the finest jobs, requires special preparation. Before being patiently hung in bundles in the sun, the green fibers, assembled together in rolls right after they are cut off, are boiled in a big pot saturated with lemons. This treatment gives then their particular discoloration.
As you can see, the pandanus is King in Rimatara, and Rimatara is the island Queen of weaving. In the Austral archipelago, agriculture has indeed plaid a major role in the big economic and sociological disruptions experienced by the Territory in the 1960’s. Thanks to a temperate climate favoring market gardening, these islands have for a long time supplied (and still supply) all of Polynesia. This way, the cultivation of pandanus was maintained, it even expanded, and with it so did the weaving activity.
Back to the inside of the fare, the young weaving women hired under the CPIA program (a contract to insert young people in the economy) perform the same gestures their elders used to make large mats (or pe’ue), baskets, hats, crowns and flower arrangements. While the specialty of Rurutu, the neighboring island, is still hat making, the women of Rimatara are famous for their skills in basket weaving. Woven over a plywood shape, the simple “panier marché” (market basket) takes many shapes. It becomes a purse to carry in town, decorated with black dried banana tree fibers or with fibers from the bark of the purau ( a very common tree in Polynesia) dyed in red, but also adorned with the most diversified stitches and patterns. It is hard to name them all as terminology varies from one island to the next, and even from one family or one group to the next. Not to mention that nothing is defined for good and that the composite patterns never stop changing or being reinvented. Among Rimatara’s most frequent stitches are the vara, the puto, the ha’une, the pana ofe or the pana tu’utu’u tahi.
The Vahine Punarua Association, as the seven other associations in the island, has a meeting place, where everybody likes to gather to work together as it was customary in the ancient society, and after the arrival of the missionaries, with the creation of “pupu”, these groups for community work formed around a church. There is always someone at the fare, even if more now prefer to work at home and sell their products to the Association, which resells them with a small profit of 100 or 200 XPF (between US$ 0.80 et 1.60).
Other Rimatara associations only act as consignment, each woman receiving the price of her product when it is sold. Who are the buyers? The tourists, who now come in larger numbers after the opening of the new landing strip in 2006, but also families with their roots in the island when they come to visit, or also for a present for a birthday, etc. Not to mention of course, big events like Tahiti’s Arts & Crafts Fairs for which stocks are planned well ahead of time.
At the Mutuaura fare, time has passed, it is almost noon, the women go back home where other tasks are waiting for them, such as sewing or fishing. Because while their work as weavers is today well structured within this association, which itself is part of a federation, the artisans have several activities, often surviving activities, which also characterize life in the islands, where everyone cultivates, fishes, gathers and hunts. A life in harmony with a precious, unique and preserved environment.