What Are Tapa and Woven Mats?
Tapa and woven mats are something that you’re raised on, around, and with [. . .] They have their place in creating sacred spaces whether at a family gathering, faith gatherings, graduations, weddings, funerals or any other important life event. They create dialogue among our community about our cultural ties, our ancestral ties, and our current relations that support and sustain our lives. They are just as much about the future as they are about the current and past relationships that we have nurtured.
—Asena Taione-Filihia (Tongan) and Lolofi Soakai (Tongan)
Known by different names in different regions, beaten barkcloth fabric from the Pacific Islands is most commonly called tapa. Along with finely woven mats, tapa were originally used for everything from clothing to ceremonial gifts. Though the creation of these fabrics decreased in the 18th century after the introduction of other textiles from Europe, the tradition of tapa remains strong in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, and is experiencing a resurgence in Hawai'i. Known respectively as ngatu, siapo, masi, and kapa, the barkcloth from these Pacific Islands cultures is still used for marriages and funerals, as valued gifts exchanged between families to acknowledge bonds, and in contemporary art.
Historically crafted by women, usually in communal gatherings, these beautiful fabrics take many steps to create. Their designs can be passed among family members or communities living in the same region, and often relate to historical events, the environment, or cultural beliefs.
Photo: Rick Burnette, 2016. ECHOcommunity.org
Tapa begins with bark—commonly harvested from the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera), but sometimes from the breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) or banyan (Ficus prolixa) tree. The bark is pulled off in a single sheet, and then the inner bark is separated and soaked in water to soften.
Single-layer siapo, Samoa, date unknown. 65.8 x 25.0 in. NHM A.9981.75-6
After soaking, the softened bark is beaten, which thins and stretches the plant fiber. This image shows one piece of inner bark beaten into a sheet. Often multiple sheets are beaten or glued together to make one larger piece. The term tapa is used for a finished fabric only.
Left: Kapa (detail), Hawai'i, collected late 1800s. 19.0 x 22.1 in. NHM A.1723.27-40
Right: Mallet (detail), Hawai'i, collected before 1927. 15.3 x 0.9 x 0.9 in. NHM A.1668.27-19
Designs can be embedded in the beating process or applied after. The marks on this tapa were probably the result of a grooved mallet similar to the one at right. These linear marks are often seen in tapa from Cook Islands, Tahiti, and Hawai'i.
Tapa (barkcloth), Nuka Hiva, Marquesas Islands, collected in 1943. 73.2 x 63.0 in. NHM A.1451.46-276
In many areas of the Pacific, undyed, natural-color tapa are considered the most valuable and are reserved for individuals of special status.
Kapa (detail), Hawai'i, collected before 1926. 59.1 x 24.0 in. NHM A.5916.49-8
Mallet (detail), Polynesia, collected before 1932. 14.0 x 1.4 x 1.5 in. NHM L.1382.32-52
Rather than add pigment, sometimes the only decoration on tapa are the embedded designs left by the mallets during the beating process, seen here in more detail.
Masi kuvui, Somosomo, Taveuni, Fiji, around 1927. 100.0 x 27.6 in. NHM A.2209.30-18
Like natural-color tapa, those of a single, uniform color are often considered prestigious. This Fijian masi would have been reserved for a chief or someone of similar status. Its rich color was achieved by infusing the masi with coconut oil and exposing it to smoke from an open fire.
Ngatu, 'Uvea (Wallis Island), collected around 1909. 67.1 x 49.6 in. NHM A.8371.64-187
Many tapa are painted or dyed. Colored pigments are usually made out of natural materials like clay (ochre), tree sap, turmeric root, or soot (depending on the region and culture). This ngatu has a striking yellow color that is likely created with turmeric root.
Kupeti, Fiji, 1880s. 17.8 x 12.6 in. NHM A.2209.30-39
Rubbing boards can also be used to create designs. Called kupesi in Tonga, upeti in Samoa, and kupeti in Fiji, these boards can be made by weaving coconut fibers and securing them to a base (see above) or by carving a design into a wooden board.
Siapo, Samoa, 1880s. 63.0 x 35.0 in. NHM A.9055.68-41
This Samoan siapo was decorated using an upeti and reddish-brown dye. The outer border of the siapo is mostly a light cream color, the original color of the bark cloth.
Stamp (detail), Hawai'i, collected early 1900s. 15.2 x 0.3 in. NHM A.1463.27-68 B
Kapa, Hawai'i, collected before 1938. 35.0 x 11.8 in. NHM A.2954.38-309
The Hawaiian stamp on the left would have been used to create a design similar to the lines shown on the accompanying kapa.
Siapo, Samoa, collected around 1910. 59.1 x 56.3 in. NHM A.8371.64-310
Hand-painting (either tracing or freehand) is also common. This Samoan siapo features what appears to be hand-painted leaf and fan designs with butterflies in the corners.
Masi kesa, Lau Islands, Fiji, late 1920s. 151.6 x 26.8 in. NHM A.6331.53-2
Yet another way of decorating tapa is with stencils. This method is practiced only in Fiji, as with the Fijian masi above. Traditionally, stencils were cut into banana or palm leaves.
Used X-ray film, Suva, Fiji, 2016. Created by Milly Vinakadina. Courtesy Katrina Talei Igglesden
Due to their durability and availability, X-ray film and acetate became popular for creating stencils starting in the 1940s.
Masi bolabola, Fiji, collected in 1904. 74.8 x 28.0 in. NHM A.5997.50-1
Just as there are many methods of decorating tapa, there are multitudes of designs and meanings—including family or regional affiliation. The composition and hand-painted design of this Fijian masi indicate that it is from Cakaudrove province in northern Fiji.
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A Communal Affair
In many Pacific Island cultures, beating the tapa and adding the design elements is a communal affair. In Tonga, women gather in a 'Koka'anga group.
. . . siapo and 'ie tōga (finely woven mats) symbolize not just family or communal wealth, but Pacific women’s collective power, techniques, and aesthetics.
—Kirisitina Sailiata (Samoan)
While tapa are associated with the Pacific Islands, many cultures also use plant fibers to create mats of various weaves. Finely woven mats are important cultural items for everyday and ceremonial use. Like tapa, they feature in societal rituals such as marriages and funerals, and were also used for sitting and sleeping.
Photographer unknown, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, 1946. NHM A.5564.46-57.22
Look closely—the woman in this picture is in the process of weaving a mat, as well as sitting on one.
Roll of lauhala, Hawai'i, collected before 1926. 14.0 x 12.2 x 3.5 in. NHM A.5916.49-15
Woven mats are typically made from the leaves of pandanus trees. Pandanus leaves are split, their thorns removed, then dried and bleached in the sun. Sometimes they are passed over a fire or soaked in boiling salt water or the sea prior to drying. The leaves are then rolled into spiral coils and are ready for weaving.
Woven mat, Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati, collected in 1943. 60.0 x 34.7 in. NHM A.7028.56-3 D
Island groups in what is now the Federated States of Micronesia historically crafted more woven mats than tapa and are well known for their intricate weaving and designs. This mat is from the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands group, Kiribati.
Woven mat, Enmat Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands, collected in 1946. 34.3 x 33.5 in. NHM A.5564.46-22
This finely woven mat is another beautiful example of the quality and design work characteristic of some Marshallese mats.
Woven mat, Gau Island, Fiji, around 1927. 58.3 x 44.5 in. NHM A.2209.30-38
Mats sometimes have additional decorations, like the red feathers around the border of this Fijian mat (possibly from a chief's home). Feathers from the native kula and kaka birds were desirable additions in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Today, red feathers in most regions have been replaced by wool or acrylic yarn.
Woven mat, Hawai'i, date unknown. 72.8 x 66.1 in. NHM A.9981.75-10
The red feathers of the Hawaiian honeycreeper bird were also prized and used to adorn numerous valuables, including chiefly cloaks. This Hawaiian mat has honeycreeper feathers woven into the borders.
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The Role of Tapa and Woven Mats
For thousands of years, tapa and finely woven mats have been both everyday and formal items. They have been used as clothing, bedcovers, and room dividers, as well as ceremonial coverings at births, weddings, and funerals. Considered a marker of status and wealth, tapa and finely woven mats were also given as diplomatic gifts and were important trade items. The giving of tapa remains a source of pride and means of honoring the recipient, creating lasting ties.
[Tapa and woven mats] are protective and, to me, symbolize cultural protection and resilience. They mean a connection to a culture and people.
—Katrina Talei Igglesden (Fijian)
Ngatu, 'Uvea (Wallis Island), around 1927. 149.0 x 29.2 in. NHM A.2209.30-17
Aside from being presented as gifts, tapa and finely woven mats are traditional dress for both men and women at weddings, a practice that continues today. This white ngatu with fringe from 'Uvea (Wallis Island) is thought to be a wedding cloth.
Designer: Samson Lee/Samson Lee Fiji, 2019, Model: Heather Marama. Courtesy Samson Lee
Tapa and woven mats are also incorporated into contemporary ceremonial attire, as shown in this image of a tailored tapa wedding dress by Fijian fashion designer Samson Lee.
Courtesy Katrina Talei Igglesden
In Fiji, both masi and mats are important gifts that are presented during the reguregu, a ceremony that takes place prior to the funeral where family and friends pay their respects. During the burial, masi and mats are also placed in and on the grave site.
Photo: Torsten Blackwood/AFP, Getty Images
This image, taken on March 27, 2012, shows the funeral for King George Tupou V of Tonga. The pallbearers wear ta'ovala putu, a type of finely woven mat reserved only for funerals, while they carry the casket along a ngatu path to the Royal Tombs in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa.
Kapa, Hawai'i, collected before 1926. 85.8 x 56. 3 in. NHM A.1668.27-45
Tapa are labor intensive to produce, and thus were a prestigious symbol of respect and power among chiefs. Certain designs were reserved for royalty—this Hawaiian kapa has a design that dates to the Royal Houses of the Kingdom of Hawai'i (1795–1895).
New Zealand Free Lance: Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-7171-61. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23214937
Because of the symbolism of power and respect inherent in tapa and finely woven mats, both are often given as gifts to visiting dignitaries. This image shows a procession of women wearing masi presenting Fijian mats and tapa cloths to Queen Elizabeth II during the 1953-4 royal tour.
Photo: Ian Vogler (Pool/Getty Images)
The tradition of gifting tapa and woven mats to visiting dignitaries continues today. During their visit to Fiji in 2018, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were presented with woven gifts and masi during their welcome ceremony in Suva, Fiji.
Siapo outfit, Samoa, collected before 1913. Top: 17.3 x 25.6 in. NHM A.6776.55-13 A.1 Skirt: 78.7 x 33.5 in. NHM A.6776.55-13 A.2
Tapa have also been an integral part of community rituals, many of which were performative in nature. This beaten bark skirt and matching top from Samoa may have been used by a Taupou, the name for a daughter of a high chief, while performing a public ceremonial dance.
Photo: James Davis, 1996. James Davis Photography/Alamy Stock Photo
The importance of tapa during community occasions continues today, as is seen in this photo taken at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Apia, Samoa, of Tongan men performing a dance with war clubs.
Left: Photo courtesy Asena Taione-Filihia. Right: Photo courtesy Katrina Talei Igglesden.
Contemporary tapa makers and artisans create tapa for traditional uses as well as contemporary ones. Tapa can be used for book covers, earrings, bags, and other handicrafts.
Lady in Masi, Lambert Ho, 2017. Recycled masi on wood with acrylics and inks. Courtesy Lambert Ho
The beautiful tapa and traditional Pacific Island motifs are also inspiration for contemporary artists, some of whom reimagine the cloth and designs into poignant messages about identity and cultural heritage. This artwork by Fijian-Chinese artist Lambert Ho uses recycled masi as a medium.
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The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County wish to thank the following community members for their support with this project: Audrey Alo, Cindi Alvitre, Juliann Anesi, Katrina Talei Igglesden, Fran Lujan, Kirisitina Sailiata, Tavae Samuelu, Kelani Silk, Lolofi Soakai, Asena Taione-Filihia, and Craig Torres. The Fabric of Community has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH): Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the NEH.