The making of barkcloth or tapa was once widespread throughout the islands of the Pacific. Today it is most strongly practised in the west Polynesian island groups of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Barkcloth made in Samoa is called siapo.
MaterialsSiapo makers use the bark of the u'a (paper mulberry tree) to make their cloth. The bark is carefully peeled off the tree in strips and then the inner bark is separated and scraped clean. It is then pounded until it widens into a larger size. The pieces of cloth go through a process where they are pasted together to make a larger cloth then decorated.
Decoration techniquesSiapo are decorated in two ways: either freehand or by taking rubbings off a relief pattern carved into a plank or board. The dyes are made from a variety of plants and trees and an earth ochre called 'ele. Freehand-decorated siapo are called siapo mamanu. The creative flair of siapo makers is seen in the arrangement of the motifs and the clever use of a restricted colour palette. The motifs used usually represent plants and animals.
SignificanceToday siapo are exchanged at ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. Smaller pieces are made for the tourist market. This siapo mamanu dates from the 1890s when siapo making was at its height. It was collected by Alexander Turnbull who was a prominent New Zealand merchant, bibliophile, and collector. It is part of a major collection of Mäori and Pacific artefacts that he gifted to the Dominion Museum in 1913.