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The manufacture of bark cloth is an ancient craft that has been practiced and refined for thousands of years. Many cultures–in South America, Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Oceania–practice the art of making bark cloth. However, the tapa cloth of the Pacific Islands is arguably the most refined and varied of bark-cloth art. In Samoa, tapa cloth–or siapo as it is known in Samoan–is a major art form and an important symbol of Samoan culture. Tapa cloths have been used for various purposes throughout Samoan history, including as traditional clothing, burial shrouds, and ceremonial items. They are still commonly used in Samoa for traditional purposes as well as for everyday uses such as bed coverings, room dividers, household decorations, and as tourist items.
The bark used to make siapo comes primarily from the mulberry family. The tree stalk is carefully tended so that is grows straight with very few branches; it is harvested once it reaches one-to-two inches in diameter. The bark is stripped off the stalk in one even pull. From the stripped bark the soft inner bark, called the bast, is separated from the tough outer bark. Moistened bast is scraped with clamshells to clean away any remnants of the discarded outer bark. The scraping also softens and spreads the fibers. The narrow strip of bast is placed on a wooden anvil and pounded by a wooden beater. This beating process causes the bast to flatten and gradually spread out to become wide, thin pieces of cloth. This unfinished cloth, called u’a, is weighed down with stones to be dried and bleached by the sun. To create various sizes of cloth, strips of u’a are pasted together with arrowroot paste, called masoa. Holes are patched with u’a and masoa. Once the cloth fully dries, it is ready to be decorated.
The traditional design elements used in siapo decoration are typically plant or animal motifs or other images from Samoan life. Common examples include fa’a’ali’ao (trochus shell), fa’a’aveau (starfish), and fa’a masina (rolled pandanus leaves). Some traditional motifs can be traced back to the origins of bark cloth in Indonesia. Other patterns are more recent, such as the use of lettering incorporated into the designs to spell out names, events, or dates. Design motifs are typically presented within a grid created by rectangular or oblong sections.
Two techniques are used in creating designs: siapo ‘elei (the rubbing method) and siapo mamanu (the freehand method). Siapo ‘elei uses a design board (upeti) to imprint designs on the bark cloth. An unfinished cloth is placed on a upeti that has been covered with dye; the top surface is then rubbed to transfer the design from the board to the cloth. In the siapo mamanu method, each design image is hand painted on the surface of the cloth, allowing for greater artist creativity.
The dyes used in decorating siapo are derived from a number of plant sources. O’a, which is extracted from the bark of the blood tree, is a brown dye that is the base for all other dyes; as it ages it darkens from a pale tan to a dark brown. Black dye, or lama, is made by burning the nut of the candlenut tree; the charcoal is collected and mixed with o’a to make lama. Loa is a bright red dye made from seeds of the lipstick tree mixed with o’a. Yellow dye, ago, is extracted from tumeric root juice; ago is a popular color but often fades from older cloths. Purple coloring, soa’a, comes from the sap of the banana tree; this dye is no longer used.
This online exhibit presents examples of Samoan tapa cloths from the Museum's ethnographic collections. These items date primarily from the mid-20th century and display many of the design elements and techniques mentioned above.
References and Related Links
"About Siapo" (Siapo.com)
"Bark Cloth." (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, United Kingdom)
Niech, Roger and Mick Pendergrast. Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998).
Pritchard, Mary J. Siapo: Cloth Art of Samoa. (American Samoa: Council on Culture, Arts and Humanities Special Publication No. 1, 1984).
Text prepared by Tara Hein, fall 2004.
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