Tapa Cloth in the Pacific Islands

the pillowtop king size bed in the master bed room


In our Mana Suite, a special Poipu Beach vacation rental, we have had many wonderful comments about the unique 72″ by 83″  framed art piece that is hung on the interior south wall of the Suite. It is unusual to see a piece that large framed but it works beautifully in the Suite because of the 12′ coffered ceiling adding such volume to the Suite.

The piece was given to me by the village chief where I spent part of my Peace Corps years in Fiji. In Pacific Island cultures the giving of ‘Masi”, as it is known in Fijian, or “Kapa” as it is known in Hawaiian, is a form of respect and an important gift to celebrate and honor an important occasion.

Masi also means ‘bark of a tree’, originally the ‘dye fig’, Ficus tinctoria, which has spread far across the Pacific. However, later with the spread of migratory peoples down from South East Asia, the paper mulberry tree was used exclusively throughout Oceania, this tree was favored because of its ability to take dye and for its softness when pounded.

With practice you can guess with some certainty what part of the Pacific region a kapa cloth hails.  The islands of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa tend to employ repeated geometric patterns with fish or plant  motifs in their patterns. Using deep blacks and rusty browns and most likely representing common plants for specific regions in the islands. Because Fiji which has a sea/land area the size of Texas encompasses some of Polynesia, we see patterns and lighter dyes commonly found in Tahitian and Marquesan kapas.

Fijian Girl in Traditional Masi (Tapa) Dress

The paper mulberry tree is common in Fiji and usually when one is felled the inner bark is separated then scraped,  then allowed to dry in the sun and finally washed. Using wooden mallets the strips of bark are pounded until they are thin and about 6-8 inches wide. At this point the strips can folded and overlapped so that wider strips are formed and ultimately squares. They can be run for quite a long length and for special ceremonies i have seen them 30 – 40 feet in length, and I have heard of much longer  kapa from Tonga.

The geometric designs are usually raised reliefs or stencils on drums that are rolled over the kapa and leave an imprint where artisans can paint using traditional vegetable dyes from the sap of Mangrove, (Rhizophora spp.) Heavy dark black colorings are typically used in Fiji and come from clays and soot.

Kapa is intertwined in all cultures of the Pacific. Typically the newborn comes from the hospital wrapped in in tapa cloth, she is married in ‘Masi kuvei’, and laid to rest at the time of death in tapa.

About Joe Sylvester

Aloha! I have lived on Kauai for 33 years where I have worked as an Agronomist for 17 years, owned an art gallery for 11 years and own a vacation rental for 17 years in the town of Poipu. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and have been married since 1985.
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