Tantalising Tapa – Cologne hosts a big bark cloth show.

Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Social Landscapes, until 27 April 2014 at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Cultures of the World Museum, Cologne, Germany.

A salatasi or man’s dance skirt from Wallis or Fatuna , two small Polynesian islands which are noted for delicately patterned tapa cloths. All photographs in this Article copyright Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.

Oceania has no widespread weaving tradition and, with the exception of New Zealand flax, no abundant source of fibre. As a result, indigenous woven textiles are almost unknown from this region. Instead, there is an almost universal tradition of making bark cloth which is called by many names (including siapo, kappa, and tapa) throughout  Polynesia and Melanesia, but always made by the same technique.

 

This skirt from the Admiralties Islands (PNG), collected before 1897 , is decorated with red fibre tufts and nutshells. This type of skirt was reserved for married women.

Sheets of the bark of the wild mulberry or wild fig are removed without killing the tree and the inner bark lining beaten with a wooden beater  against a wooden block until a long, thin, narrow and pliable strip results. These are then felted together by dampening the  edges and  joining them to form larger strips.

Using this simple technique, sheets as big as 60 square meters can be produced for a multitude of uses – including rain cloaks in the PNG Western Highlands, room dividers, floor and burial mats in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, the elaborate costumes of god figures worn in funerary ceremonies ( Kanak of  New Caledonia), dance masks and costumes in the Cook Islands, ceremonial food covers (Omi of Mount Lamington, PNG) and many forms of clothing.
In the past,tapa played  a significant symbolic role in many Pacific societies, and this role   still survives in Fiji and Samoa, where large quantities of tapa are ceremonially presented at weddings, funerals, births and special occiasons

 

Dance mask made of barkcloth over a rattan frame, Elema people, Papuan Gulf. The Elema make a large variety of bark cloth masks and head dresses.

What makes Tapa unique is not the cloth itself, but the way it is used and decorated with distinctive patterns or icons  which may be painted, stencilled  or stamped on it  to provide a unique signature for each tribal group that produces it.

Tapa is also more than a two dimensional medium. It is often used to cover  frameworks of cane and painted to create three dimensional sculptures and dance headdresses , particularly in the Papuan Gulf and  New Ireland in PNG, where there are  great traditions of bark cloth  covered sculpture. These including the tall,  hevehe bark cloth pole masks of Orokolo, each taller than a man and anced by one individual in an initiation ceremony cycle that  lasted 10-20 years , and the large kavat and vungvung masks of the Baining people e of New Ireland which require a team of several men to dance them

 

 

A painted tapa dance shield by the Wantoat people of the Finesterre ranges of PNG, collected 1956.

The earliest records we have of foreigners collecting tapa cloths date back to the voyages of Captain James Cook since he and his companions brought several pieces back to Europe. Tapa was a great novelty then and larger pieces were cut into page size sheets and bound together in books which were eagerly purchased.

In spite of this enthusiastic early reception, tapa will probably always be an under-collected form of Oceanic art in the west – the artworks in their original form are simply too big and too fragile for most private collections and tapa collecting has  always been dominated by museums. Many older museums in Europe have large  collections of tapa. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, for example, has 20 piece so flat bark cloth  brought to Europe  on James Cooks two voyages between1768 – 1773. On the other hand, relatively few institutions have the space and the curating budgets to keep their tapa collections on permanent display . (Two exceptions I know are the Auckland Museum  and the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, both of which had  a large amount of tapa on display when I last visited

An Elema dance mask or headdress, painted tapa on a rattan frame, Papuan Gulf.

Made in Oceania, open until 27 April  at the Rautenstrauch-Joest culture  museum in Colgone, is a rare opportunity to see 250 exceptional pieces of tapa cloths, including rare  examples  loaned by countires. It compriosed flat sheets, clothing anmd sculpture and ranges form the 18th to the 21st century, since it includes  artworks on barkcloth  from contm,eporaryu Ocenaic artists who use it as a medium to link them, with theior cultural identity.

See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp

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Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Social Landscapes, until 27 April 2014 at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Cultures of the World Museum, Cologne, Germany.

 

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