Tapa and Fermentation

tapa with arrow watermark

Making Tapa Eastern Pacific Style

Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck) writes in Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands that the tapa makers of the time (1944) wrapped the pre-beaten bark in banana leaves and left it to ret for three days. Today’s tapa makers on Atiu usually beat the bark right away. When making a larger piece such as a garment, several strips are joined together with glue. In times past, retting, a water-aided fermentation process, loosened the fibres and enabled the tapa makers to join the pieces together by a kind of felting (beating). Following a correspondence with Hawaiian kapa maker Dennis Kana’e Keawe, at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio, at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio we conducted a number of experiments in 1988/89 to try this method. He joined us in beating the prepared bark. In 2013, I agreed with the art teacher at Enuamanu School to repeat the experiment.

Atiu does not have running streams and water shortage is often a problem. However there is one particular beach, Avatapu, the beach on which the Edna was stranded, that Atiu women use to ret lemon hibiscus bark for making dancing costumes. That’s where, in 1989, we soaked our shaved bundles of banyan roots instead of heating them to enable us to get the bark off the wooden core. This process both softens and loosens the bark and preserves it at the same time. In 20213, the art students came up with an ingenious way of insuring that the bundles would stay together, by plaiting a coconut frond around the bundle.

bundles of banyan rootsHeavy boulders of coral have been thrown up on the beach’s edge at Avatapu. These serve as weight to keep the bundles submerged in the water and in place when the sometimes rough sea tries to steal them away. The beach is right next to our harbour and the cargo boat that brings cargo from Rarotonga to the sister islands had arrived that day.

burying tapa at AvatapuI am not sure whether it was light or salt water – or the absence thereof – that caused the basket’s pattern to be imprinted on some of the outer roots’ bark. Worth conducting more experiments to find out how I can achieve that purposely, I guess, but not right now. The bark we have removed gets rolled up in leaves and is left to ferment.

patterns on soaked banyanFermenting their paper mulberry bark is a distinctive feature of Hawaiian kapa (their word for barkcloth). During the Tahiti Tapa Festival in 2014, Honolulu tapa expert Moana Eisele and her assistant, Kamalu du Preez, demonstrated to us their innovative method. Fermented wauke (Hawaiian for Broussonetia papyrifera or paper mulberry) becomes very delicate to work with. Especially when you plan to make a wider sheet, moving it forward on the kua (Hawaiian for wooden anvil) can be quite a challenge. Moana therefore beats her kapa on a large sheet of plastic.

rolling-out kapa

beating kapa This serves to hold it when folding it over to felt together the fibres…

folding …and if she wants to keep an unfinished piece for another beating session the next day, it is ideal for storage, prevents the bast from drying out and might even keep it fermenting.

storing kapaHawaiians have patterned i‘e kuku (tapa beaters) with which they can ‘imprint’ a watermark into the moist bark that has been finished beeting into a fine sheet. Our Hawaiian friend Kana’e gave us a beautiful i’e which he had carved himself when he visited the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio in 1989. I love working with it, because it is well-balanced and wonderful to handle.

Hawaiian kapa beaterI used it to experiment with a small piece of mati (ficus tinctoria, dye fig). I had also put some triangular pieces of cardboard between the tutunga (wooden anvil) and the bark to try out some different ways of watermarking. As we can see here, it worked.

watermarks

Making Anga…

Sunlit barkcloth

… from scratch

From questions following my earlier post I can see that there is a need to explain how we on Atiu make anga (the Cook Islands word for barkcloth or – as it is commonly known – tapa). Thanks to the taunga (experts) of our island and the teacher and senior art students of Enuamanu School, during a special workshop in 2013 I was able to shoot these detailed photographs that now help me to illustrate the process.

Cutting banyan aerial rootsOn Atiu, paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera, which our people call aute) is nearly extinct. Our people use the inner bark, also called bast, of the aerial roots of the banyan (ficus prolixa, on Atiu called ava), stems and branches of breadfruit (artocarpus altilis, CI Maori kuru), and dye-fig (fictus tinctoria, on Atiu mati) instead. Since banyan and dye fig trees grow wild on the island’s raised fossilized coral reef, harvesting is not an easy task.

Banyan root cross-sectionIn this cross-cut of a banyan root we can clearly distinguish the white wooden core and the thick layer of bast that sits under the thin outer bark. It is the bast that gets beaten. Raw banyan bark cannot just be pried off the wooden core like most other barks can. The roots therefore need special preparation.

Boiling banyan rootsThe most common way, if you only need short pieces of bark, is to boil the sticks in water. The heat eventually shrinks the bark away from the wood and thus makes it easy to get it off . Longer roots can be carefully heated on an open fire, or steemed in an earth oven to achieve that same effect.

 

Cutting dye fig barkThe bark of the stem/branch/root is cut lengthwise to peel off the bark. In the photograph we see dye fig specimens.

 

Separate outer and inner barkDifferent methods are used according to plant species and country. Sometimes, the entire bark is removed, a horizontal slit is cut across the outer bark, which is then carefully peeled loose…

Peeling off outer bark…before it can be torn off the inner bark, much like skinning an animal.

 

Helping to peel off barkThis is best done with someone else’s help and requires strength and skill.

 

Shaving off bark with a bushknifeWhen I worked with a small sample of rubber tree aerial root during the Marquesan tapa artist Sarah Vaki’s workshop at the 2014 Tahiti Tapa Festival, I was shown not to cut off the outer bark, as the Atiu boys do…

 

Scraping off bark…but to carefully scrape it off until all the green matter is gone and the white bast is revealed. The more bast there is, the wider my finished cloth can be.

 

Loosening the barkSarah used a clever tool, a stick of guava wood, which is very hard, with a diagonally cut end. This helped me to pry off the bark. It looks so easy when experts do it, but I had to be very careful not to damage the bark in the process.

 

Bark ready for storageThe bast is washed, kept moist and can then be processed further. For storage, it is rolled up inside out, wrapped in ti leaves (cordiline terminalis) or banana leaves and, gathered in a plastic bag, it keeps well in the freezer until it is needed. In less humid climates or places with air condition, if can also be dried for storage.

 

Initial beating of barkThe fresh bark can be beaten directly. On Atiu we use square hardwood beaters, called ike, which have four different sides with length-wise incisions. The side with the widest ridges is used for the first breaking open of the fibres and softening of the bark. As the bark grows, the sides with the narrower incisions are used and the beating becomes gentler to insure that the resulting cloth gets a smooth and even surface.

 

Dried bark clothOnce the bark has been beaten evenly throughout and has reached its largest possible with, it is spread out flat to dry. Exposing it to the sun will darken and harden the bark. That’s why I prefer it to gradually dry in the shade. It is important to keep finished tapa dry so that it doesn’t get mouldy, so airing it from time to time is a good idea.

For special projects and a much smoother bark to work with, it is necessary to go through some more preparation before the beating process can begin. I will write about this my next post.

First Harvest…

Max

of my very own aute (paper mulberry – Broussonetia papyrifera)

At the very end of our coffee plantation, right next to the bananas and near the underground stream, Juergen has planted my three paper mulberry plants from Rarotonga. After a year and a half, I decide that they are old enough to harvest. What I really hope is that after harvesting, the plants will produce new shoots and that way I can eventually get a small plantation growing.

I had no time to look after these three plants and nip off the side branches, so the bark will not be of good quality. The plants have grown wild, the branches are all over the place, and the plants have not grown very high either. My Tongan, Samoan, Fijian and Hawaiian friends will probably laugh their heads off at this sight… I have cut all slightly thicker branches and stems. When I put them on the ground and sit down on a stool to start preparing the bark, I soon discover that I have an excellent helper (see above). I’m sure that Max shares my opinion: It’s not really worth wasting my time on this…

curling bark of paper mulberry

I cut the best parts anyway and scrape off their outer bark, just for the sake of doing it. It is important to get rid of all the brown and green and keep only the white bast, however there’s not much of it there at all. What remains is laughable. I pull it off, roll it up and freeze it anyway, maybe I can use it for some project…

There are beautiful new plants sprouting from the aute‘s root system. I promise myself that this time I will look after them better and have more and better bark for harvesting next time. For my new project, I will have to use, yet again, tapa which I have imported for the purpose.

young paper mulberry plant

Spirit Sail – Design (1)

two sails

The Sail

A sail can be defined as a large piece of strong cloth that can catch the wind to move a vessel or vehicle forward.[1] Sails, affixed to single hull and double hull voyaging canoes, were instrumental in the discovery and population of the Pacific islands. Their form reflected in infinite variety the imagination and experimentations of the different peoples who explored the vast extensions of the Pacific ocean and populated their countless islands.[2]

Pacific islands sail shapeMost of their sails were triangular, attached to v-shaped spars. They were made of vegetable material such as pandanus which was plaited in strips and might have been sewn together with cord twined from bark fibres such as oronga (Touchardia latifolia) or au (Hibiscus tiliaceus).

Even though the wooden and later iron sailing ships of seafaring European explorers differed hugely from the well-balanced Pacific islands catamarans, their square or triangular cloth sails were also shaped to accommodate the play of wind and water forces. Like the Edna, they had many differently shaped sails.

Edna all rigged upSailcloth, also called ‘duck’, derived from the Dutch word for cloth = doek, was woven from strong flax or hemp, and in the 19th century, cotton fibres[3]. Today, most sails are made of synthetic materials[4].

Spirit

Spirit – from Latin spiritus = soul, courage, vigor, breath[5] – can be considered the non-material, the essence, the animating force that brings a body to life, the energy that propels us forward (French: l’esprit), the in-spiration that gives a project momentum, the a-spiration that causes us to reach a goal. Spirit is synonymous with psyche, soul, and in some languages such as my own (spirit in German = Geist) with mind. Spirit is “the self-supporting absolutely real ultimate being (Wesen = essence).”[6]

What would a Spirit Sail have to look like?

In my “quest for the perfect shape” of this ‘spirit sail’ I learn that “[t]here is no such thing as the best sail shape – there are countless different “best” shapes, depending on the wind, waves, boat type & size, even weather & air temperature.”[7] Duh, no help here! I guess, it will be entirely up to my imagination.

So: what do I want it to look like?

  • it should have a preferably universal sail shape to be recognizable as a sail
  • it should be transparent to refer to the spirit’s invisibility
  • it should be delicate without being frail to hint at spiritual acuity
  • it should be visible in daylight and at night-time to symbolise the infinity of spirit
  • it should be textile – textile signifying for me both text and touch
  • it should be large enough to be seen from afar and small enough to be made in my studio

I will use the materials that I have brought and will still bring in touch with the Edna’s remains. I ordered Polymer ribbon that glows in the dark after having been exposed to UV light. I am awaiting textile heat-set paint medium to experiment with rare earth pigments that have the same effect.

From photographs I could gather that both the Edna and our Cook Islands Vaka (double-hull voyaging canoe) “Marumaru Atua” use(d) a jib. Consequently my spirit sail will have a jib-like triangular shape. Based on the dimensions of the Edna, a suitable jib’s longest side would have to be some 12 m long. However my sail will not have to be functional and for practical reasons I will make it half that size which is more manageable considering work space and materials.

Lessons

My first experiment relates to the woven strips that Pacific islands sails were made of. I tear two of my rust-impregnated fabrics into strips and weave them together.

woven farbic stripsThe double layer of woven strips will make the resulting cloth strong. Once finish I realize that the cloth, being much softer than dried pandanus strips of course, does not hold together all that well when woven in strips.

sewing the woven stripsThe weaving needs to be strengthened by sewing the layers together so that the sample can keep up its shape under the stress of movement. First lesson learned.

I decide that I don’t want to paint a design on to my sail, but I don’t just want it to be plain either. I want the design to develop from the way I manipulate the various materials, be it their shape or their colour or both. Both waves and the airflow that propels a sail forward create vortices[8]. This has inspired me to use the spiral as my spirit sail’s symbol.

Machine-sewn lace techniques will give my sail certain transparency. My next sample uses some of the torn-fabric strings, with which I have bound materials to the Edna’s remains, as basic material.

pinned fabric stripsThe ironed strips are pinned to soluble stabilizer to stay in place while joining them together. The stabilizer will eventually be washed out once the sewing is finished.

The wet season has started and I learn my second lesson: Fabric that has been soaked in salt water – as have all the fabrics that touched the Edna – needs to be washed until all salt has been washed out! I was too lazy to do so and now find that the salty fabric soaks up moisture from the air. The moist fabric makes the water-soluble (!) stabilizer sticky and nearly impossible to work with!

strips lace I cannot use the free-form technique I had in mind but I get there in the end…

luminescent ribbonIn this sample I incorporate small pieces of the fairly expensive luminous ribbon just to try it out. The material is very rubbery and not exactly easy to sew through. My machine skips a few stitches here and there. I learn my third lesson: I need to reduce the speed when sewing over the ribbon.

glow in the darkI am happy with the way it glows in the dark. The ribbon certainly has potential and offers me more design possibilities.

Photoshop

There are endless possibilities for patterning the sail. The two sewing samples are only the start. I use Photoshop and play with their photos to get an idea of what can be done.

three sails

sail sketch photoshopped

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sail

[2] Guiot, H. (2007), Va’a – La pirogue polynésienne, Au Vent des Îles, French Polynesia: Tahiti

[3] http://www.thedearsurprise.com/a-brief-history-of-sailcloth-during-the-age-of-sail/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailcloth

[5] spirit. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved December 04, 2014, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/spirit

[6] Hegel, G.W.F. (1807, 2010), The Phenomenology of Spirit (The Phenomenology of Mind), Digireads.com Publishing, Kindle Edition, Loc. 6336

[7] http://www.wb-sails.fi/Portals/209338/news/98_11_PerfectShape/Main.htm

[8] http://www.wb-sails.fi/Portals/209338/news/99_1_AeroShape/Aero.htm

Edna’s own sails

Edna all rigged up

While conducting my experiments, I have also been researching the Edna’s background. I want to know more about her history, however there is not much that can be found on the Internet.

The Edna’s last captain, the late Nancy Griffith, lived in Hawaii. My artist friend Judith Kunzlé lived on Rarotonga when the Edna sailed Cook Islands waters and  knew Nancy. Judith recently moved to Hawaii. Today she sent me a copy of Nancy’s stunning photograph of the Edna in full sail. Isn’t she beautiful?

If any of you, readers of my blog, has any information or photographs on MS Edna and her history, I’d much appreciate to hear from you.

Tapa and rust (6)

Tapa and gauze

I have brought a new piece of Banyan bark, this time only just beaten to become flexible enough to wrap it around the magic frame. Like the previous piece, as soon as I wrap the bark around the metal, the blackening process begins. I love that magic!

Tapa and gauze - close-upI have also wrapped a piece of eucalyptus-dyed gauze on the outside, part of which just sits on the metal, the other part covering the tapa. I want to find out, whether the area that covers the tapa will be dyed a different colour, i.e. whether the tapa’s own ‘juice’ leaves a trace.

Knobbly frame wrapped with tapa and gauzeThe weather is not so wonderful and I’m in a hurry, so I just drive to the beach and bring the frame back to unwrap at home. What I find is quite photogenic.

Tapa and gauze brown and grayDry tapa and gauze close-upYes, the tapa has added some brown colour to my gauze. Where it has just touched the metal it is only a mottled gray.

Sculptural tapaThe dried bark keeps its shape as I carefully peel it off the frame. I should leave it as is and use it as a sculptural piece…

Beating the tapa againHowever, my intention is to soak the dried bark and beat it until it is as thin as possible. I’m glad we live way outside the village, because it is a Sunday morning when I sit down to do that. I just hope the lovely sound of my tutunga (wooden anvil) will not be heard in church…

Folded wet tapaTapa SpiralTapa fibres and ikeTapa finished beating I fold the strip lengthwise and beat it, beat it, beat it, unfold and refold it and keep beating some more until I run the risk of ripping it with the next beats. Only then am I satisfied.

Tapa thin enough to see thruIn its wet state, the tapa’s colours are rich; they will fade a bit as the bark dries.

Tapa with beater marksThe material is thin and see through. One can clearly see the marks the ridges of the ike (beater) have left behind. I had hoped that I could perhaps beat tapa and gauze together, but that hasn’t worked out. I feel tempted now to experiment some more with gauze…

Tapa and rust (5)

Untying knots

Excited and curious, Kareen and I return to Ava Tapu beach. Will the frame still be there? I don’t really feel like digging it out of the sand again. I would be sad to have lost such a valuable piece of rust. Does that sound strange? One (wo)man’s trash is this rust dyer’s treasure… As we descend I am relieved to see the boomerang-like shape of the frame still stuck in Edna’s bow. The bark has dried and is stuck to the frame. Untying the knots in the builders line is a fiddly job.

Peeling off tapaProtrusions

I carefully peel the thin bark off the rusty metal. The coloring is so wonderful, ranging from yellow to rusty-brown with black stains where the frame has made contact with the soaked bark. The frame’s protruding screws have moulded the bark and embossed their shape into the material. Do I really want to beat it again?

Coloured like a flame Sea through

I like the bizarre, flame-like shape the tapa has now. Held against the light we can appreciate how thin the bark is. It is firm and yet soft to the touch. What must it have been like to wear such bark as a garment?

Don't remove tapeEven the “dont-remove tape” has acquired new colours in all shades of the rainbow. The wash-away frame has become my favourite rusting tool. I wrap it with a new piece of cloth to have something to look forward to when I come back next time.
Re-wrapping the rusty frame