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.

A price…

Edna on the reef at Atiu

…not bargained for.

It was prize-giving day for the students at Atiu College that day. M/S Edna had arrived, but the sea was too rough to offload her cargo that fateful November 28th 1990. Atiu’s barge driver, the late Papa Roi Viti, had suggested that the vessel continue on to neighbouring Mitiaro and come back the following day. However Edna’s Captain, the late Nancy Griffith, decided to leave the schooner anchored offshore with emergency staff and follow the college principal’s invitation to celebrate the student’s achievements that evening and wait for calmer seas in the morning.

That proved to be a fatal desicion. At 1:30 AM the wind turned and the schooner, full of cargo and with all crew back on board, was slammed onto the reef. Rarotonga’s harbourmaster, the late Captain Don Silk, remarked in an interview with Lawrance Bailey from Cook Islands News that “it wouldn’t have taken much wind to put the ship on the reef as the anchoreage at Atiu was very close to shore. In Atiu when the wind is off-shore, with any change of wind a ship was in danger” (CINews, 29-22-1990). Most of the unisured cargo was lost. For the captain, also one of the ship’s owners, who wasn’t even able to salvage much of her own belongings, this was a hard price to pay.

Skeleton of MS Edna on the reef, AtiuFor Edna, it was the end of her seventy-four-year sailing career. The ship broke apart, one half sank into the depth of the ocean. The other remains now lie scattered and exposed to the fierce elements in between the large boulders of fossilized coral that litter the beach. Hurricane-force winds and high seas wedged her broken bow up into the passage to Ava Tapu. To me it appears as if the island wanted to ‘ingest’ her; a macabre thought.