Essence

glowing tapa in semi-darkness

The Visible and the Invisible

Experiments with photo-luminescent pigments on tapa and fabric

The New Zealand company GloTech, Inc. has agreed to a part sponsorship of my Spirit Sail project with their rare earth photo-luminescent pigments. I asked for a small amount to experiment with. CCG Industries in New Zealand has in principle agreed to sponsor the binder for the final project but were unable to send over a small sample amount of heat-set medium for fabric painting. Instead, Elena Tavioni of TAV Ltd. in Rarotonga was so generous as to come to the rescue.

Letter from SingaporeIt took some time for the 20 g photo-luminescent pigment sample to arrive. The company had it sent over directly from Singapore. Elena let me have half a bucket (way too much) of the heat-set medium to mix the with the pigments to make a luminescent fabric paint.

I mixed the pigments in the ratio directed by the manufacturer. I first painted the thin part of a piece of white, lacy paper mulberry bark cloth and also the other end where the fibres are coarser and more densely spaced. That way I could appreciate the difference. My cotton mull dropcloth now has traces of the paint mix from seeping through the tapa.

photoluminescence on transparent tapa This photo was taken in plain daylight shining UV light on the tapa with a torch.

white tapa with invisible paintIn normal daylight, the paint is hardly visible on the white tapa. I placed my samples outside in the sun to dry and charge with natural UV light.

painted white fabric in daylightI also painted a small strip of white cotton fabric. The paint dries really fast. When the small amount was nearly used up, I thinned it with water twice so as not to waste anything and to see how the performance would change. It is difficult to discern the paint in daylight, but on the fabric it was visible having a slight greenish tint.

After about two hours the sun had wandered around the house and I decided to take my samples inside and check for an effect. I was richly rewarded by a beautiful glow (see featured image at top). The photo was taken in semi darkness. I placed the painted tapa on a piece of black tapa for contrast.

glowing tapa and fabric in darknessEntering a dark room with the fabrics was an amazing experience. The glow was very strong and even helped me find my way around the room in the darkness. I hung the three samples up side by side for photographing. I had to manipulate the photos on the computer to make the glow better visible. What we see in this photo is pretty close to what I saw.

varying glow intensityI have learned from this experiment that it is OK to thin the medium which is water-based, because the pigment powder thickens it. In the varying intensity of the glow on the fabric strip we can clearly appreciate the thinning of the paint. The thinnest mixture is in the lines on the right. There was nearly no paint left but obviously still enough pigments to have some effect. I will experiment with a different ratio, using more medium and less pigment so that the paint can cover a larger area.

Glowing tapa in darknessThe difference in intensity in this photograph is not just caused by the difference in consistency of the tapa or the paint, but also because the left side of the photo shows the wrong side of the thin lacy part of the tapa. It was interesting to note that the luminescence can be observed on both sides of the transparent tapa.

The glow effect had disappeared after two hours, about the same time that the samples had been exposed to UV light. When exposed to daylight for about a whole day, the glow effect did not continue for so much longer. I look forward to living with a piece in with I incorporate photo-luminescent fabric. The painted fabrics will develop a different life at night.

The visual effect of these pigments makes me think of the mind. During the day it gets ‘charged’ with all sorts of experiences, the impressions of which are re-lived, in part, and worked through during the un-consciousness of sleep. The day-time picture dazzles us with a variety of sense perceptions and experiences. The night-time picture of the unconscious only leaves their essence. I have only just begun to think more about the expressive possibilities this photo-luminescent paint offers me. It will be fun to experiment some more…

Washing tapa…

… for a new project

Fine tapa from FijiTongan tapa is predominantly Broussonetia papyrifera or paper mulberry. It is the finest I’ve known, with the exception of a gauze-like piece of tapa from Fiji (left) that I saw at the recent Tapa Festival in Tahiti in November 2014 . For me as lace maker and tapa enthusiast, using this natural material is an ongoing challenge.

A friend brought me some unpainted tapa (feta’aki) from Tonga. I haven’t measured the cloth, but it is about 1.20 metres wide and many metres long. Length and width of individual strips depend on the size of the sapling that has been harvested for beating. It varies slightly.

Tongan tapa or feta'akiTapa makers in Tonga layer and join those individual strips to make a larger piece for their final printed ngatu.

Patch on Tongan tapaAny holes and tears are patched by pasting small pieces of tapa over the area with starch.

Look through tapaWhen holding up against the light and looking through such cloth, the doubled areas form quite a pattern – and tell a tale of the tapa’s quality perhaps…

My plan for a new project is to dye this paper mulberry tapa with fabric dye. I assume that the contact with the liquid dye will dissolve the starch and the joints and patches will come apart. I prefer to work with the individual layers and their ‘imperfection’ anyway. Luckily we have a rather deep shower tray, because my large plastic basin is too small to submerge the long feta’aki in enough water to soak it.

wet tapaAs soon as the water penetrates the material I can already see that the pieces separate. After agitating the bark gently, because wet tapa has very little tensile strength and can easily be ripped, I can take out the separate lengths of bark. I gently squeeze them, roll them up in a thick towel and wring that towel-tapa sausage to get rid of as much water as I can before spreading the bark on a table to dry. I have covered our studio table with sheets.

length of wet tapaIt’s a bit like detective work to discover how many larger and smaller pieces hide in such a squeezed-out ‘snake’.

layers of tapaI find out that it’s usually two, sometimes three lengths that have most probably been beaten together. The bottom part of the bark is much thicker, the top usually very delicate and lacy. That’s why they are placed so that the bottom part of the one comes to ly on the top part of the other and thus give an even thickness.

beginning of a layer of tapaI have to find the beginning of one separate layer and pull or lift the piece and let gravity do its job.

holding up layers of wet tapaI love the contact with such, at this stage, very delicate material. I find that I have to respect its specific properties, if I want it to work for me and through handling it I get to know its strengths and weaknesses – and my own.

Studio full of tapaEventually all possible flat surfaces of my large studio are covered with fine tapa. Swimming in the bowl near the water’s surface are the fallen off patches. I skim them off, spread and flatten them, long and narrow, square and rectangular, hand-size and smaller, placing them in the spaces between the other longer strips. In my mind’s eye, the new work begins to grow. All I need now for the colouring is a day of sunshine which is required to develop the light-reactive dyes full brilliance.

Many tapa pieces To be continued…

 

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

Tapa and Rust (2)

Black stains on dyed tapa

The plain white tapa strip, which has been through previous water baths and perhaps even a bleach treatment, has shown me only orange rust stains. However, the two pre-dyed tapa strips reward me with a remarkable result when I return the next day.
Black and yellow stains on tapaMy theory was correct: the pre-dyed pieces of tapa show black stains after the chemical reaction between the tannin-rich plant dye and the iron oxide. I can’t figure out how the brass-coloured stains come about, but it’s the black I’m after at this stage. It makes me wonder what would happen, if I tied a piece of Banyan (Ficus prolixa, on Atiu called ava) around my magic rusty rod.

Banyan barkcloth in sunsetBeaten Banyan bark naturally turns a rich orange brown. Two fermented pieces have been joined together by beating. Perhaps this kind of tapa still contains enough tannin to react with the iron oxide?

Banyan and Paper Mulberry barkclothTogether with two square pieces of lace-like Paper Mulberry barkcloth, I have brought a sample from last year’s tapa making workshop at Enuamanu School. Now I have two questions: Will the joined seam stick together after soaking the bark in sea water? And will the contact with rust produce black stains? I will find out next time I visit the Edna at Ava Tapu Beach…