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Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Along with some of the senior missionary sisters, I  had a very special experience recently.  We got to take part in the making of tapa, a traditional ceremonial cloth.  The longer I stay here, the more amazed I am at what becomes a resource on this tiny island.

Tapa is the main tourist-oriented product here, and there are many tapa artists who create their own versions of traditional designs.  The designs can be representations of animals, or just geometric patterns. But the cloth and the ink both come from plants.  Tongi (TOHNG-ee) is an accomplished tapa artist who agreed to spend a few hours with some Palangi missionaries, and her daughter Lia (LEE-ah) was a wonderful help as well. 

The first step is to strip the bark off a particular kind of plant.  While we watched, Tongi, a woman of about 60, took a large “bush knife” (similar to a machete) and chopped down a paper mulberry sapling.  After stripping the branches, she slit the bark open along the bottom of the 5-foot long stick (which was probably no more than 4 inches around), and peeled the bark off the stick.  She set the stick aside, and sat down on the ground with the bark. (Sorry, I was too fascinated to take a picture!)

She laid the bark across a narrow, flattened log.  This log was about 5 feet long, with stabilizers underneath each end to hold it up off the ground. She took a squared, wooden hammer, and began pounding the bark, flattening and widening the bark.  The hammer reminded me of the meat hammer I have in my American kitchen, only this one had four different surfaces, rather than the two I’ve used to pound cuts of chicken or beef. 

One of Tongi's large tapa cloths - about 12 feet by 20.  
She hammered away on the bark for a little while, and then passed the hammer around to the rest of us.  Each of us pounded for  about 10 minutes under her expert supervision,  and what had been a 5-foot long strip of bark four inches or less wide was now about 8 feet long and almost a foot across.  Want it wider?  Pound  out another one, then patch them together!  Want it longer? Patch more together.  Some of these tapa can reach  half a mile long, when all the women in the village decide to put one together. 

Tapa drying 

 Of course, now the tapa is supposed to dry out for a few days.  So we set aside the new piece, and we were each handed a small sheet of tapa, dried, cut and ready for painting.  

But now to choose a design. Hmmm… What to do, what to do? And how do we paint it anyway?

Oh, we’ll need some ink.  Ink?  Like real ink?  Wait, from  primitive, pre-tech times?  Yup.  Back to the plants.  A different plant, called a koka tree here in Tonga, is the source of the ink.  You collect the sap from the branches, then you (a) use it fresh, (b) heat it somewhat, or (c) boil it vigorously for 15 minutes, depending on the color you want.  The fresh sap results in a reddish color (usually used for the dry rubbings), the heated sap gives a lovely golden-brown hue, and if you boil the sap, it comes out black.  All from the same plant.  Pretty impressive.

And to give us some ideas on traditional designs, Tongi brought out some of her wooden rubbing boards.  Those of you who are familiar with German and Dutch cookie boards might think twice when you look at these pictures.  These wooden boards are hand-cut designs that reminded me right away of the cookie presses I loved in Europe, but they’re just a tad larger (!), reaching about 18-22 inches in length and usually about a foot across.  (That would make one BIG cookie!)  I also thought about woodblock painting, but the process here in Tonga is a little different from that, too.  Instead of inking the woodblock and printing on the paper, you take the tapa, lay it on top of the board, then make a rubbing with some dry ink.  The dry rubbing is only a preliminary guide for your painting, but it gives you a general idea of what you want to create.

So, we’ve done some of the rubbings, and Tongi gives us cups of the brown and black inks.  You use sharpened sticks to paint with, like the stick Lia is sharpening in this picture.  And whether you use a lot of ink or a little determines the intensity of your colors.  Go to it, girls.  Here’s where my pre-kindergarten skill in art shows up – that’s why you won’t see MY artwork in these pictures (plus I was nursing a very sore right wrist this weekend, so I was trying to do most of it with my left hand – ha!).  But the main thing was, we got to appreciate the effort that goes into making the tapa.

Most of us tried geometric patterns.

One sister, more artistic than the rest of us, did a sea turtle,
a cherished symbol of the South Pacific.

Our mission nurse works on a royal design.

  Tapa is used as a cover cloth, and in some traditional dancing, the women wear dresses made of tapa.  You can make any decoration you wish for art work, but for dresses and robes, only royalty can wear the above pattern. 

We all felt good about our first efforts at making tapa, but we were still in awe of Tongi’s designs.  She is one of the few tapa artists who uses a deep red ink, by painting with the fresh ink over and over again.  She is also one of the few who sprays a fixative on her finished product, so the ink will not rub off.  This gives her work a glossy coat, and everyone knows shiny is better!  The next time you see a tapa, just remember, even a small one represents a whole lot of love and effort.  


  1. That is just amazing!!! Bea, I just can't imagine such patience, it's incredible!

  2. And this morning, for the first time since the Tongan King's death, I heard tapa hammers working in the village right next to where we live. Yeah, patience is a much-practiced virtue here, especially when it comes to traditional arts!