Researched and Conserved by Joshua Fountain
Tapa is a type of cloth that is made throughout Oceania (the Pacific Islands) from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and that may be dyed, stamped, and/or painted with designs. In the Tongan Islands, tapa cloth is specifically known as ngatu.
Tapa cloths are not woven, but are bonded together using a process called felting. Strips of bark are beaten until they are soft and the fibers begin to separate. Then the strips are laid together, slightly overlapping, and may be spread with arrowroot or tapioca root to help bond the fibers; then they are beaten again until the fibers fuse together. In Tonga, the patterns are created using a printing block called a kupesi. Pigment made from koka bark is applied to the raised surface of the block, the cloth is laid over the top, and the cloth is beaten over the block to help the pigment to infuse the cloth; this is repeated until the ngatu artist has created an elaborate, often abstracted design. In later versions of ngatu, these designs are entirely painted over by hand.
Tapa cloth was the textile primarily used by Oceanic peoples until the late 19th century, when expanded trade brought in other types of textiles such as woven cotton and wool. Ngatu remains an important artform and cultural identifier for Tongan peoples, however, and it is still used today for important ceremonies. Ngatu is used as dancers’ regalia in important festivals; as wedding garments; as swaddling garments for newborn babies; as burial shrouds; and sometimes as blankets, tapestries, or floor coverings.
This piece of ngatu is unusual because it was overpainted more than once. It was originally painted over by Kelesi of Malapo, an ngatu artist of the middle to late 19th century (born 1794) who was famous in her time and region for making ngatu; Kelesi’s signature is visible on one corner of the cloth. The original pigment deteriorated, however–likely from humidity and natural aging of the cloth–and later the pattern was painted over once again by Evalata of Malapo, possibly a relative or descendant. Taking credit for her overpainting work, Evalata has painted her signature over Kelesi’s.
The apparent age and the very large size of this ngatu cloth suggests that it was made for local use rather than for the tourist trade. The famous artist and the origin of the cloth in Malapo, one of the estates of the chieftain, further suggests that this ngatu may have been made specifically for elite use. Also suggesting the cloth’s importance is the fact that it was signed, which is uncommon, and that a second artist went to the trouble of restoring the design after it had deteriorated.