Tapa-making is a traditional art form whereby the inner bark of certain trees is softened and pounded into sheets of cloth, then bound together using natural starches such as root crop. The tapa making tradition is found all across Oceania, but due to the labor-intense nature of its production, the craft has largely ceased in many countries. Serendipitously, Tonga remains one of the few places where it is still made, and the market for its product now extends beyond the Kingdom to other Pacific nations such as Fiji.
In our [former] neighborhood of Houmakelikao, tapa (“ngatu”) is a major industry, where women labor under eaves of front porches and mango trees, pounding the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree for about eight hours each day (except Sundays, of course). Our neighbor Kaloni is a ngatu-making goddess, and I was lucky enough to shadow her over the course of a few weeks, where she demonstrated each step of ngatu making, starting with the paper mulberry trees that just happen to grow in a little cluster in our back yard.
These notes and photographs were taken a year or so ago, but due to some miscalculations in my photographing format (I took everything in RAW images by mistake and didn’t have the software at the time to convert them) I’ve just now been able to get things in order.
How to Make Tapa
And with that introduction, may I present Ngatu-making, step-by-step:
1. Cut down the young shoots of the paper mulberry tree. As you can see, these shoots are quite spindly, with varying shaped-leaves.
2. Separate the bark from the trunk, often using one’s teeth to begin the process as Kaloni demonstrates here.
3. Peel the outer bark from the soft, inner bark (the Phloem, I believe it is called) until the phloem is in one long piece and clean of the outer shell. (The Tongan word for the phloem/inner bark is “Tu tu.”)
These tu tu strips are usually about 4 inches or so wide and ranging from 5 to 7 feet tall.
4. Soak the strips of tu tu in a bucket of water to soften the particles (length of time ranging from overnight to a few days).
5. Take a softened strip of tu tu and place vertically on a long, wooden anvil-like bench, so that only a section of the tu tu rests on the wood, and the remaining portion drapes over the side.
6. Beat the portion of tu tu with a wooden mallet called an ike.
First, you use the grooved side of the mallet and, once the tu tu is thinned somewhat, use the flat side until the tu tu has been beaten paper-thin (around 10 inches in width). Kaloni explained that the grooved sides of the mallet are often comprised of patterned grooves unique to the owner and her family.
7. Continue beating portions of the tu tu until the entire strip has been thinned to paper and stretched from its original width to 10-12 inches.
8. Join two strips of thinned tu tu together by aligning them side-by-side and pounding the fibers with the ike so that the strips of tu tu join together to form a long, wide sheet.
At times, a little starch from a root crop such as tapioca may be rubbed in to enhance the joining. For Kaloni’s ngatu, sheets about two to three feet in width were formed in the above-described manner until a rather impressive stack of sheets were prepped. These sheets were then joined at the ends to create longer sheets comprising 2 to 3 feet in width by around 14 feet in length.
9. At this stage, ngatu-making becomes a communal activity.
Various extended family members carry their own stacks of prepped tu tu to a large room, which in this instance, also serves as a kava hut and is located right behind our house. Women sit around a long, low table within the room. The top of this table is geometrically scored with markers that are used for measurement and alignment — and during the painting phase, design purposes — over which a fishing net has been affixed. This keeps the tapa from sliding about while the sheets of tu tu are joined.
10. Once everyone is situated around the table, one woman, in this case, the matriarch figure with the brown head scarf, calls the order for the first sheets to be unfurled upon the table.
(A side note of interest: in this picture, the woman is finishing a cookie from the pail of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies I brought as a thank-you. She kept saying something in Faka-Tonga as she ate it about “palangi”, but no one would tell me what it was. Finally, Kaloni turned to me and sheepishly whispered, “She says, ‘next time, tell palangi to use more sugar!'” Well, I laughed at that, but from the look on the woman’s face, it was clear she did not find my attempt at healthier baking even a little bit amusing.)
11. Once the sheets of tu tu are aligned to overlap on the table, the edges are joined together with a glue made from root crop.
This particular root crop looks just like a potato and Mele (Kaloni’s daughter) told me that it is called mahoa’a. As this picture demonstrates, the mahoa’a is rubbed over the edges to be joined, creating a sticky texture. Mele explained that often, a paste from flour and water is used in lieu of a root crop, but the flour mixture is not as desirable because it attracts rodents and insects more than the root crop product. Mele also said that the root crop-based glue tends to stick longer than flour mixtures.
12. Immediately thereafter, a moist cloth is soaked in a rusty, orange-brown dye (discussed later) and then rubbed over the joined sheets so that the geometrical pattern from the table-top manifests itself on the tapa.
13. If sheets do not align perfectly, these portions are cut out and patched together with scraps of the tapa cloth, as is seen below, and glued with more mahoa’a.
14. During this aligning and joining process, a giant sheet is eventually formed that consists of two layers, the bottom of which is perpendicular to the top, and welded into one homogeneous sheet with the mahoa’a and water mixture.
This particular gnatu was approximately 50 feet in length and width, and the process within the hut took approximately 4 hours!
Various stages of aligning and joining:
15. After the final sheet is formed, it is laid outside to dry in the sun.
16. Once the sheet is dried, it is colored and/or decorated with earthy rust hues and dark brown tones.
Traditionally, these dyes came from various roots and clay — bark from the koka tree is often scraped, soaked in water and then strained to create a rusty red-brown hue.
Dyes and Patterns Used to Color Tapa
This color is often used as a background color for the entire tapa. If the mixture is boiled, Mele explained that it turns to a dark brown color, which is often used for hand-drawn or stenciled patterns. The root from the mangrove tree is also traditionally used for dye, but because mangroves are under conservation in Tonga (they serve as a critical barrier to erosion among other things), the harvesting of mangrove roots is, from what I understand, forbidden. I believe Kaloni said that the mud around the mangrove roots is often used for dye as well.
A final note on dye-sources that I found particularly interesting: Some of the ladies in the tapa hut explained that, in modern times, often the reddish-brown color seen on tapa products at the market is actually made from orange soda. It is cheaper and easier than the arduous task of harvesting raw products to create dye, but the ladies admitted that the sugars prove a problem with rodents, who can find the beverage-tainted tapa to be a tasty snack. Perhaps that’s why many products appear to be shellacked with a glossy coat of paint?
At any rate, back to painting. I’ve seen painting and decorating done in any manner of ways, including rubbing the entire tapa down with a moist cloth soaked in the rusty-red-brown dye or daintily detailing hand-drawn designs with the point of a pandanamus seed. Often, the initial background color (the reddish-brown hue) is applied while the cloth is set upon the long, low table. The moist cloth is rubbed over the tapa so that the pattern on the table-top manifests on the tapa, similar to a grave rubbing.
Patterns and stencils are often unique to a family or village, and the discerning eye will be able to distinguish its origin based upon that alone.
What is Tapa Used For?
The end product is what is called ngatu, and it is used for weddings, funerals and other special ceremonies (smaller pieces are used for clothes, costumes, and so forth).
The picture below is of a wedding Jacinta invited me to for her brother-in-law, Paolo.
King George Tupou V’s Funeral in Tongatapu
And when King Tupou V passed away in 2012, huge sheets of ngatu were strewn over the road in which the funeral procession progressed, from the royal palace to the royal ceremony.
Kaloni said that a properly-made sheet of ngatu can last up to five years, and one the size of 50 feet squared can be sold overseas for around 2000 Tongan Pa’anga (roughly $1,1400 USD). A lot of money by Tongan standards, certainly, but when you consider the immense labor involved, it is quite a bargain. Just watching this amazing process was a huge honor, and all it cost me was a little bit of pride lost over my baking!
Below are some pictures of ngatu taken during King George Tupuo IV’s Funeral in early 2012:
Right before leaving Tonga, we purchased a Tongan pillow from the local market. This pillow, which is actually a carved piece of wood that slopes in the center to cradle one’s lower head, had just been freshly varnished prior to purchase and had an usual orange hue. We promptly packed up said pillow and had it shipped with our other things back to the states. When our shipment arrived three months later, we unwrapped our pillow and discovered it completely covered in mold about a half a centimeter deep! I was suspicious at the time we packed that thing, but in our flurry to move, I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have to the “varnish”. Oh well. Lesson learned, and after scrubbing the pillow and scraping off the mold, we lost our orange tint as well. A little linseed oil brought it back to life and now it is featured, mold-free in our living room!