Tapa as Documentation of Culture

Tapa as Documentation of Social Structure, Status, and History

Spitfire Ngatu
Queen Salote Spitfire, Museum of New Zealand

In much of Polynesia, the sociopolitical system is based on a hierarchy of social status or societal rank. Using certain types of barkcloth or giving gifts of highly prized barkcloth are seen as signs of status and prosperity. Frequently, designs are created to refer to a certain person, as well as their importance within the society. For example, a design named manulua represents more than just its literal translation (two birds).[1] The heliaki, or social metaphor, symbolizes chiefly status derived from intermixing chiefly descent from both parental lines. This visual symbol of status is used throughout Polynesia as a way to indicate a powerful leader or ruler.

Visual and verbal modes of expression are embedded in social structure. For instance, lakalakas are Tongan performances that combine poetry, choral singing, and dance. They are performed at ceremonies, funerals, and other culturally important celebrations as a way to express the history and goals of the past, present, and future generations of Tongans. While the lakalaka is being presented, gifts of barkcloth are proffered; the designs on the tapa illustrate the stories being performed.[2] This reinforcement of the verbal with the visual is reciprocal: the meaning of the tapa is also strengthened by the lakalaka. During certain types of ceremonies that include the lakalaka, dance is performed as another marker of the social structure. (See essay on “Tapa and Dance,” for more on this topic.)

Tapa alsohas been used as a way to record historical events or changes within a culture. From Tonga, a beautiful example of the appropriation of images during and directly following World War II includes the use of the Spitfire airplane. Queen Salote, a prestigious and powerful queen of Tonga, raised money to purchase and build two airplanes. As a reminder of the Tongan assistance to the Allied forces, the imagery of these airplanes was then transferred into representation on tapa. Tapa again provides the Tongan people with a piece of history represented in a visual image that could be recognized by the society.[3]

Jess Durkin

[1] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Poetics and Politics of Tongan Barkcloth,” In Pacific Material Culture, ed. G.D. van Wengen (Netherlands, Rijksmuseum, 1995), 108–109.

[2] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Poetics and Politics of Tongan Barkcloth,” In Pacific Material Culture, ed. G.D. van Wengen (Netherlands, Rijksmuseum, 1995), 105-106.

[3] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Airplanes and Saxophones: Post-War Images in the Visual and Performing Arts,” In Echoes of the Pacific War, ed. Deryck Scarr et al. (Canberra: Target Oceania, 1998), 51–52.

Tapa as Analogous to a Human Being

As a tool to understanding the importance of barkcloth in Polynesian society, an analogy can be used in which the cycle of use of barkcloth is compared to the life cycle of a human being.

When a piece of barkcloth is made, smaller elements are blended together and given a certain design. The cloth is then used for a variety of ceremonial or ritual events, where it will be split up into smaller pieces used for clothing, and later blankets or other “throw away” purposes.

This distinct set of uses correlates directly to the life cycle of human existence within much of Polynesia. As children come into the world, they are assimilated into the larger units of their families and communities. They then take part in any number of ceremonies or rituals that mark them and change their lives. It is at the end of this cycle that they, like the barkcloth, become seemingly useless and are disposed of. For a human, this means the loss of life. As we look at these works of art, we must realize that they themselves have a life of their own. Within the museum setting, their life has been frozen in time. They are no longer used in the way they were intended.

Jess Durkin