The art of tapa making is and has been practiced in a number of Pacific islands such as Hawaii, Samoa, and Niue to name a few. However, Fiji and Tonga are the main producers of this cloth to date. Tapa cloth or ngatu as it is called in Tonga, is made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, hiapo. This article will examine the art of tapa making in Tonga, focusing on the stories behind some of the kupesi (stencils) embossed and then printed on the tapa cloth.
Ngatu is an essential component of a Tongan woman’s koloa (treasured possessions). It is necessary for ceremonial gift exchanges in celebrations, marking significant life events such as births, graduations, weddings, and funerals. It is said that a Tongan woman without a piece of ngatu stored under her bed, is a poor woman. Ngatu symbolizes wealth and prosperity in the Tongan context, it tells of a woman who is not idle but is productive and worthy. A ngatu is produced for a purpose, it is common for women of high social status to plan beforehand when to produce/manufacture a piece. This would be in anticipation of an upcoming marking of an important life event or an event of religious importance, such as the annual church conference, or an important national event, such as the coronation of a monarchy. It is not possible for one woman to complete the whole process of ngatu production alone; a group of women must come together to piece together feta’aki or beaten bark cloth in a manufacturing process known as koka’anga.
Ngatu production today is mainly done by women making up koka’anga groups, who work on their own to beat, patch, and piece together pieces of feta’aki, to meet prescribed lengths and widths set by the group according to the size and type of ngatu that they plan to make. And on set days, say about once a week or biweekly, a koka’anga is held. The ngatu produced on that day will be for one of the women in the group, so each woman in the group will have a turn, in having a ngatu produced for her thus the term toulanganga – working co-operatively by providing a langanga (prescribed width and length of feta’aki) to make a whole (piece of ngatu).
On the day of the koka’anga, women gather at the venue, usually a village or church hall with their prescribed lengths of feta’aki, set to make one piece of ngatu. The woman whose ngatu is to be produced on the day, gets to have a choice on the kupesi to be used for her ngatu. The kupesi are the stencils pasted onto the koka’anga board to be embossed into the plain feta’aki. There are varieties of traditional kupesi to choose from, or one can be creative and design a new kupesi according to preference.
Piecing together of feta’aki to get required length and width for koka’anga © Culture & Heritage Division, Ministry of Tourism, Tonga
According to Fielakepa (2014: 330), there are thirteen traditional kupesi for ngatu, each with a history, naming its maker and meaning behind the lines and angles making up the kupesi, not to mention its name. Two of these kupesi are the ve’etuli – which according to Fielakepa (ibid) is a designed to depict the sand imprints of the feet of the Tuli bird, an active and rare bird seen on the shores of the island seasonally. This kupesi is from the island of Tongatapu and is the highest ranked kupesi. So with this in mind, this kupesi is used in a ngatu produced and destined for a royal occasion or to a person of chiefly status. The second example of traditional kupesi is one called, Fata ‘o Tu’I Tonga. This is said to one of the oldest known kupesi, derived from the patterns shown by the ornamental coconut sennit lashings of the Tu’i Tonga’s (king) house. To have this particular kupesi printed into one’s piece of ngatu, elevates it in status and worthiness for presentation in any celebratory event fulfilling one’s customary obligations. On the other hand, ngatu is produced now commonly made without the embossed kupesi that are pasted onto the koka’anga board. The feta’aki are pieced together to make a whole/complete ngatu but is plain, leaving the maker or owner to draw/print freehand any kupesi (be it some of the traditional ones or newly created designs marking occasions) to the ngatu. This gives the maker the freedom to express their creativity when marking designs into their ngatu.
Ngatu production is a living art in Tonga with non-stop production due to high demand from both locals and Tongans in the diaspora. Knowledge is shared, reshared and revolving.