Saturday, 6 September 2014

Discovering Tongan Tapa Cloths

 At NorthArt on Saturday the three Tongan artists showing work at the moment gave short talks about their pieces. The artists were DagmarDyck, Emily Mafile’o  and Vea Mafile’o. Each artist works with very separate aspects of their Tongan heritage. It was a superb chance to learn more than simply viewing the pieces. Each uses their creative expression to investigate or to present something of their relationship to their culture. All of the exhibitions were powerful either physically or emotionally, and together the paintings, photography and film gave a wider sense of the Tongan experience.

On the same afternoon I had the chance to take part in a short workshop to have a go with the techniques used in tapa cloths.

Tongan Tapa Cloth example

If you are not familiar with tapa, they are traditional cloths made throughout the pacific. The cloth is a bark cloth made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. The history of the cloth goes back perhaps as far as China over 5000 years ago.
The tapa cloth is much finer, smoother and paler in colour than the African bark cloth which I am more familiar with, making it a lovely surface to work onto. I have been playing with image transfer onto some of the cloth I bought at the Pasifika Festival earlier this year.
The Pacific islands each have traditional patterns and methods for printing and painting onto the cloths, so today I was able to learn specifically the Tongan method, even more specifically those from  Falevai Vava'u, as taught by Tui Gillies and her mother Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows.
The pattern to be applied to the cloth is made by creating a kapesi. This is the ‘print block’ which once made can be used many times, and we were told that the ‘value’ of the tapa cloth is mostly in the kapesi, these take the time and the patterns create the story, message and personality of the cloth. Today we used a slightly updated form of making the kapesi, we wrapped thin bamboo with a strong cotton thread then couched these onto interfacing making the pattern. The original sticks would have been from the coconut and are called Tu'aniu.

My version of a kapesi, though not at all traditional patterns
Two layers of tapa cloth are adhered at 90 degree angle to each other with the use of a flour and water paste with a small amount of glycerine added, the cloths are pressed firmly together. This makes the cloth smoother and more robust. Apparently if you glue the cloths together with fibres in the same direction they will not attach together.
Whilst the cloth is soft and damp from gluing, the kapesi is placed underneath and the cloth is pressed down over the kapesi. A cloth soaked overnight in a watery clay mixture (‘umea) is squeezed out and then rubbed over the cloth. This allows the pattern of the kapesi to be outlined in clay lines on the cloth. 

Earth pigments ready for painting with

Amber starting to overpaint her cloth, mine in the foreground has just been rubbed to print off my pattern

This should be allowed to dry and the cloth may be finished at this stage or the patterns can be over painted in more detail, areas filled and embellished with other brown and black dyes.
I hope that I have all of this information correct – my apologies if I didn’t quite get all of the details, but thanks to Tui and Sulieti for the opportunity to have a go.

Amber's cloth finished

 Amber is going to mount her piece as it is, I think I have to get some stitching on mine to see what happens.

Ready to stitch?

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