It’s Sunday, the sun shines bright and in this Heritage Day, I decided to rediscover the polynesian culture and learn an activity which used to be very popular once.
If you don’t know it yet, the tapa is a plant material made out of bark. In Melanesia, it is generally conceived by men whereas here, in Polynesia, it is customary to let women take care of this matter. Major element of the maohi handicraft, the tapa is particularly prized during the Heiva or upon cultural ceremonies. Beside these folkloric events, the tapa struggles to grow apart from the touristic sphere in which it is confined.
Indeed, in olden times, the tapa was not the exception but the rule : the fabric used to accompany every Polynesia from their crib to their coffin, it was the blanket in which we wrapped the new born, the everyday apparel and the shroud covering bodies once death had come. The arrival of English missionnaries in the early 18th century and the whole westernization brought about considerable change and mainly contributed to make its use obsolete.
This is precisely what Heritage Day is intended for, to pay tribute to an ensemble of customs, habits and traditions, disused or not, which constitute what we now like to call culture. Thus, I was all ecstatic and eager to put my manual skills to good use when I went to the Museum of Tahiti and its Islands.
After having explored the place, we are cordially invited to gather in the garden so as to discover the various activities proposed. As the event is free, there are only a few places, which is why I highly advise you to waek up early in order to register as soon as you arrive.
Sitting on my « peue », facing the anvil, I am all ears, ready to receive inidactions from our professor of the day. One of the very first things you need to know when it comes to tapa is that it « wood » not be possible to use every tree… Indeed, if the « uru » (breadfruit) bark turns out to be a good alternative, unfortunately the same does not go for every tree.
The most valued is the « ‘ōrā », the banyan in English, which delivers a milky sap often used as a « ra’au tahiti » (traditional medicine). It happens to be a sacred tree, its bark used to be exclusively dedicated to cover the idols of the « marae » and to dress important characters. Besides, as it may help you during your Trivial Pursuit parties, it is quite fascinating to notice that the reo maohi often resorts to metaphors. For instance, the word « ‘ōrā » designate the tree itself as well as a complex speech, referring to the numerous aerial roots of the banyan. Roots which are prized in local arts and crafts.
However, nowadays the tapa is generally made out of « aute », the paper mulberry, which used to be cultivated for this purpose.
Wood can be quite difficult to manipulate dependng on its origin, which is why one must pay attention to prefer humid places so that the bark is soaked with water and can therefore be peeled more easily.
Today, it is the ‘Arioi cultural and artistic centre which lends the equipment and provides the wood.
The first step, the smoothing, consists in picking the wood and peeling off the bark thanks to a small shell, until you reach the white layer. The use of a knife is formally discouraged as it is essentially a work of patience and meticulousness. One must be particularly cautious and pay attention not to create asperities by rounding the knots of the wood.
Then come the rough steps of the split and the peeling, which consist in progressively peeling off the bast (the white layer located between the bark and the wood). The idea is to operate a slight incision, let the blade slide along the wood and repeat this step until the bast is completely removed from the wood. In order to prepare an A4 format of tapa, the bast must be plunged into water for a whole week in order to soften it. However, regarding today, the clock is ticking, so we will make do with a couple of minutes for this step.
The next process consists of beating the bast to create the tapa in itself. In this purpose, we use a wooden round anvil called « tutuä » and a kind of wooden battledore – « ‘I’e » – equipped with four faces covered with various ridges of different depth. These stripes all intervene during the process. Thus, the action of beating the tapa is called « tutuha’a ».
Seated cross-legged in front of the anvil, I cautiously beat the bast, endeavouring to be diligent and steady, to be patient, strong and resistant. Indeed, if you are willing to create a 50 to 60cm tapa, be ready to beat for more than an hour an a half. It requires more than just beating with ardor, one must keep the same intensity without neglecting the extremities as it enables the tapa to spread. Feel free to moisturize your tapa with water to soften it.
Then you can definitely fill the little holes created by the natural knots of the wood by adding some material. Once you have put the final touches to your tapa by using the smallest ridges, it must be smooth, polished and thin. Eventually, comes the time to let it dry, it is recommended to stretch it under the sun while putting a weight on it to prevent it from crinkling.
Sure, you can paint your tapa with natural ink but this will be the object of another article…