Tapa in Tahiti ~ A Close Cousin to Hawaiian Kapa
ʻAhu is what Tahitians a Society Islanders call bark cloth and clothing. The inner bark of the breadfruit, hibiscus, and ficus were used as well as the paper mulberry tree, called aute. Large amounts of aute were cultivated for the ariʻi noble class. Commoners had to use the stiffer breadfruit variety. The inner bark of these various trees were beaten in the same manner, with the wooden club, tupai on the beating anvil, tutua. The fibers were beaten until the fibers became stretched and interwoven using the felting technique of layering.
Large amounts of ʻahu was owned by nobles as a sign of their rank and prestige. It hung on house posts; it was stacked up somewhere in the home to be brought out to visitors in a sign of wealth and pride. Bundles of white ʻahu were hung above the house, pieces up to 590 feet in length were suspended from the roof in chief’s houses! Bundles were also kept in the houses as dedications to the gods, with the god images (Pacific Tapa, 1997).
ʻAhu had many uses and importance here as in the rest of Polynesia. It was used for clothing, funerary wrapping, and bedding. ʻAhu functioned as a gift in marriage, for declarations of peace, and burial objects (Life in the Pacific of the 1700s, 2006).
Layers of soft ʻahu were used for the clothes of ariʻi class nobles and chiefs. Common people wore ʻahu made of bark from breadfruit trees (Artocarpus altilis). Women’s clothing was a skirt called a pareu. Men wore a loincloth called a maro. An ahufara was worn by women as a shawl around the shoulders. The tiputa poncho was worn by all people. There was a different tiputa worn in different types of weather. It could be made of several layers of thick ʻahu from the bark of the Hibiscus tiliaceus. Or a single layer tiputa was worn in dry weather. Multi layered tiputa was worn at night or in cooler weather. High ranking people wore tiputa colored with red, yellow, or brown dye with an applique of red feathers. Colored ʻahu was reserved for people of rank, and only the very highest ranking nobles were permitted to wear red or yellow colored ʻahu (Life in the Pacific of the 1700s, 2006).
Production of dye was women’s work. Brown dye was obtained from the bark of the tiari or tutui trees (Aleurites trilobia). The bark was scraped or pounded and steeped until the strength of the color was achieved. The Aleurites bark has gummy substances and so strengthened the ʻahu cloth and made it more durable. The juice of the Nono shrub (Morinda citrifolia) and tumeric provided yellow dye. ʻAhu was dyed in immersion dye baths or left plain white (Life in the Pacific of 1700s, 2006; Pacific Tapa, 1997).
Fine lines in a single-layered ʻahu were imprinted using a bark cloth beater, called a tupai. In the society Islands red patterns would be made with bamboo stamps dipped in dye and applied. Figures were also drawn freehand (Life in the Pacific of 1700s, 2006). Brushes were used to draw freehand and were made from a grass known as mo’u.
Tahitian decorative motifs since contact with Westerners are recorded to be leaves and fern fronds dipped in dye and pressed to cloth in a pattern. Sometimes pieces of one color were pasted on the surface of another to create an interesting effect.
The art of beating the ʻAhu is not widely practiced today and was almost extinct. Since a revival of traditional skills and knowledge, interest in this cultural art form is stirring (Pacific Tapa, 1997).