Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows

About Tongan tapa

Learn about the history and process of ngatu creation

What is ngatu (Tongan tapa)?

By sharing our knowledge of this beautiful and culturally-significant Polynesian art form we aim to honour and preserve our ancestral roots.

Tongan ngatu, also known as tapa, is a traditional type of cloth fabric made from the bark of the mulberry paperbark tree, which is found throughout the Pacific Islands.

Once harvested and manually processed, the tapa cloth forms a beautiful natural canvas that is then decorated using natural dyes, frequently characterised by intricate geometric designs.

It has formed an integral part of Tongan and Polynesian history for centuries, holding significant cultural and historical meaning.

The origins of Tongan tapa

Tapa making has been a part of Tongan culture and in fact many cultures across the Oceanic region, for over 2,000 years.

The history of the ngatu can be traced back to the early Polynesian settlers who brought with them the knowledge and skills to create tapa. Over time, it has evolved to fulfil many forms and purposes, from day-to-day use to a valuable commodity representing spiritual, cultural and ceremonial identities.

Malaspina Tongan carpet in Museo de America, Madrid
The Malaspina - the oldest intact tapa cloth ngatu known in the world, believed to have originated from Falevai Island in Vava’u, Tonga. The carpet is held in the archives of the Museo de America, Madrid, Spain.

The process of ngatu creation

Traditionally made by women, tapa is harvested from the inner bark of the mulberry paperbark tree (hiapo in Tongan). The bark of the tree is peeled off into strips, soaked in water to soften it, and then pounded with a wooden mallet into a thin, flexible fabric (called feta’aki). The strips are then laid out and joined together to create a larger fabric which once decorated, becomes what is known as the ngatu.

Once dried, the cloth is decorated with intricate designs using natural dyes made from plants and minerals. The designs and patterns found on Tongan ngatu are often inspired by nature, with motifs representing birds, flowers, and waves.

After the tapa cloth has been processed, it is decorated with intricate designs using natural dyes made from locally-available plants and minerals.

These designs are typically made using kupesi – a stencil or rubbing block that uses coconut fibres to lay out patterns.  The tapa cloth is placed over the top of the kupesi block and then rubbed over with the dye to imprint the kupesi design.

A close up of hiapo or paper mulberry seedlings sprouting leaves
Hiapo - paper mulberry seedlings. The bark of the mature trees is harvested and manually processed to create feta'aki (strips of tapa cloth). These are then joined together to form the ngatu.
Tapa cloth hanging to dry. You can see the strips of cloth (feta'aki) that have been joined together to create the larger ngatu.
Umea red earth clay mixed in a bowl with a paintbrush laying next to it
Umea - red earth clay from Falevai, Tonga - used for kupesi rubbing.
Tongan kupesi blocks laying on a table ready for rubbing on the tapa cloth
Tongan kupesi blocks and materials ready for rubbing on the tapa cloth

The role of ngatu in Tongan and Polynesian cultures

Tapa has played an important role in Tongan and across many Polynesian cultures for centuries, although the way it is made and used, and the design patterns vary from place to place. In Fiji for example, tapa is made from the bark of the masi tree and is often decorated with bold, abstract designs.

In Tongan culture, ngatu was used for a variety of purposes including for clothing and bedding, and to create stunning clothing, wall hangings, and decorative pieces. Such items often commemorated ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals, and other important events. Ngatu was often exchanged as gifts between families and even served as a form of currency.

Tongan tapa was also an important symbol of social status and prestige. The finest tapa was reserved for chiefs and royalty. Furthermore, it held important spiritual significance as many believed it to possess protective and healing properties.

Ngatu resurgence within traditional and contemporary art

Tapa making declined somewhat during the 20th century, as Tongans began to adopt western clothing and other forms of material culture, although it has retained its strong artistic, ceremonial, and cultural significance.

In fact, in many parts of Tonga, including Sulieti’s home of Falevai, the practice of growing and harvesting the paperbark tree had been all but abandoned until Sulieti and her daughter, Tui Emma Gillies, visited to revive the practice with the support of a Creative New Zealand Grant.

Artists such as Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows and Tui Emma Gillies have played a crucial role in reviving the ancient practice of making Tongan ngatu and bringing it to the world stage. Tongan tapa art has gained recognition for its unique and intricate designs, leading to renewed interest in the traditional art form.

Many contemporary Tongan artists including Burrows and Gillies are also experimenting with the application of new materials and techniques to create innovative works of art. Their efforts pay tribute to the historical and cultural roots of this medium, while incorporating modern techniques, designs, and colours that inspire new generations and a global audience to appreciate its beauty and cultural significance, ensuring this unique and valuable art form continues to thrive.

Artist Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows holding up one of her tongan tapa artworks featuring a kupesi border with a family of four turtles.
Artist Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows holding up one of her tongan tapa artworks "A Family of Turtles" featuring kupesi border
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