In 1983, I led a research team to Fiji to study fish in the area looking for clues to ancient distribution. We stayed part of the time on the island of Dravuni where the University of the South Pacific (USP) had a small research outpost. While there, living with the local people, we came to know them well. My wife was with us on the trip and she was quickly welcomed into the women’s circle.One of the skills they showed her was the making and decorating of Tapa. The finished cloth, called “Masi” is special. It has a symbolic and long-standing history in Fiji. Indigenous Fijians, the Taukei, use masi today for most every ceremony. Masi is mainly produced mainly in a few south-eastern islands of the Lau group, and Viti Levu. We were on Dravuni (pronounced ndravuni]). This tiny volcanic island is in the Kadavu Group of islands and is the most northern of several inhabited islands within the Great Astrolabe Reef. Approximately 125 people currently live there, but when we were there the village only had about 60 people.
Frances was invited to be part of a tapa-making event. The setting is in one of the larger houses where a large specially-shaped log is central and the various tasks are ranged around the log.
Some are stripping bark from the stems, others are beating the park and still others are making the decorative and symbolic patterns on the finished bark. The process begins a with small tree, the Paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera)that arrived in Fiji during the voyages of migration the hiapo or siapo from Southeast Asia. The tree is cut down and dried for a couple of days. Once at the proper half dry, half moist stage, the bark is stripped off. After the bark is stripped from the tree, the outer bark is separated from the inner bark named tutu or loututu. The strips of fibre are placed on a wooden anvil which is shaped from a very large log scraped smooth for the women to beat the tapa. Women beat the fibre on the anvil with wooden clubs. The clubs are specially made with some surfaces ribbed and others smooth to work the fibre from a coarse to a very fine surface texture. The cloth is repeatedly beaten and folded until about 1/2 meter wide. Then strips are overlapped and the joints are beaten until they become firmly “glued” together. The resulting cloth can be quite wide and is a soft white colour.
Once beaten and glued, the cloth is then dried in the sun. The cloth can be smoked over a sugarcane fire to produce the tan-coloured masi kuvui, or it can be soaked in mangrove sap, terracotta clay or specially prepared soot. Most of what we saw however, was left in its orginal white colour. The stencils The designs used to symbolise Fiji are produced with stencils. According to the local people on Dravuni, the stencils were originally made from banana or pandanus leaves. However, they now use, of all things, discarded x-ray negatives into which they cut the shapes to symbolize Fiji or that are traditional historical shapes. Each stencilled figure is sharply defined as the “ink” is applied to the bark cloth. We were especially interested to recall that fine decoration is not always a sign of status. The wedding attire of high chiefs is characterised by using more tan-coloured masi kuvui, together with very fine white masi. All of the skirts worn by our hostesses were brown on a fine white cloth — high honour indeed.