Monday, 4 April 2016

A Fijian Memento - A Tourist's Tapa (I.0005)

Image by author, please do not use without permission.
This tapa is a painted Fijian barkcloth, approximately 94x65-66 cm.  The smoother side of the barkcloth is painted with dark, reddish-brown and black pigments, which appear to have been stamped or stenciled on. Tapa is made from the inner bark, or bast, of certain trees (the paper mulberry, breadfruit, banyan, or wild fig tree); but in the Pacific Islands is most commonly made of the paper mulberry. Although the exact details of the process can vary, the production of barkcloth follows the same general pattern: bark is stripped from the tree, the inner bark separated from the outer and soaked in water, before it is beaten out into thin sheets with a beater, and the sheets then felted or pasted together to make larger or thicker sheets before it is painted.

This example is a late 20th century souvenir tapa, made to be sold to visitors to Fiji. Made in the traditional style, it is a good example of tapa in general, though pieces made for tourists lack the social and ritual importance of tapa objects used by the Fijians themselves. In fact, only a small percentage of the tapa pieces produced end up being sold as souvenirs. The majority of barkcloth made is used by the Fijians themselves for various purposes, and is still produced today. This tapa, then, makes a good comparison piece to non-tourist tapa objects. It is representative of one of the ways in which Fijians have negotiated the introduction of western culture to their island and chosen to commodify objects from their culture rather than other aspects of it, such as performances or rituals.

The condition of this object is good. There are some signs of wear visible, as the object was originally folded into smaller sections, which is evidenced by the creases that remain on the barkcloth and keep it from lying entirely flat. As the slight discoloration of the exterior area of the folded object shows, it was likely stored that way for some time. That, as well as handling of the object, has led to some breakage of the fibers along the folds as well as cracking of the paint, but this is minor damage and not detrimental to the overall stability of the object so long as it does not worsen. No previous treatments or repairs are visible, and no additives were detected under UV light.

Reading List:
- Ewins, R., 2009. Staying Fijian: Vatulele Island Barkcloth and Social Identity. Honolulu: University Hawai’i Press. Retrieved on 28 March 2016 from World Wide Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqp6d
- Kooijman, S., 1988. Polynesian Barkcloth. Princes Risborough: Shire.
- Neich, R. and Pendergrast, M., 1997. Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific. London: Thames and Hudson.
- Pole, L. and Doyal, S., 2004. Second Skin: Everyday and Sacred Uses of Bark Worldwide. Exeter: Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery.



This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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