The group spent a week on Atiu before travelling to Tahiti to research the types of plants traditionally used to make tapa cloth. The trip was part of a three-year international research project called Situating Pacific Barkcloth Production in Time & Place, which aims to transform the understanding of Pacific barkcloth manufacture. As part of the project, Mason recently appealed to Cook Islands News readers for information on words written on a piece of Cook Islands tapa believed to date back 150 years. She takes up the story…
islands of Moorea, or the Marquesas.
Tapa is no longer made on Rarotonga, but to some small extent is still made on Atiu and Mangaia.
We went to a large, easily-accessed marae at Pa’ea, called Arahurahu, where we think we located what could be two pu’upu’u breadfruit trees, growing side by side. As neither of the trees were producing fruit it was hard to tell what variety they were, but their unusually-shaped, or naturally mis-shapened leaves gave some suggestion that it might be pu’upu’u. This variety was not present amongst the ones we saw at Vaiuru’a Valley.
We were in Tahiti for a week. Braun-Ortega’s property at Vaiuru’a Valley, which is located on Tahiti Iti, is past Tautira village, a two-hour drive from Punaauia, where we were staying.
At Tautira the main road around Tahiti ends abruptly, which meant we had to take a boat from Tautira village to Vaiuru’a Valley.
Tahiti-Iti is an interesting area historically. It’s at Tautira Bay where Captain Cook, on his second visit to Tahiti, lost several anchors from his ships Resolution and Adventure, in 1773. One of the anchors was retrieved in 1978 by film director David Lean and his associates, and is now on display in front of the National Museum of Tahiti.
It is also at Tautira, rechristened by the Spaniards, Santisima Cruz, where the short-lived Spanish mission was set up. Domingo de Bonechea first arrived in 1772 to claim Tahiti for the Spanish Crown (and named it Isla de Amat); his second voyage in November 1774, was to drop off Franciscan friars and set up a mission. By January 26, 1775 he was dead and buried at Tautira. A year later the two Franciscan friars returned to Lima, and the mission was abandoned.
Robert Louis Stevenson also spent some time here writing his book, The Master of Ballantrae.
At Vaiuru’a, under the tutelage of Hinano Murphy, we were able to beat the bast of one type of breadfruit (actually better classified as a “breadnut”, called Camansi), with poor results. The bast fibres would not stick together.
At the National Museum of Tahiti, we spent a whole day examining all of the breadfruit tapa in its holdings, which was somewhat of a painstaking process, especially for the young interns who assisted us.
Large sheets of tapa are kept rolled around large plastic pipes held up by a large metal structure which almost touches the ceiling of this warehouse-like storage building. Each plastic pipe had to be taken down by an intern, standing at each end, on very tall ladders, like the ones used to disembark passengers from planes, and then carry the pipe down together. Not an easy task. Then, using flashlights and magnifying glasses, we examined the grain of each tapa fabric. Breadfruit tapa, in comparison to the tapa fabric produced from other trees, has a loose grain and seems able to be beaten thinly - to an almost gauze-like finish, and unlike other tapa fabrics, without any major tears appearing in it.
Tahiti’s National Museum is located at Punaauia, on land called Nu’uroa (wonder if there’s a connection with Mitiaro, Nukuroa?).
It was an impressive building by my standards, filled with marvellous displays, yet we were told this structure is about to be torn down to make way for a new, larger museum, to be built later in the year.
Ancient Tahitian tapa is rare in museums worldwide but we were fortunate to see a couple in the National Museum of Tahiti.
Tahiti tapa is characterised by the use of renga (turmeric), which is painted over the entire surface of the tapa and then “stamped” and scented with fern leaves (painting with renga was also a practice on Aitutaki, as evidenced by tapa from 1899, held by the Smithsonian Museum).
We had the privilege of viewing and handling an ancient yellow tapa which the French Polynesian government acquired recently from an auction in New York for $US60,000.
Footnote: Further research has revealed that the mystery tapa highlighted in a story in CINews last week was owned by William Miller Christy (1778 - 1858), the owner of the largest hat-making company in the world at the time. He may have travelled to Tahiti and was given the tapa by Tehei/Te’ei the pastor (after he returned to Tahiti from Atiu). Christy could also have picked it up in London, if he was a collector.