Wrapped in Tapa: Its Role and Use

Tapa poncho of chief's daughter, Niue, New Zealand. PM 69-21-70/1492
Decorated tapa made for tourist trade, Tonga. PM 2001.24.1
Decorated tapa, Samoa. PM 99-15-70/53900
Decorated tapa cloth, Koe Vaisima, Ha'amonga trilithon, Tonga. PM 00-8-70/55344
Decorated tapa cloth, Samoa. PM 11-2-70/83930
Men's loincloth, Hawaii. PM 90-17-70/48434.2
Decorated white kapa fragment, Hawaii. PM 71-8-70/2899.3
Decorated kapa fragment, Hawaii. PM 67-9-70/118

For hundreds of years, tapamaking was one of the most sophisticated plant-fiber technologies in the Pacific Islands. In the eighteenth century and before, tapa served as both daily and ceremonial clothing. It was made into headdresses, turbans, loincloths, sashes, girdles, skirts, and ponchos. The cloth was used for bedcovers, wall dividers, or mosquito curtains as well as for special wrappings of staff gods, for the outer layer of sculptures, for wrapping skulls, and for masks. Individuals were surrounded by tapa at birth, weddings, and death. Special cloths were made for dowries, diplomatic gifts, and treaty agreements. Large-scale accumulation of tapa signified wealth and aided in achieving status. It was also used to pay tribute. Barkcloth material, partially processed or as undecorated sheets, was an important trade item and was exchanged for plaited mats, adzes, whaleteeth, and sandalwood. Eventually, the increased availability of woven cotton cloth made in Asia and Europe led to a significant decline of hand-produced tapa, altered its use, and encouraged further changes in the ways in which tapa was decorated. 

The preservation of tapa is especially difficult in island climates because of wide fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and light. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tapa held by cultural institutions and by some island communities serves as a source for technical and artistic study by indigenous artists throughout the Pacific region as well as by scholars who seek to understand the production and use of tapa.

Tapa is produced today on many islands, including Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, the Cook Islands (Atiu), and Papua New Guinea, and serves local needs as well as the tourist trade. Cloths are still used for ceremonial and special occasions—as masks and clothing for dances and for presentation in marriages and funerals—and as decoration on the walls of public buildings and homes.