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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Tapa cloth

Photo: Scott Leen

Tapa cloth

19th century

Soft inner bark of the paper mulberry tree is the basis for bark cloth, known by the name siapo in Samoa, and tapa throughout Polynesia. Strips of the bark are pounded together with a wooden mallet by women, who then patch holes with scraps of bast and local plant adhesives. Plant dyes, including brown from the blood tree (Bishofia javanica) and black from the candlenut tree (Aleuries moluccanus), are used to apply designs to the surface. Barkcloth was often supplanted by cotton fabric arriving in Polynesia in the 1800s, and thereafter became a significant part of weddings, funerals, ceremonial gift exchanges, and eventually sales to tourists.

This siapo has texts on it to verify its 19th century origins. Three panels of inscriptions are fit into borders of foliate and geometric designs. They state: “Remember the gospel in Samoa,” “My little present- to you dear Mr. Newell,” and “Oa’u, o, F. ISAIA F.S. VIVAIMOSO.” A label on the back has the inscription “Rev. J.E. Newell.”

Reverend Newell, also known by his Samoan name Misi Neueli, came as a missionary in 1881, and was posted to Matauru (Savaii). His wife died on August 23, 1882 and he left the island in 1883, returning with a new wife in 1884. In 1887, they were transferred to Malua. He wrote several books and hymns and was respected for his dealings with the government.
Pounded bark
Diameter: 72 in. (182.9 cm)
Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb
Photo: Scott Leen
Not currently on view

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