Painted Barkcloth (Masi kesa)

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Fiji, Lau Islands

Culture: Fijian

Medium: Barkcloth, pigment

Dimensions: H. 33 1/2 x W. 165 in. (85.1 x 419.1 cm)

Classification: Barkcloth

Credit Line: Gift of Elizabeth S. Williams, 1977

Accession Number: 1977.395.5


This richly patterned textile from the Lau Islands in Fiji exhibits the complex imagery typical of many examples of Polynesian barkcloth. Often referred to using the general term tapa, barkcloth is a clothlike material manufactured from the inner bark of certain species of tree. Practiced, in the majority of Polynesian cultures, exclusively by women, tapa making is one of the most important and widespread art forms in Polynesia. Both now and in the past, the display and exchange of large pieces of barkcloth form important components of ceremonial life in many areas of Polynesia. In earlier times, tapa was also the primary material used for clothing.

The creation of tapa is accomplished in several stages. Women initially remove small strips of bark from the tree, which are soaked in water and treated to make them soft and pliable. Using clublike wood implements known as tapa beaters, they later beat the strips on a long rectangular block or "anvil" to form individual pieces of cloth. The edges of these smaller pieces are then glued or felted together to produce large sheets.

The finished tapa is decorated using techniques that vary from region to region. These include stencilling (as in the present example), printing, dyeing, and freehand painting. The repeating geometric motifs on many tapa cloths at times resemble those seen on pottery produced by the Lapita peoples, who were the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. This has led some scholars to suggest that the designs seen in some contemporary Polynesian tapa and tattoos reflect the artistic continuity of elements from the earlier Lapita traditions.