Recovering the past: Cook Islands tapa in the USA

Recovering the past: Cook Islands tapa in the USA


Tapa making is an art lost to many Cook Islanders now and there are few remaining Cook Islands tapa (when compared to Fiji, Hawaii, Tonga and Samoa). The tapa used here is largely imported and used for ceremonial purposes, whereas it had multiple functions and use in pre-contact times. Which made the recent invitation for two Cook Islands’ women to take part in a tapa restoration project at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC very valuable. Jean Mason, curator-manager of the Cook Islands Library & Museum, and tapa maker, Nancy Moeauri, from Mangaia, were summer interns in 2013 at the Smithsonian. Jean Mason writes about their experience and the tradition of tapa making.


The Smithsonian holds 15 Cook Islands tapa, some from as early as the 1890s and we had the opportunity to treat three of these (as well as a Fijian one). Considering tapa rarely survives in the Cook Islands beyond 20 years the preservation of these is an amazing achievement.


We were not too thrilled at first to be handling the brown, coarse thing with a strong musty odour, which was the first tapa given to us to work on, but as time went on we felt good to be making a small contribution to the preservation of this rare piece of Cook Islands craft – a long way from where it was first created by women of Aitutaki in the 1890s.

After days of treatment the tapa became more flexible and improved in appearance.  It is possible this tapa was for utilitarian purposes because its makers had soaked it in mud to waterproof, strengthen, and aid its preservation. Such tapa is known to have been used for funeral shrouds.


When the tapa treatment is completed a tootsie (a long, pongee-fabric pillow with dacron stuffing) is made to allow the tapa to go back to its ‘bed’. Instead of folding the tapa it is curved under and over the tootsie. The tapa is then stored flat in a steel cabinet on a springy net bed in the ‘pod’ (the warehouse-like storage facility). 


Another tapa from Aitutaki we worked on was coloured bright yellow, probably by using renga (turmeric). It was outlined black, and had shades of orange or pale red, probably created by painting with mati berries (Dye Fig or Ficus tinctoria), or through the use of river rock or clay.   Renga (turmeric) coloured tapa was traditionally associated with pregnant women perhaps because renga is known to have antiseptic qualities. It has been reported that a woman was covered in such a tapa after giving birth.  


Cook Islanders were once great manufacturers of tapa. Many chants that were used while women pounded the bast of the trees to produce the bark cloth they used for everything, from everyday wear to ceremonial wrappings, survive today (although the chants are often used for other tasks). A number of legends attest to the skills and frequency of the tapa making women of Rarotonga.   In one legend a god in Heaven was so annoyed by the constant noise that he sent a flood to stop the women beating on their anvils so he could get some sleep!


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