Pacific: Fiji

Barkcloth (masi) in the Fijian Islands is only made of the paper mulberry tree. Masi has many forms and design styles.

At the period of first European contact, by far the greater amount of masi was plain, (see no 96), but the majority of pieces in museum collections is patterned in a number of ways. There are many styles appropriate to different island groups, some influenced by population movements or trade from communities from Tonga and Samoa. Masi is normally made and decorated by women, except in the highlands of Viti Levu, the largest island, where the decoration is undertaken by men

A distinctive way of decorating found only on Fiji uses stencils, traditionally made of banana or pandanus leaf, but more recently from exposed x-ray film or other appropriate material. The most usual colours are black and red or dark brown. The design is built up from the border, in which a limited number of motifs is used repeatedly. This kind of cloth is called masi kesa.

Decorating barkcloth

Decorating barkcloth Fiji, using a stencil made from an X-ray plate, other used stencils in the background. Photo by Veronica Johnston.

The most popular style is associated with the Cakaudrove District of south-eastern Vanua Levu and the neighbouring large island of Taveuni. The cloth is crisply and repeatedly folded, the edges being marked with black dye. Once flattened, the outlined panels are infilled with dye. Edging bands of stencilled decoration are also incorporated into the design, see number 105.

Masi has always been an important trade item between Fijian communities, not all of whom made their own, but may have specialized in other goods such as a fine matting or pottery, and also between Fijian islands and Tonga and Samoa. Vast amounts of masi were produced for ceremonial gift exchange between chiefly families as well as for inter island trade both within the Fijian islands and throughout western Polynesia. More recently, as with other Pacific island groups, the needs of tourists for this commodity have become pre-eminent, influencing form and designs.