Pacific: Samoa and Uvea


Decorated barkcloth in Samoa is known as siapo. It is made exclusively from paper mulberry bark. Siapo is decorated in two ways. Siapo mamanu is the name for Samoan barkcloth decorated with freehand designs, usually in more than one colour (for instance, number 87). The use of design boards, called upeti, over which the cloth is placed and rubbed with dye to transfer the patterns to the cloth, results in siapo tasina (as in numbers 81, 82). Since the 1920s, these design boards have been carved from planks of wood, bearing designs on both sides. In earlier times and up to the 1930s, boards made from pandanus leaves with lines made from coconut midrib, strips of bamboo and coconut fibre cord were used, tied to a board.

The free-hand method is now employed straight onto the prepared cloth, without being sketched in advance, but the artist has a good idea of how the finished design will look before she starts. The cloth area for decoration is divided into a number of regular spaces, each of which is filled with motifs outlined in black.

Siapo is used for clothing, bed covers and blankets, room dividers, table cloths (for example numbers 89, 90), as well as in ceremonial gift presentation. Before the Second World War, Samoan barkcloth was in plentiful supply, but declined in the 1940s. It has undergone a revival since the 1970s.

Uvea (Wallis Island)

The language of the people of Uvea is closely related to Tongan; the general name for barkcloth is the same, ngatu. However, the technology of production is more similar to that of Samoa. The majority of the pieces identified as being produced on Uvea show either individual motifs in panels on a natural ground or repeat patterns from the use of rubbing tablets. The two ponchos in the museum’s collection from Uvea have designs rubbed from a board, with added freehand drawing.