Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pitcairn Tapa

In 2011 Meralda Warren visited Norfolk Island and our museum was delighted to present an exhibition of her handmade and painted tapa. The Museum Trust purchased one of her works titled “The Keepers of the Sea” which has recently been framed and is now hanging in the Pier Store Museum. It hangs alongside a tapa pounder most likely brought to Norfolk in 1856, and an historical piece of tapa made on Pitcairn in 1841. The story of the near loss of the skill of tapa making on Pitcairn Island is told through these artefacts and in particular Meralda’s tapa art work.

The Polynesian women who went with the mutineers to eventually settle on Pitcairn Island and become the island’s foremothers, would have taken their tapa pounders and cloth with them. These items held great importance to the women as they provided the only means of making cloth for themselves and their families. By the time the Pitcairners arrived on Norfolk Island in 1856 the women were clothed in full-length cotton dresses and the men in pants and shirts. We know that the women were still making barkcloth in the weeks before they left Pitcairn and also brought beaters with them to Norfolk, however tapa making and the wearing of tapa clothing does not appear to have continued on Norfolk. With the return of two groups to Pitcairn in 1858 and 1863, tapa making did continue on Pitcairn however the influence of the Seventh Day Missionaries during the 1930’s saw it cease.

Meralda Warren scraping the outer bark
 Meralda Warren born and still living on Pitcairn Island today, describes herself as “a 7th generation descendant of the Tahitian mamas and the Bounty mutineers”.  One day in 2007, feeling a challenge that was too strong to resist, she went into her backyard and gathered the bark from a mulberry tree (aute). This act began a journey that resulted in the lost art, and a part of the islander’s heritage, being revived. Together with her mother Mavis they experimented with all they could remember from the last time they saw the women making tapa. Over the next few years they worked out how to harvest the aute plant using a sea shell to strip the outer bark from the inner fibrous paper mulberry, soak it in citrus juice and beat it into a piece of cloth. Once dried they seal the piece with arrowroot cooked to the right consistency. Through trial and error they worked out how to create various dyes from the Doodwi and Nano trees. 

"The Keepers of Sea" by Meralda Warren
Meralda now teaches the craft to the island’s children and an exhibition of their work was recently held on Pitcairn. Other descendants and artists, Pauline Reynolds, Sue Pearson and Jean Clarkson joined Meralda in the quest to restore the lost art. Pauline has undertaken detailed research into surviving tapas now held around the world and produced the book “Pitcairn Tapa: ‘Ahu no Hitiaurevareva” (on sale at the Pier Store museum). Together they also formed a group called the ‘Ahu Sistas’, with the aim of ensuring historic Pitcairn tapa designs are safe from exploitation and that the traditions of ahu making are not lost.

Meralda’s modern tapa work now hangs alongside a framed piece of historic tapa cloth and letter (donated to the museum by Chloe Nicholas). The letter written by Mrs W. Jeffery in 1893 describes how the tapa piece was made in 1841 on Pitcairn, its voyage to Norfolk Island, gifting to Mrs Jeffery and fact that these pieces were scarcely seen. The tapa beater on display had been attributed to the Melanesian Mission, however investigations by Pauline Reynolds reveal it as being consistent with Pitcairn and eastern-Polynesian beaters. It appears most likely that it was brought to Norfolk Island in 1856.

Together these artefacts and art works tell us of an important part of our heritage handed down from our Tahitian foremothers. We came so close to losing it, but thanks to the determination of Meralda and a small group of dedicated women it has been saved. That is a good news story.


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