The ongoing project Mapping the Sāmoa Collections aims to learn more about the measina Sāmoa in our collection and make them more accessible to communities. During the project, research assistant Alexander Gordon has been struck by the beauty of siapo and talks about them here.
Tapa, called siapo in Sāmoa, is made throughout the Pacific, usually by women artists. In our collection, there are about 175 Sāmoan siapo.
The eight siapo featured in this blog are arranged chronologically, the earliest produced in the 1890s and the latest in 2000. They tell stories of the ways their manufacture and use has changed over time in Sāmoa, and they are beautiful objects in their own right.
In addition to the finished product, our collection contains a variety of items involved in the production of the cloth. To make siapo, u‘a (paper mulberry) bark is beaten on a tutua (anvil) with an i‘e (below).
In Sāmoa in the 1920s the ethnologist Te Rangi Hiroa observed siapo being used in a variety of different clothing styles, and as bed covers. Other writers observed large cloths used as curtains or partitions in a fale. Because it is beautiful, distinctive, and relatively easy to transport it has also been a popular souvenir for visitors to Sāmoa.
Creating the patterns
Siapo are usually coloured and decorated in two different ways. Siapo mamanu, like the example above, are painted freehand. Siapo tasina or siapo ‘elei are printed using an ‘upeti (below), a carved stencil that sits behind the cloth while dye is rubbed on the front, a bit like making a coin rubbing with a pencil.
How did they get to New Zealand?
The New Zealanders who acquired these siapo rarely recorded where they came from or who had made them, but the ways in which they have become part of our collection tell us about the changing relationships between New Zealand and Sāmoa.
Unusually, the siapo above includes the name Vaisala, a village in Savai‘i, and a date, 1896. This probably signals the time and place where it was made. Many years later it was given to Sir Guy and Lady Eileen Powles. As High Commissioner to Western Sāmoa from 1949 to 1960, Guy worked closely with the two Fautua (chiefly advisors), Tupua Tamasese Mea‘ole and Malietoa Tanumafili II, to establish Sāmoan independence. Sāmoa became the first independent Pacific nation on 1 January 1962.
Thomas Trood was born in England but moved to Sydney when he was just five years old. For most of his life, he worked as a trader in the Pacific, eventually settling in Sāmoa where he became the British Vice Consul. When he died in 1916, the siapo which had decorated his office were donated to the Dominion Museum, Te Papa’s predecessor. The unknown Sāmoan artist who made the example above appears to have incorporated Art Nouveau tulip motives, reflecting contemporary fashion.
The siapo above belonged to Percy and Meme Williams. Originally from Brunner, Percy worked as a teacher in Wellington and in Sāmoa. He married Meme in 1929 at her home near Blenheim, and she joined him in Sāmoa until their return to New Zealand in 1931.
Percy was the founding headmaster of a school at Avele, Upolu in 1924. After lessons in the morning, the students had to clear the bush and work the plantations for food in the afternoons. Percy believed that “the experience was hard, but it developed in them fine qualities of character – initiative, cooperation and leadership”. The idea that physical effort was character-building was popular at the time.
Doctor Harold Bertram Turbott was once a household name in New Zealand for the health talks he gave weekly on the radio for over thirty years. In 1935 Harold was made chief medical officer of Sāmoa and lived there for a year. Like Percy Williams, he was a New Zealander posted to Sāmoa as part of the colonial administration. He was later appointed to the South Pacific Board of Health.
Harold and his wife Robinetta acquired the siapo above when they visited Sāmoa in January 1953, and it was donated to Te Papa by the family after Harold’s death.
The siapo above was made by Lausolo Segafili in the village of Sālelologa in Savai’i in 1980. The anthropologist Roger Neich bought it from the artist and her husband Ali‘i Faumui Sengifili, who had carved the two ‘upeti used to decorate it. Because it was purchased on behalf of the museum, the information about its origin is much better recorded than many of the earlier examples.
More recent uses for siapo
At the time, Roger recorded that siapo in Sāmoa was used mostly as presentation items at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. Although small pieces were made regularly, often for tourists, many large pieces would be made leading up to important events. Siapo mamanu had become much less common, too; most pieces were made using ‘upeti.
The village of Palauli in Savai‘i has a long-established reputation for the production of high-quality siapo. This example was made there in 2000 by Va‘amuli Moli-Salu for a local hotel. She learned to make siapo from her mother as a young woman and was able to make a living producing them for the local community, overseas relatives and smaller pieces for tourists. This example has designs produced by rubbing an ‘upeti and also sections painted freehand.
Siapo are an enduring and iconic art form. They represent Sāmoan identity and history, but also the connection between Sāmoa and New Zealand.
Read Te Rangi Hiroa’s chapter on siapo from the 1920s: Bark Cloth | NZETC (victoria.ac.nz)