Visiting the Fijian island of Vanua Levu last year, I discovered a new world where people live a simple and comfortable life, eat natural foods, enjoy fresh fruit from the trees and walk freely in the streets without any worries. The weekends are spent with the families and loved ones, walking about the island, swimming in the blue ocean and sharing a natural meal. Women dress rather festive with floral patterns, and most of them embellished themselves with flower over the right ear. Another factor that intrigues me is the unique art they create using, for example, bark and natural dyes and creating from these handmade quality and eco friendly art that I haven’t seen before. When it comes to cultural art, crafted from traditions passed down for generations by various tribes and villages, is something very special. Fijian Masi Art is one traditional art form that’s surviving and thriving on the tiny Fijian islands.
What is Fijian Masi Cloth?
‘Masi’ is a cloth made exclusively by women from the bark of the Mulberry Tree (Broussentia papyrifera). Making Masi is a traditional craft throughout Polynesia and is known by different names – often tapa – throughout.
It involves stripping small sections of paper bark from the mulberry tree. The bark is then steeped in water, with scrapers made of shells to clean it and prepare it. The bark is then treated to make it soft and pliable. Then, using a wooden club-like implement known as tapa beaters, the strips are beaten out on a long wooden block known as a dutua, or ‘anvil’, to form pieces of cloth. The mallets are grooved on one side for spreading the bark, and are plain on the other side for smoothing and finishing the paper. The pieces are overlapped and pushed together to make larger sheets to allow for artworks of any size to be produced.
In Hawaii it is called Kapa. It was originally made from the bark of the Dye-fig (Ficus tinctoria) and other native species until the mulberry was introduced from S.E. Asia during early migration voyages.
In the South Pacific, women traditionally scraped out the inner bark of the mulberry tree and patiently spend hours beating the bark to make a beautiful eco-textile tapa. Paper-like in texture, the fabric is colored with natural dyes and painted with tribal designs and then used for clothing, room dividers, blankets, wall-hangings, as well as wedding and ceremonial costumes. Native cultures in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and other Polynesian islands still hand make this cloth and use it in their everyday life. Some designers now are even using this textile to create more traditional clothing.
Tapa can be painted, decorated by rubbing, stamping, stenciling, smoking or dyeing. Natural dyes and paints are made from plants (mangrove, blood tree, candlenut, lipstick tree, turmeric root, and even banana, to name a few). Traditional colors are brown, red and black though brighter colors are also used. The traditional design elements used in decoration are typically plant or animal motifs or other images from island life. The fabric is stiff like paper. Although durable under normal conditions, it loses stability when wet.
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