Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Material Culture - Rarotongan Tapa Cloth - British Museum

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Sometimes in the study of Polynesian Art History a small window opens on a world that has disappeared. This happen to me not long after I came up with the idea of writing a series of articles on Polynesian Material Culture. This term is just an fancy academic way of saying stuff; rather like if we were discussing everyday objects in our world; everything from electric razors to tampax. These object are often common, so common no one bothers thinking about them, little own writing about them. In fact they are so common, so ubiquitous as to be near invisible though they serve important functions and have their fair share of cultural implications, which is why I chose the humble tampax as an example. From my point of view the words material culture gives me a vehicle to talk about a whole range of historical events, aspects of every day life in Polynesia and interesting and strange concepts in Polynesian culture that allow us to make comparisons with our world and hopefully gain insight pertinent to our own situation.



This naturally involved going back to museum collections in search of the hum drum objects that are sitting in card board boxes in the bowels of museum store rooms with no hope of ever being seen by the public. In the process I tripped over two images of damaged piece of Rarotonga tapa cloth that opened that window and struck like a revelation. It is one of the most stunning examples of Polynesian tapa cloth design I have ever seen and left me wondering why in a lifetime of reading about Polynesia I had never seen this cloth reproduced in any book or academic paper.

Terence Barrow always said that Rarotonga and the Southern Cooks should be treated along with the Australs as part of the same cultural region as Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands. This recognises the similarity of aesthetic styles as well as the interchange of Austral islands carvers into Tahiti. However the history of the Contact Period is very much centered in the 18th century on Tahiti with the Cooks lying outside regular contact till the missionaries turned up only to destroy every vestige of the culture they could get their hands on. For this reason we have very little Cook Island tapa cloth that can be ascribed to the 18th century and much disagreement about the true age of 19th century examples. My feeling on this cloth is it is early nineteenth century but perhaps the central anthropomorphic images are a carry over from an earlier style. Society Islands tapa has a fairly well understood chronology with bold patterns dated to the end of the 18th century. The detailed geometric patterns on either end of this piece suggest to me a nineteen century style that could be beyond the early years of the century. In truth we know so little of Cook Island tapa and the variation that we could expect from the different islands in the group that hard and fast statements are very unwise.

However, if we look at wooden figures and weapons there is considerable variation between islands and I would be very surprised if there was not variations in tapa design styles from one side of Rarotonga to the other, perhaps even down to variations between villages. Tapa was woman's art and a communal activity, which encourages village styles. If we look for tapa cloths of known date of provenance we find ourselves at the period of the beginning of cultural destruction via the agency of Christian missionaries. The above image of a Rarotongan God Staff again from the British Museum, the sole surviving example with its huge roll of tapa cloth intact that was part of the trophies of Christian pillage carried back to England and spared to serve the role of a battle standard looted from a defeated enemy, such as the French examples that still exist in Westminster Abby. Below is a steel engraving depicting the very scene in Raratonga when the Rarotongan offered up their Gods for destruction in 1827. This engraving is entitled; And He shall have the idols abolished entirely; a quote from Isiah. Beyond the title this piece of Christian propaganda fails naturally to hint at the destruction of a three thousand year old culture which followed. These missionaries in the 19th century provided a precedent for the Taliban in their destruction of the Gandharan Buddhas has in the 21st. However in the foreground of the image my interest has always focused on the ponchos worn by the Rarotongans, with the question being how true is this image with its idealised English houses?



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From a period slightly later we have another example from Kew, with three bold elongated anthropomorphic designs and detailed borders. This beautiful design lacks the delightful background colours of the British Museum tapa but there is are similarities in design. This tapa has Rarotongan words in which means it must be dated to after the introduction of the Rarotongan/English dictionary. These little scraps which survive demonstrate how totally we are in the dark as to Cook Island Art, but do give us a glimpse at the quality and vigour and beauty of what was lost. As part of our raison d'etre in the promotion and preservation of Polynesian Art one of the primary goals of the Te Fare Atua Trust is the recreation of Rarotongan and Cook Island tapa cloth styles. This whole lost art is so superb as to deserve wrenching back from obscurity, the same applying to Austral Island tapa cloth.

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Amongst the images in the section of the British Museum Collection is a series of images around the Rarotongan God Staff with its intact roll of tapa cloth which include restorers working on the exterior of the cloth. How much decorated tapa is contained in this roll is anyone's guess but the image clear show how massive it is and how much work by a whole community of women went into making these, These are not like modern Tongan tapa cloths which though large are fairly simple and uncomplicated, rather these Rarotongan tapa cloths designed to wrap Staff Gods are much finer and complex. This surviving roll has plainly never been opened and unrolled and though images show that much of its exterior is tatty and damaged presumably 95% of this tapa is undamaged and in pristine condition never having been exposed to sunlight. It fact that may not be quite true as I have a gate post from the 1860's made of heart Totara that was probably from an 800 year old tree when it was cut down. Now this post was painted and exposed to direct sunlight for a hundred and fifty years and the wood from the side that faced north is considerably darker than the side that spent its life as a gate post in shadow. That the sunlight could darken two to three inches into the wood is surprising and while I am not suggesting this tapa cloth roll was exposed as my gate post was, never the less the issues of ultra violet damage cannot be understated.

It has always struck me that here within this roll is metre after metre of probably amazingly preserved Rarotongan tapa cloth that could be unrolled and 90% of it removed and replaced with plain tapa cloth and rerolled and essentially the staff God and its tapa roll would look the same. Now to museum staff that is probably sacrilege which I acknowledge however here we have enough tapa to create cloths say of if we were talking ideal sizes would be one and a half times their width so as to create rectangle of pleasing proportions which could provide samples of beautiful original Rarotongan tapa cloth for museum collections world wide. Now the reason I raise this subject is that in Avarua the little town that is the capital of the Cooks there is a public library, a tired and small building that within it hides a pokie little museum with a dusty few bits and pieces that constitute the only remnant of the once glorious Culture of the Cook Island left on Rarotonga. This is the fate of much of Polynesia with only New Zealand and Hawaii having reasonable collections of Polynesian Art, the rest of Polynesia having had their art stripped from them to fill the great collections in the West and the rest burnt by the the behest of the missionaries.

To me this is an unspeakable tragedy, only levened by the Avarua Museum having a single Rarotongan Staff God on loan from Te Papa Museum in New Zealand. The people of the West surely have the charity and sensibility to see that this is grossly unfair to the people of the Cook Islands. I do not believe that the West is uncaring, I think this is merely the case that no one has brought this injustice to their attention. It is even more tragic that we a talking about the Cook Islands whose people are so friendly, generous and kind to visitors. The British Museum Staff God contains enough pristine tapa in it to raise enough money and awareness in the West to build a proper museum for Avarua. No other cause would justify opening this roll and removing the interior. But there would be enough tapa to create the exteriors to recreate tapa rolls for most of the surviving large Rarotongan Staff Gods in the World including the one in Avarua Museum. Surely this would justify tampering with the one survivor in the British Museum?

Finally before leaving this subject I want to add a note on later Rarotongan and Cook Island tapa. The influence of the missionaries spread from Tahiti via Tahitian lay missionaries, who were generally more successful than European missionaries in making conversions. At some point probably as a result of the desire of missionaries to cover Polynesian bodies in line with their sexually repressed ideas, the Tahitian poncho was introduced. Initially it seems designs were more in keeping with traditional Cook Island tapa decoration, but soon a new form developed with a round hole for the head rather than the usual Tahitian slash neck with fine cut out details like Fortuna. This was quite a change from the bold designs of Cook Island 18th century designed but the new style was not unattractive and may have owed something to a desire to imitate European lace.

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Again this shows the imaginative flexibility of both male and female Polynesian artists, but the in the absence of their own Gods and under the negative influence of infectious diseases and the overbearing missionaries the collapse of their culture spelt the end to their artistic production. This story was repeated all over the Pacific, raped of their own values and bullied by Christian zealots much of the traditions of Polynesians crept out of sight and such pleasures as they could steal happened under the veil of night. In the Cooks fortunately they kept their language the Maori and many Hawaiians were less fortunate. That Cook Islanders kept their sunny dispositions, their humour, smiles and love of family and of dance is a small miracle, but they are a people who deserve better treatment from the West. It would cost us little and it would mean so much if we Europeans showed we understood the great wrong some of our race did them.


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