Talking Tapa

In the Macleay Museum collection, there is a piece of tapa cloth from Pitcairn Island. It is only small, cut into a roughly rectangular shape. This particular piece of tapa was made by beating down the bark of a paper mulberry tree until it became thin and pliable. Though humble in its appearance, tapa has the ability to talk. When it talks, it betrays the story that is most often told about Pitcairn Island: the story of the Bounty Mutiny, of men and individual power.
Instead, tapa tells us about the lives of Pitcairn women, who are often neglected in the prevailing narrative. They arrived alongside the English mutineers in 1789 from the islands of Tahiti, Huahine, and Tubai. In early settlement, while men were occupied in land disputes, it was the women who fostered the island community. These women possessed a different kind of power to their male counterparts. It was not pent up in individual prestige but instead, could be shared over geographical boundaries and across generations. The story of these women is inscribed in the tapa they produced.
When Pitcairn Island was re-discovered in 1808, the women gave their visitors tapa as a reminder of their stay. Guests were encouraged to divide the cloth and share it with family and friends. Fragments of tapa, found all over the world, tell us that the women were not isolated. Tapa enabled them to forge international bonds, like the friendship between Mauatau and Frances Heywood. Visitors who were touched by their gift, reciprocated with economic goods that were shared with the whole community.
Pitcairn tapa is a genealogical map. The founding mothers made different varieties of tapa. Some made their cloth in vibrant red and orange, like the kind in the Macleay collection. Others adorned their material with plant prints. The foremothers passed their particular methods of tapa-making onto their daughters who, in turn, learnt to make cloths of the same kind.
In the 20th Century, scientists became fascinated with Pitcairn Island. It was seen as secluded site for racial mixing. They wanted to see what characteristics Pitcairn islanders had inherited from their paternal ancestry. In contrast to the clear matrilineal lines, embedded in tapa, these scientists could not reach any conclusions on the impact of miscegenation on inheritance. They merely discovered that ‘Englishness’ was not transmitted in the way they imagined.
The story of the Pitcairn women is harder to tell because requires acute observation and a broad base of knowledge. It contests the written archive, dominated by the voices of literate, European men. In order to understand the story, our class needed to develop an understanding of textiles, Polynesian custom and history. We have grappled with philosophical issues, such as the shifting value of artifacts. Most importantly, we needed to ask what tapa means to contemporary Pitcairn Islanders. For people like Pauline Reynolds, the fibrous strands of tapa link her to her family’s past. She has revived the practice of tapa-making with her sisters, to demonstrate that the legacy of her foremothers outlives the archaic beliefs of colonists and scientists. We are indebted to Pauline because her insight has allowed us to see tapa with a fresh perspective. If you are willing to look in uncommon places, if you ask different questions, then tapa will talk and it will tell you something new.
See the Macleay tapa here: