Henderson family home, stitching tapa during lockdown 2021.

Stitching siapo (tapa) during lockdown in 2021, at home in Henderson. Working on siapo has become a family affair. (Photo supplied)

Jasmine Tuiā is a young Auckland-based artist who works with siapo — Sāmoan tapa cloth. Here, she talks to Teuila Fuata‘i about reconnecting to an artform that’s being practised less and less.  


Matautu Lefaga’s fa’alupega (village salutations): raffia stitching on tapa, 2022. Tapa made from Doron Semu’s Tapa workshop, Te Atatu Peninsula.

I was born in Sāmoa, and I’ve always incorporated bits of home in my art.

I started working with siapo (Sāmoan tapa cloth) when I was doing my fine arts degree at Elam, Auckland University. At first, I was just photographing siapo and ‘ie tōga (fine mats) for assignments. But, after a trip back to Matautu Lefaga, the village where I spent the first 12 years of my life, my work took a different turn.

The trip was for a uni project funded by a tuakana grant, and it allowed me to spend two weeks in Sāmoa at the end of 2018. I wanted to know more about our land and history, and to record and represent what was important in my own way.

I spent time with my grandmother and great-grandmother and my aunt, and they told me the stories of our village.

One of the things my great-grandma (Lemalu LeMamea Afuie Fa‘amamatemalesoatau Filiga) talked about is our relationship with freshwater sources. In Matautu Lefaga, access to freshwater has always been important because we’re on the coast. At low tide, you can find different areas and pools of freshwater along the coastline. They all have different names and their own stories grounding them in our history.

Probably the best known one is vaiapi. Vai is water, and api is stay or rest. Whenever teine sā (the spirit women of Sāmoan mythology) visit the village, they would api, or stay here. You’d know they’d visited because there’d be lots of bird bones around the water. So they’d rest and eat and drink at the freshwater spots, which is how the vaiapi got their name.

Jasmine Tuiā and her grandmother Lemalu Shirley planting U'a in her backyard in Matautu Lefaga, 2019-2020.

Jasmine and her grandmother Lemalu Shirley planting u’a, the paper mulberry plant for making siapo, in Matautu Lefaga, 2019. (Photo supplied)

When I was back in New Zealand, I wanted to represent those stories in my work. I screen-printed, on fabric, sentences and words that had stood out during my trip. Alongside that, I had photographs of important ie toga and siapo.

But although I liked how my work looked, something was missing. The stories looked artificial on fabric — they felt quite separate from Matautu Lefaga and my family. And the photos of ‘ie tōga and siapo felt disconnected from the stories and places my great-grandma had talked about. They looked more like the photographs you’d see in a library book on Sāmoan culture.

One of my tutors saw the project and said: “Why are you just photographing them? Why don’t you actually work with them?”

I didn’t really know how to answer. When it came to making things, I’d only ever stitched and embroidered on fabric. I didn’t want to touch siapo or ‘ie tōga. If I’m honest, I hadn’t even thought to do it. There’s a lot of custom and tradition around ‘ie tōga and siapo which gives them a special status. I wasn’t sure whether I had the right to work with them.

But I wanted to learn more. I was particularly interested in siapo and wanted to understand how it was made.

Beating process - I'e (wooden beater) and Tutua (wooden anvil) are used to flatten and widen the tapa, 2022.

Beating process. The i’e (wooden beater) and tutua (wooden anvil) are used to flatten and widen the tapa, 2022.

Jasmine with tapa sheet (2022) from her u’a garden planted in 2019.

So, in 2019, I went to see my aunt’s friend Fa‘amomoi Iulai in Savai‘i. Fa‘amomoi comes from a family of siapo-makers. Her mum, grandmother, and now her daughter, all make siapo.

Fa‘amomoi took her daughter and me through the process of making siapo. I think she learned the same way, by going through it with her mother and grandmother.

Siapo is made from the bark of the u‘a or paper mulberry plant. You have to peel the bark off the trunk of the tree, preferably in big chunks. The inner bark is then separated and scraped clean. From there, it’s pounded with the i‘e or tapa beater, which is how it spreads into a sheet. It’s then left out to dry.

When Fa‘amomoi saw me struggle with the beating and scraping, she smiled and said: “Why do you want to do this? It’s hard work, don’t you think?”

I think she was surprised I was interested because I’m young and live in New Zealand.

When I went back to Matautu Lefaga, I asked my family about siapo.

I found out that our family used to make siapo and have lots of u‘a plants around our home. The u‘a has disappeared but there is plenty of laufala which is used for weaving.

No one knew what happened to the u‘a or why we stopped making siapo in the village. My great-grandma told me that she used to help her mother with part of the siapo-making process, but she never made it on her own. She also remembers women in the village making siapo together but doesn’t recall when that stopped.

My grandmother and great-grandmother said that they had focused on ‘ie tōga and fala (mats) because they were always needed.

I tried weaving too, but I couldn’t get the hang of it.

Cotton thread stitching of Matautu Lefaga maps on siapo.

Cotton thread stitching of Matautu Lefaga maps on siapo.

Tapa eco-dyes: marigolds and camellias steamed with tapa, 2020.

Stitching on eco-dyed tapa, 2020.

I work with siapo in my own way.

When I first stitched into the siapo, during the big 2020 lockdown in Auckland, I was worried I’d done something wrong by piercing the sheet. Traditionally, siapo are decorated with paints and dyes and the surface remains intact. I rang my great-grandma and Fa‘amomoi in Sāmoa and checked with them. They both said it was fine and to do what felt right.

Since then, one person has questioned the way I work. They likened the siapo to flesh, and said that piercing it with needles made them feel uneasy. I acknowledged their comments, but also made it clear that this was my way of engaging with siapo.

It’s a practice I’ve learned with my family, and I’m not trying to recreate the traditional siapo cloths we’re used to seeing. We have our own way of doing things, and one of the best parts has been reconnecting to a practice which had previously stopped with my great-great-grandmother.

My uncle helps with sourcing the wood for my tools, and carving them. Poumuli, which is also used to make traditional fale, is the best type of wood. It’s hard and durable and lasts a long time.

Last month, my grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle and cousins and I spent two days making siapo together in Matautu Lefaga. I learned that my uncle had made it at school in the village. But my mother and aunt had gone to school in town so they never learned to make siapo as kids. My grandfather also sang a song about making siapo, and it had all the different steps.

By the time we’d finished, my aunt and younger cousins had the hang of it. And when I left, my tools stayed at Matautu Lefaga for them to use.

I want all my family members, especially the younger ones, to learn about siapo. When I started, I was so unsure about how to go about it. It almost seemed inaccessible, like it was too sacred to work with.

But making siapo is a traditional skill, and if new people don’t learn, then we lose that knowledge and artform. I know of only four other siapo artists, all Sāmoan, and it would be great to have more.

Part of that means shifting how we think about siapo. If I look at a typical siapo cloth with traditional patterns, I think: “Oh, cool.”

But I know that a collective of people is needed to create it. It’s a lot of work, especially the larger cloths. Most of the time, I’m at home by myself, and although I have younger siblings, we’re never going to touch a piece of siapo if it’s part of a traditional cloth. There’s no room for mistakes in the big cloths, and you can’t experiment with things like stitching or drawing.

The way I work means my whole family learns about siapo — and whoever wants to take a sheet and work with it, can. It makes it relevant and familiar, and brings it back into our everyday life. I suppose it’s my way of keeping a traditional practice alive.

Painting on tapa with rock pigments and having kava. Workshop at Moana Fresh Gallery in Avondale, Auckland.

Jasmine Tuiā graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in 2019, and a Master of Fine Arts in 2021. 

 She is an arts community facilitator and a practising curator, and she works at the Creative Arts and Industries faculty at the University Of Auckland as a Tuākana Coordinator. Her most recent exhibitions include “What is your VVAI?” and “Stones, pieces of” with Ashleigh Taupaki, at Fresh Gallery, Otara, and Moana Fresh Gallery in Avondale (2022). 

As told to Teuila Fuata‘i, and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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