Barkcloth in Fiji

Polynesia > Western Polynesia > Fiji

Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Fiji (© Pacific Peoples' Partnership; edited to add location overlay)
Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Fiji (© Pacific Peoples’ Partnership; edited to add location overlay)

Art Historical Description

While Fiji is usually classified as falling within Melanesia, and Fijians refer to themselves as being Melanesian, it has been included here as it sits in the transitional zone between Melanesia and Polynesia. The eastern and western regions in Fiji reflect this Melanesia/Polynesia zone in the diversity of the population, tapa decoration techniques and artistic diversity in general. Fijian tapa, especially that found in UK museum collections, demonstrates strong Polynesian characteristic features which are influenced by the close relationship between the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa triangle.

Although the masi barkcloth of Fiji shares many basic features of tapa production with neighbouring island groups such as Tonga and Samoa – notably the bast is only soaked for around 24 hours before beating and larger sheets are pasted together rather than fused – it also exhibits several unique decorative traits. We have little historical evidence that any species other than paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) has ever been used for tapa-making in Fiji, but the large and culturally diverse archipelago possessed important pigment plants unknown in other parts of the Pacific.

As elsewhere, masi played an important part in the pre-Christian religious ceremonies of Fiji, and it has retained an enduring role in the political ceremonies of chiefly protocol throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Like neighbouring Tonga, Fiji is one of the Pacific nations in which this threatened art form endures most vigorously in the early 21st century. In addition to women continuing to make masi for ceremonial use, Fijian fashion designers have been using masi and gatu for the last three decades to create stunning wedding dresses and gowns that embrace the iTaukei peoples’ past achievements in the fabric arts. Indeed, contemporary Fijian fashion designers are turning once again to this most traditional of fabrics to create stunning wedding and cocktail dresses that embrace the iTaukei peoples’ past achievements in the fabric arts. In part because of the art’s widespread survival, we know significantly more about regional variations in masi fabric types than elsewhere in Oceania.


Outline map of Fiji (credit: The World Factbook 2020. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020)
Outline map of Fiji

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

pre-soaking; wet shell cortex stripping; river-board cortex stripping; short bast soak; initial beating – wooden anvil and square beater; pre-fusing; lapped tab creation; flat-faced beater smoothing; composition pasting at sheet edges; rubbed decoration; cloth smoking; stencilled decoration; decorative pleating; fringe cutting; bamboo liner printing

Characteristic Fabric Types

masi vulavula; masi kesa; masi kuvui; masi taloa

Barkcloth within Fiji – Colo

In the western and central highlands of Viti Levu during the 19th century, masi seems to have been either less abundant or less popular than the coastal lowlands. However, Rod Ewins (1982) and others discuss at least one distinct regional masi style produced in the upper reaches of the Sigatoka river system, and there are tantalising suggestions that this may reflect a tradition of Tongan cultural influence distinct from those Tonganisations found elsewhere, in Lau for example. Liner stamp-printing was one technique unique to this area, alongside a range of rubbing platform tools that also reflect Tongan influence. While the province of Colo no longer exists, it has been divided and all areas incorporated into provinces found on Viti Levu such as Naitasiri and Nadroga-Navosa.

Associated Materials

Associated Techniques

bamboo liner printing

Associated Fabric Types

masi ni tubetube e na soqo


  • Ewins, R. (1982). Fijian artefacts: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery collection. Hobart: Tasmanian Museum
  • Roth, K. (1934). The manufacture of bark-cloth in Fiji (Navatusila, Viti Levu Island). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 64: 289-303

Barkcloth within Fiji – Cakaudrove

The major north-eastern Fijian chiefdom of Cakaudrove had one of the most distinctive styles of painted masi: masi bolabola.

Associated Materials

Associated Techniques

Associated Fabric Types

masi bolabola


  • Hooper, S. (2016). Fiji: art and life in the Pacific. Norwich: University of East Anglia

Barkcloth within Fiji – Lau

The chiefdom of Lau in south-eastern Fiji experienced more than three centuries of heavy cultural Tonganisation up to the mid-19th century. One of the most visible aspects of this is the bark juice-rubbed fabrics incorporated into the two distinctively Lauan fabric types gatu vakatoga and gatu vakaviti.

Associated Materials

Associated Techniques

dry shell cortex stripping

Associated Fabric Types

gatu vakaviti; gatu vakatoga


  • Hooper, S. (1995). Gatu vakaviti: the great bark cloths of Southern Lau, Fiji. In: D. Smidt, P. ter Keurs and A. Trouwborst, eds. Pacific Material Culture. Leiden: Rijkmuseum voor Volkenkunde, 149-166

Barkcloth within Fiji – Rotuma

Politically, the northernmost of Fiji’s islands, Rotuma is a distinct Western Polynesian society with closer cultural affinities to ‘Uvea and Tonga than southern Fiji. Little is known about Rotuman tapa, although it seems that paper mulberry may have been unavailable, and all cloth made from Artocarpus altilis (breadfruit). The limited evidence suggests that large Tongan-style presentation fabrics were produced in the early 19th century.


Entry created on 28 August 2020