Making O‘a (brown dye) in American Samoa

Last week would have marked our final set of the Barkcloth Basics: Interpreting and Understanding Pacific Barkcloth workshops. While we are sad that we could not share these workshops with you, we are still hoping to hold them later in the year with Reggie Meredith and Su‘a Tupuola Uilisone Fitiao, as well as the exciting public events that were going to take place at each museum venue.

As you will have seen in our previous post, Reggie and Uilisone remain hard at work in American Samoa teaching (fun fact: Reggie holds an MFA and teaches at colleges/universities and Uilisone is a certified tatau artist) and creating artistic works. In the above images, Reggie shows us the process in which o’a (brown dye) is made for tapa decoration.

Collage of three colour photographs showing stages in the process used to make to a brown dye used in decorating tapa from bark scrapings of the O‘a tree (copyright Reggie Meredith Fitiao)
From bark scrapings of the O‘a tree to a brown dye used in decorating barkcloth (© Reggie Meredith Fitiao)

First, bark is scraped from the O‘a tree (Bishofia javanica) – different plants can be used to provide this colour, but Reggie says that siapo (Samoan tapa) makers think that the o’a produces the the best colour – then the scrapings are wet slightly and wrung out inside of a cloth until a liquid is produced. Next, the liquid dye is transferred into glass bottles. It is important to leave the lids of the bottles slightly open for a few days after the dye is transferred in because it allows the natural gases of the liquid to escape. After this, the dye is ready to use! Reggie does mention, though, that it is good pratice to only make as much dye as can be used in a short period of time, because if left stored unattended for too long the dye will thicken and coagulate.

Make sure to check us out on Twitter (@UofG_Barkcloth) and Instagram (@pacifictapa) for a video of Reggie scraping bark from the O’a tree to make dye!