Tapa symposium at Auckland War Memorial Museum

In an exciting new stage of the project, the barkcloth research has moved to the Pacific in recent months. In the first instalment of our travels, Andy Mills and Frances Lennard spent two weeks in New Zealand in October, visiting collections, carrying out research and meeting barkcloth makers, curators and conservators. Our visit was centred on Auckland, the city with the world’s largest Pacific population.

Colour photograph of Matua Robert Newson meeting Dr Andy Mills, Historical Research Associate of the Situating Tapa in Time and Place project. Matua Bobby Newson welcomed participants attending a tapa symposium at the Auckland War Memorial Museum on behalf of the Ngāti Whātua, the local iwi or tribal group, in the mihi whakatau ceremony. The symposium was hosted by the museum on behalf of the project. (copyright University of Glasgow)
Matua Robert Newson meets Andy Mills. Matua Bobby Newson welcomed the visitors to the Auckland War Memorial Museum on behalf of the Ngāti Whātua, the local iwi or tribal group, in the mihi whakatau ceremony

The main focus of the visit was a tapa symposium, kindly hosted for us by Auckland War Memorial Museum and organised by Fuli Pereira, the Pacific Curator. This was a wonderful opportunity to meet contemporary artists and tapa makers of Pacific heritage and to see how contemporary art practice is inspired by tapa. We were welcomed to the museum by the Director, Dr David Gaimster who, satisfyingly, had supported the development of the project in his former role as director of The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow! The museum has an exciting ongoing project, the Pacific Collections Access Project (PCAP) which brings Pacific knowledge holders to the museum to share knowledge and understanding of the museum’s Pacific collections, and our symposium was able to draw on this rich knowledge base.

Colour photograph of the group of barkcloth makers and scholars who attended the Tapa Symposium at the Auckland War Memorial Museum (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)
Tapa Symposium participants, Auckland, 2017 (courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum)

After a presentation by Frances and Andy about the aims and research methods of our project, we heard individual presentations from the participants about their own experiences of working with tapa. A key theme was the makers’ experience of drawing on their heritage – information about barkcloth making has survived to a greater or lesser degree in the different island groups of the Pacific, and we heard from Glenda Vilisoni, for example, about her efforts to learn the art of her ancestors despite the long ago loss of the tradition in Niue. The participants also spoke of their determination to see the skill of barkcloth making survive and the challenge of interesting younger generations in its survival. The day was enriched with food and drink, conversation and song, and it was clear that bringing together artists and makers from different traditions in this way was extremely rewarding for all concerned. We would like to thank the Auckland War Memorial Museum, particularly David Gaimster and Fuli Pereira, very much indeed for welcoming us and for hosting the event, and we would like to thank all the participants very warmly for sharing their knowledge with us. We hope they will keep in touch.

Colour photograph of a group of barkcloth makers of Fijian heritage who shared their experiences of working with tapa in the Fiji panel at the Tapa Symposium in Auckland in 2017 (copyright University of Glasgow)
The Fiji panel: makers of Fijian heritage shared their experiences of working with tapa

While we were in Auckland we took part in two other events. Firstly we spoke at an evening meeting at Auckland Central Library where members of the public were able to see one of the treasures of Auckland Libraries, their copy of the Alexander Shaw book of 18th century tapa samples. We are very grateful to Daren Kamali, inaugural Senior Curator Pacific at Auckland Libraries, for inviting us to take part in this event.

Colour photo of participants attending an evening meeting at Auckland Central Library who were able to see one of the treasures of Auckland Libraries, their copy of the Alexander Shaw book of 18th century tapa samples (copyright University of Glasgow)
Viewing the Shaw book at Auckland Central Library

Finally we were hosted by the project Ancient Futures: late 18th and early 19th century Tongan arts and their legacies at the University of Auckland Business School where Andy led a workshop on the barkcloth garment, the malo or maro. With many thanks to our colleagues at the University, particularly Dr Billie Lythberg and Dr Phyllis Herda. We are grateful to all our colleagues in New Zealand who made our visit such an enriching and informative experience.

Colour photograph of Pacific artists, Rosanna Raymond and Numangatini MacKenzie, demonstrating ways of tying the maro or loincloth. This took place at an event organised by the University of Auckland Business school where Andy Mills presented his research on the malo or maro (copyright University of Glasgow)
Pacific artists, Rosanna Raymond and Numangatini MacKenzie, demonstrate ways of tying the maro or loincloth