Barkcloth in Tonga

Polynesia > Western Polynesia > Tonga

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

Art Historical Description

In general, the ngatu barkcloths of Tonga are known for their frequently prodigious size, their harmonious palette of complementary brown and black colourants, and their complex iconography of rubbed patterns produced with kupesi rubbing tablets. Tongan women have long shared certain fundamental technical choices in their tapa making with the neighbouring groups of Fiji to the west, Samoa to the north-east, ‘Uvea (Wallis Island) and Futuna to the north-west, and Niue to the east: A strong (almost exclusive) preference for the bast of the hiapo (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera); the production of large cloths by gluing the edges of bast sheets together with a starch paste to produce a double thickness; finishing the cloth with the flat face of the ike barkcloth beater; and neither immersion dyeing nor printing the fabric.

The kupesi rubbing tablets produced to impart repeating patterns to ngatu are a particularly interesting area of Tongan art history. They have undergone significant stylistic changes over time. Generally rectangular, triangular or rhomboidal forms made from stitched sheets of pandanus leaf, the earliest extant examples from the late 18th century feature simple curved switchbacks of coconut fibre cordage, or chequered patterns of simply hatched squares emulating the efu pattern of fine mats with the midribs of coconut leaflets. Later fabric rubbing patterns of the 19th century appear to rely more heavily on patterns created with interlocking isosceles triangles and sprays of foliage; reflecting, perhaps, a Samoanising influence of the ascendant Tu‘i Kanokupolu dynasty.

During the later 19th century and into the 20th century, various mottos and other textual features appear in a serif font as a legacy of the post-mission period, followed by those iconic, ideographic kupesi motifs for which Tongan ngatu has become famous: The first public clocktower and automobile in the Kingdom, the Hala Paini avenue of Norfolk Island pines leading to the royal palace in Nuku‘alofa, the royal crest or the crest of Tupou College, and so on. These pictorial kupesi have led some scholars to claim a particular status for ngatu within Pacific barkcloth as a fabric art with a unique function of historical memorialisation.


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

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

pre-soaking; wet shell cortex stripping; dry-pulled cortex stripping; short bast soak; initial beating – wooden anvil and square beater; pre-fusing; flat-faced beater smoothing; composition pasting at sheet edges; rubbed decoration; hand painting; tannin-rich glazing

Characteristic Fabric Types

ngatu tāhina; ngatu ‘uli; ngatu hingoa; fuatanga; tapa‘ingatu; hemahema-lautoa; pangai-kafa; kumi; kumitea


Entry created on 28 August 2020