From sunrise to sunset, the deep resonating thump of wood beating against wood echoes around the villages of Vatulele. This is the sound of tapa cloth production, a fine paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree, or masi in Fijian. The cloth was traditionally used as clothing, wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder of people with chiefly status. It also represented a conductor between the spirit and living world, and was hung from the high ceiling of the bure kalou, or temple, and used by the priest to mediate with the gods. Today, it is used in decorative artwork and gift wrapping sold in boutique shops around Fiji.
The production of tapa is almost exclusively done by women. The first step is to slice and strip the long thin bark of the mulberry tree into single pieces which are then soaked in the sea for four nights. Once supple, the bark is beaten into a pulp using hardwood slabs and heavy wooden sticks and joined with other strips to make a single piece of cloth. Dried in the sun, the cloth is eventually decorated using patterned stencil designs depicting the origin of the artist and figurative icons relevant to a clan’s totemic god – often a turtle or shark. Once stencilled, the cloth is known in Fijian as masi. Only two or three colours are used – brown dye is obtained from the bark of the mangrove tree; the black dye comes from charcoal; while the red dye that is sometimes used is obtained from seeds. For the villagers on Vatulele, tapa is the main cash crop, generating an average annual income of F$2000 per household, although for some tapa artists this can reach F$6000, equalling the basic salary of a Fijian civil servant.