Ngatu is the Tongan name given to tapa cloth or decorated bark cloth. It’s rare to find one as large as this, which hasn’t been cut up into smaller sections. This ngatu was specially made for Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Tonga in 1953. You can see her initials ‘ERII’. Later, in 1965, this ngatu was placed under the coffin of Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga when she was flown back to her homeland after she died in Auckland.
Ngatu is made from the bark of hiapo (paper mulberry tree). Only men may tend hiapo while it is growing but, once it has been harvested, only women may turn the hiapo bark into ngatu.
The process of making ngatu begins with stripping the bark from the tree and then separating the inner and outer bark. The stripped bark is then cut into strips and beaten - which transforms the strip into a wider piece resembling a fibrous fabric.
When a number of pieces have been produced, they are dried and placed under a mattress to flatten them. A design is imprinted on the cloth with a kupesi (pattern board) and pieces are joined together with a paste made from arrowroot. After the imprinted design has dried, extra decoration is painted on by hand.
Throughout Polynesia, tapa designs greatly impressed early European explorers. When Captain Cook visited Tonga, ngatu was used for many everyday objects including sheets, bedding, and even turbans, capes and kites! The tapa designs have almost disappeared from Polynesia; only in Tonga has the strong tradition remained.
The main social function of ngatu is to be a constantly circulating gift, given at weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Larger pieces of ngatu are considered a symbol of wealth and nowadays at weddings in Tonga, a ngatu will be draped over the wedding car carrying the happy couple.
It is formally traded in a katoanga exchange for pandanus mats plaited by women who live where hiapo does not grow well.
Ngatu also play an important part in funerals. Immediately after someone dies, the body is placed on a bed of ngatu in a room draped with ngatu and mats. The following day the body is wrapped in still more ngatu, carried to the cemetery and lowered into a grave that may be temporarily enclosed by a very long piece of ngatu. As a final touch, another piece of ngatu may be formed into a banner to decorate the grave.
Although ngatu of today do not have the range of colour, grades, pattern types, and uses that existed a century ago, ngatu remain an important part of Tongan culture. The growth of tourism has meant that, today, ngatu are also used as decorative layers on such introduced items as purses, place mats and serving trays.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2007)