These siapo (tapa cloths) were made in American Samoa - a group of islands east of Samoa and currently a territory of the United States. The making of siapo was once widespread throughout the Samoan archipelago. In the 21st century it is restricted to a few individuals or families with most pieces being made mainly for the tourist or handicraft markets.
Siapo makers use the bark of the u’a (paper mulberry tree) to make their cloth. The bark is carefully peeled off the tree in strips and then the inner bark is separated and scraped clean. It is then pounded until it widens into a larger size. The pieces of cloth go through a process where they are pasted together to make a larger cloth then decorated.
Siapo are decorated in two ways: either freehand or by taking rubbings off a relief pattern carved into a plank or board. The dyes are made from a variety of plants and trees and an earth ochre called ‘ele. Freehand-decorated siapo are called siapo mamanu. The creative flair of siapo makers is seen in the arrangement of the motifs and the clever use of a restricted colour palette. The motifs used usually represent plants and animals.
From the 1920’s until just after World War II, we have one of the most interesting periods in the development of siapo decoration. During this time, the village of Leone on Tutuila gained a reputation for its siapo mamanu. Their distinctive work was well known and admired. Kolone Fai'ivae Leoso (1900-1970) and Mary Pritchard (1905-1992) were influential siapo artists associated with the Leone group.
Te Papa has several pieces of 20th century siapo and siapo mamanu from American Samoa although whether they are connected with Leone is not documented.