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Object: Ngatu (tapa cloth)

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Title Ngatu (tapa cloth)
Production Unknown, circa 1940s, Tonga
Materials bark cloth, dye
Classification textiles
Dimensions Overall: x 1964mm (Length) x 1600mm (Width)
Credit line Gift of Valerie Morris, 1989
Registration number FE008723

Ngatu is the Tongan name given to tapa cloth or decorated bark cloth. It is made from the inner bark of Hiapo (paper mulberry tree). The pieces of bark are beaten with a mallet, widened and joined together to make larger pieces of cloth. Groups of women work together to decorate the cloth with natural dyes and pigments.

Ngatu are often decorated with motifs and patterns taken from the natural environment or associated with important people and events. Some of the events may be small and very local in nature, others reference bigger moments in time.

Historical significance

This distinctive ngatu features the image of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane. This type of aircraft was used by the United States Air Force in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. They were usually associated with the 44th Fighter Squadron of the 18th fighter group, which operated out of several stations in the Pacific throughout the war. It is not clear from the records whether the squadron was based in Tonga, but we know that with its long range, the Lightning was used to devastating effect in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

British Spitfire aircraft have also featured on Tongan ngatu. Under the influence of Queen Salote, Tonga raised money to purchase four Spitfire aircraft for Britain during the Second World War. Two of them saw service in battle. Te Papa has a one ngatu with a Spitfire on it and several other examples exist in museums around the world.

Today, the main social function of ngatu is to be a constantly circulating gift, given at weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Very large pieces of ngatu are considered a symbol of wealth. They are important cultural treasures; but can also be historical documents, offering insight into the little and big moments in time as Tongans saw them.

Related information

Disclaimer: This information was created from historic documentation, and may not necessarily reflect the best available knowledge about the item. Some collection images are created for identification purposes only and may not be of reproduction quality. Some images are not available due to copyright restrictions. If you have information or questions about objects in the collection, contact us using our enquiry form. You can also find out more about Collections Online.