Title / object name
Ngatu (tapa cloth)
|Maker ||Date |
|Unknown ||circa 1940s |
bark cloth, dye
|Overall ||1964 (Length) x 1600 (Width) mm|
Gift of Valerie Morris, 1989
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.
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 They are important cultural treasures; but can also be historical documents, offering insight into the little and big moments in time as Tongans saw them.