Title / object name
Ngatu launima (tapa cloth)Materials
|Overall ||22730 (Length) x 4340 (Width) mm|
Gift of Flight Lieutenant McAllister, 1968
Ngatu is Tongan barkcloth, and the term launima indicates the length of the piece (50 langanga). In Tonga, girls from an early age learn to make ngatu from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. Other natural resources are used as dyes and glue, and the cloth is beaten with mallets made from the dense wood of the casuarina tree.
Tapa making in Tonga is characterised by freehand drawing and by rubbing on pattern blocks called kupesi. Ngatu can sometimes tell a story, using symbols drawn from the natural world, although today they may depict the kings palace, tonga’s coat of arms and even power lines. In this example, the imagery includes royal crowns, geometric patterns, and a floral motif called koesei.
Numbers written on the tapa indicate its length or langanga (1 langanga usually measures 45 to 60 centimetres). A ngatu for a small gift might be 8 langanga, while one presented on an important occasion could be 50 langanga like this one or even more.
This ngatu launima was associated with two queens. Made in 1953 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Tonga, it was later placed under Queen Salote’s coffin when her body was flown back from New Zealand in 1965. The tapa was given to Flight Lieutenant McAllister, the pilot of the plane that took Queen Salote’s body back to Tonga, and he in turn presented it to the Dominion Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor) in 1968.
Ngatu are still considered to be significant gifts in any ceremony in Tonga, and are also regarded as valuable by Tongans living overseas. Tonga and Fiji are still important centres of modern tapa manufacture, and very large pieces continue to be made for ceremonial purposes.