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An ancient medium of art and exchange keeps step with the march of modernity

In the kingdom of tonga, tapa is the art that binds. For King Taufa'ahau Tupou's 80th birthday in 1998, his daughter Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita traveled to the outer island of Vava'u to join some 200 women in the creation of a 25-m-long fuatanga, the most royal of ceremonial bark cloths. Over four days, the women toiled in the sun with beaters and brushes to coax from "the widest and the most beautiful and the whitest of the paper mulberry bark" something both earthy and magisterial. The process was "laborious; very hard on your arms," Princess Pilolevu recalls. The resulting cloth, with the Tongan coat of arms, royal pine trees and the dove of peace emblazoned on its felty reddish surface, was fit for a king. "Tapa cloth is a true treasure," she says.

Its bounty spreads an ocean wide, from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island. Harvested from the young bark of mulberry trees thought to have been brought by Asian voyagers 3,000 years ago, and patterned by plant dyes, tapa is the paint and canvas of Pacific creative expression. Tinged gold by turmeric and blue by pau (wild indigo), it stretches across the surreal spirit masks of the Baining people of New Britain, swirls with the starfish motif

of Samoa, is imprinted with fern fronds in Tahiti, and is as geometric as tartan in Hawaii. Traded between the islands

for centuries and collected by Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages, tapa has always been an important medium of cultural exchange. "It was a way that the Pacific Islanders established their relationships with the Europeans," says Roger Neich, ethnology curator at New Zealand's Auckland Museum and co-author of Pacific Tapa (1997).

The colonial era that bark cloth helped usher in also led to a decline in its use, with printed cotton and appliqué quilts replacing tapa in many Pacific ceremonies. Yet in Tonga, the beating of bark cloth is louder than ever; the tap, tap, tap of mallet on anvil as omnipresent as the tolling of church bells. Immaculately weeded rows of mulberry seedlings are among the kingdom's most conspicuous cash crops. Adrienne Kaeppler, Oceanic curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, believes Tongans are making more bark cloth now than at any time in their history.

That may be because their islands have never been colonized, says Princess Pilolevu: "Tongans are aggressively proud of their culture."

Reduced to tourist T-shirt designs or museum relics in other parts of the Pacific, in Tonga tapa remains part of the ceremonial fabric that wraps this highly stratified society, from commoners to kings.

"It's very much a part of our life," says Tunakaimanu Fielakepa, deputy chair of

Langafonua Œa Fafine Tonga, the national women's council. Indeed, bodies are buried with it; wedding beds are dressed with it; for special village

occasions, chiefs walk along a path made of it. "For all Tongan ceremonies you must have tapa, must," says Fielakepa.

"If you don't you'll be the talk of the town." And with a 25-m fuatanga selling for as much as $1,000, a household's status and wealth is often judged by the height of its routinely stacked tapa and mats.

In Tonga, tapa carries other values. "Because our history has never been a written history, tapa cloth was a way in which we could put down our traditional symbols that were important for us in the old days, just like singing and dancing," says Pilolevu. Unlike the mainly geometric designs of the rest of the Pacific, Tongan tapa cloths read more like tapestries, with contemporary events woven through to provide a precious narrative. Images of fish first bob up around the time U.S. naturalist Charles Wilkes passed through Tonga in 1856; Halley's Comet flares across the tapa cloths of early last century, and fighter planes and rising suns appear during World War II. It's a history still unfolding. "I think we'll do O.K. for another millennium, because even young people are taking it up," says Fielakepa.

Part of the reason, says Princess Pilolevu, is that "tapa making can be fun." Unlike

the more solitary pursuit of men's carving, tufunga, or the subdued atmosphere that

accompanies women's fine-mat weaving, the beating and painting of barkcloth is as boisterous as music and dance. For the final stage, koka'anga, up to 20 village women gather around a low convex table, where two layers of cloth are stretched over a design stencil, imprinting its motif when the bark's surface is rubbed with koka, or mangrove dye. "Singing, talking, it's a happy time," says Auckland-based tapa maker Eniselina Violeti Taupeaafe.

The making and presentation of tapa is as important as the cloth itself. In Oceanic Art (1995), Nicholas Thomas writes of how tapa's "presentation by

a long line of people makes their collective action, and their very collectivity, manifest." These Pacific quilts, fragile yet strong, their mangrove-colored surfaces as warm and radiant as blood, are a perfect expression of community.

Like tattoo, tapa provides

a protective skin-and a sense of cultural identity for people thousands of kilometers from home. "In the 1950s when I went to New Zealand for school, I took a piece with me," recalls Langafonua's Fielakepa.

"During the winter, I wasn't warm until I put my piece of tapa on." Among the large

Tongan communities that

have sprung up in Sydney and Auckland, groups of women still meet each week to make their tapa. Calico and redbrick dust may have replaced mulberry and mangrove in the migrants' technique, with new symbols like the Sydney Opera House looming as large as

the Tongan coat of arms,

but through creativity comes strength. Says Auckland's Taupeaafe: "Our work reminds us of our island."