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Tapa

Today is the penultimate edition of Arts & Culture cards in Conquest of Paradise! The featured card is Tapa Cloth, a cultural innovation found throughout Polynesia.

Tapa is made from the inner bark of the Paper Mulberry tree (broussonetia papyrifera). This tree, native to eastern Asia, was brought to the Pacific during the Polynesian voyages of migration. The word tapa is derived from the two words ta and pa, meaning "the beaten object". It is used for both functional and ceremonial purposes. The decoration features stylized depictions of plants and fish, but also may include coats of arms. Special designs are sometimes made to commemorate important events.

To make tapa, the bark is stripped from young mulberry saplings, and the white inner layers are peeled off. These narrow strips are soaked in water until softened; then they are pounded with grooved mallets, which spreads the bark into increasingly wider strips until they are about ten inches wide. The edges are then overlapped and glued with manioc root juice or arrowroot starch to make wide sheets.

"Printing plates" for each design are typically made of hibiscus bark and coconut fiber. Then, on a long log, the tapa is stretched over a series of these design plates, and the tapa is rubbed with dye to stain the surface in areas where the design is raised. Finally, after the tapa has dried, dark outlines and details are hand painted. A variety of natural plant dyes are used. Natural brown dyes, for example, are made from clay and tree sap, while mangrove root yields a deep red color.

Large, traditional tapa cloths are usually divided into rectangular compartments, then subdivided with geometric patterns. Motifs are repeated in series (for example, four stylized leaves forming a diagonal cross). Because Polynesian history has never been a written history, tapa cloth was a way in which important traditional symbols could put down for posterity.

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 75-foot-long fuatanga, the most royal of ceremonial tapa cloths. Over four days, the women toiled with beaters and brushes, using "the widest and the most beautiful and the whitest of the paper mulberry bark". 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.

In game terms, the Tapa card provides its owner with one Victory Point. The artistic and technical advances required to produce the cloth, provides your people with a practical material and an expression of their culture.


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