Siapo, also known as tapa, is one of the oldest Samoan cultural art forms. For centuries Siapo has been passed from generation to generation. Even so, it has fast become a nearly extinct art form. Siapo is not only a decorative art, it is a symbol of Samoan culture. It's uses include clothing, burial shrouds, bed covers, ceremonial garments and much more. There are two forms of Siapo, Siapo 'Elei (The Rubbing Method) and Siapo Mamanu (The Freehand Method).
The preparation process involved in the materials used to create Siapo is an art itself. The canvas of Siapo is the bark of the Paper Mulberry Tree. This cloth is known as u'a. The process of preparing the u'a includes harvesting, stripping, separating, scraping and beating. Ideally the paper mulberry tree stalk is harvested when it is about ten to fourteen months old or approximately one to two inches in diameter. The bark is then stripped and separated with a sharp knife. Once the outer bark is removed, the bast or inner part is placed in a bowl of fresh clean water to keep it moist. The next step is scraping, which removes the remaining bits of bark and green growth from the bast and softens and spreads the fibers. To insure proper scraping, three different clam shells are used. Each shell has a different degree of courseness. The three types of clam shells are pipi, pae, and 'asi. A wooden beater know as an i'e and a wooden anvil known as tutua are used in the beating process. The i'e is square in shape with two smooth sides and two grooved sides. These tools help to widen the u'a while it is beaten. The tutua is a single solid log cut about three feet long to be used by one person, or six feet long to be used by two or three people when beating the u'a. The top is eight inches wide and flat, with slightly rounded edges. Once the process is complete, the u'a is laid out to dry.
The dyes used in Samoan Siapo also come from nature. The dyes are o'a, lama, loa, ago and soa'a. O'a is the brown dye and is the base for all other dyes. It is extracted from the bark of the Blood Tree, also known as the Bishofia Javanica. The bark of the tree is scraped and the shavings are collected and squeezed, producing the o'a. As o'a ages, it darkens. It starts as a pale tan and matures into a rich dark brown. Lama is the black dye and comes from the kernel of the Candlenut. The Candlenut is burned, the soot is collected and it is mixed with the o'a to make lama. Loa is the red dye and comes from the Lipstick Tree. When the tree blooms, it produces pods filled with seeds. These seeds are mixed with o'a and the loa is extracted. Ago is the yellow dye. It is extracted from roots of Tumeric. After the skin is scraped off of the plant, the root is then grated and the juices are extracted from the pulp. Soa'a is the purple dye. It comes from the sap of a Banana Tree. The trunk of a mature tree is cut at the bottom and the sap trickels out. This dye has not been used for years. The reason for its phasing out is unknown.
The preparation I have outlined often takes longer than the acutal design and painting process.
The design elements or symbols used in Siapo are reflections of things in the Samoan environment. There are thirteen symbols used in Siapo. Following is a list of these symbols and a brief description of their meaning.
Fa'a 'au'upega / Net: This design symbolizes the nets used in catching pigeons and turtles.
Tusili'i / Small lines or wavy lines: The small lines represent the midrib of the coconut leaf. The wavey lines symbolize the hand woven sennit (braided coconut fiber).
Fa'a 'ali'ao / Trochus Shell: The shell is triangular in shape and can be used in many different formations such as a diamond for example.
Fa'a sigago / Male Pandanus Bloom: When the pandanus blooms, the flower hangs down and the narrow petals end in a cluster of sharp points.
Fa'a lau paogo / Pandanus Leaf: Paogo is Samoan for a particular type of pandanus tree. Paogo also describes the pandanus tree in general.
Fa'a lau ulu / Breadfruit Leaf: The whole leaf pattern may be used or just the edge.
Fa'a tuli / Sand Piper, Fa'a gogo / Terns, Fa'a vae tuli / The footprints of the sand piper: The bird forms take on many designs. These symbols offer the most opportunity for creativity.
Fa'a 'aveau / Starfish: This symbol has sometimes been mistaken as the sun.
Fa'a tumoa or Fa'a moa fai / Banana Pod: This symbol is used in two ways, the closed banana pod or the blooming pod with it's petals open.
Fa'a masina / Rolled Pandanus Leaves: This symbol is sometimes mistaken for the moon.
Fa'a 'anufe / Worm: This symbol is found in earlier works of Siapo, however, it is seldom used and has almost become extinct.
Fa'a atualoa / Centipede: This symbol has also been phased out over time and is no longer in use.
Logo logo / Unknown: Along with its meaning this symbol has also disappeared from modern Siapo.
These design elements used in combination are the basis of all Siapo. The artist combines these elements to form original works of art.
Siapo 'Elei (the rubbing method) utilizes a design board known as an Upeti. Originally the Upeti was made from leaves. It was hand sewn using pandanus leaves, tau fibers, the midrib of the coconut leaf, bamboo and sennit to form a spontaneous design. Because they were fragile and with the introduction of carving tools, the leaf Upetis fell from use. Now Upeti designs are carved into wooden boards.
Siapo 'Elei is an imprinting method. Using a carved Upeti as a plate, an imprint of the design can be made by first rubbing a kaka (a swab dipped in o'a) over the board and then placing u'a down and rubbing the u'a to bring out the design underneath. 'Ele or red earth clay is then used to highlight and darken the design. The small holes in the u'a are then patched using bits of u'a and an adhesive known as masoa or arrowroot. A second layer of u'a is then placed and the process is repeated. Once completed, the piece is lifted from the board. To make larger pieces the artist may continue with the process joining section by section in length and width until the desired size is reached. After the piece is finished, it is put out to dry and then highlighted with o'a (brown dye) if so desired. Historically smaller pieces of siapo known as vala were normally highlighted but larger ones such as ululima and uluselau were not.
Siapo Mamanu (the freehand meathod) is one of the most creative Samoan art forms. Unlike siapo 'Elei, siapo mamanu is hand painted. Early creations of siapo mamanu were not permanently mounted on boards, like modern pieces are. U'a was stretched on boards using a temporary adhesive known as soga. This is a tree bark that when soaked in water excretes a gummy substance. This adhesive allowed the artist to remove the siapo from it's support once it was done. Modern pieces have incorporated the board into a permanent part of the artwork. Now each piece is created by stretching u'a over a piece of wood of any shape or size, using adhesive. When the board is dry, the design is painted on the smooth, flat, hard surface using a paogo or dried pandanus brush. The symbols or design elements are used freely creating whatever the artist's imagination dictates. Lama or black dye is used for drawing the skeleton of the design. Once the skeleton is created, the artist can use color to enhance the creation.
Both forms of Siapo provide the medium for unfolding intricate patterns of basic Siapo symbols. The art of Siapo continues to evolve and will hopefully survive and grow through the interest and support of its patrons. It would be a great loss to all if Siapo is forgotten as its 13th symbol was.