Siapo: The Traditional Fabric of the Samoa Islands
OverviewSiapo, is one of the oldest Samoan cultural art forms. For centuries, Siapo has been passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, it is becoming a lost art. Siapo is not only a decorative art, it is a symbol of Samoan culture. It is used for clothing, burial shrouds, bed covers, ceremonial garments, and much more.
Students will be able to:
1. Define the vocabulary term siapo.
2. Learn about and create cultural designs.
3. Learn about and create their own siapo cloth using brown paper bag.
4. Understand some of the uses of siapo.
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.
These design elements used in combination are the basis of all Siapo. The artist combines these elements to form original works of art. The traditional design elements used in siapo decoration are typically plant or animal motifs or other images from Samoan life. Common examples include fa’a’ali’ao (trochus shell), fa’a’aveau (starfish), and fa’a masina (rolled pandanus leaves). Other patterns are more recent, such as the use of lettering incorporated into the designs to spell out names, events, or dates. Design motifs are typically presented within a grid created by rectangular or oblong sections.
Two techniques are used in creating designs: siapo ‘elei (the rubbing method) and siapo mamanu (the freehand method). Siapo ‘elei uses a design board (upeti) to imprint designs on the bark cloth. An unfinished cloth is placed on a upeti that has been covered with dye; the top surface is then rubbed to transfer the design from the board to the cloth. In the siapo mamanu method, each design image is hand painted on the surface of the cloth, allowing for greater artist creativity.
1. Brown paper bag
2. Recycled materials
3. Paint brushes
Introduce Inquiry Question
What is the significance of siapo in the Samoan culture?
Ask: Have you seen a siapo? Do you have one at home? Explain that siapo is a major art form and an important symbol of Samoan culture. Ask: Can clothing be made out of bark? Tell students that siapo was made in the by Samoan people for clothing. Even during funerals, siapo was wrapped around the body of the deceased and lowered into a grave but today coffins are used. Siapo was also used by Samoans as wedding gift to newlyweds. It was also a traditional wear for Talking Chiefs, when receiving dignitaries or at village gatherings. They are still commonly used in Samoa for traditional purposes as well as for everyday uses such as bed coverings, room dividers, household decorations, and as tourist items.
Before the video, ask students to pay close attention to how siapo was used in the past and how itwas made. After the video, check student’s comprehension by asking the following questions:
1. What kind of tree is used to make a siapo?
2. What are the three shells that were used to insure proper scraping?
3. What were the special occasions that siapo was used for?
Activity 1: Create your own beautiful Samoan Siapo cloth
Have students arrange their desks and provide materials as indicated so that they can create their own replica of a siapo. First, distribute a brown paper bag to each student.
1. Tear a large section of the brown paper bag so the edges are a bit ruffled. Crumple the paper bag tightly, unfold, and flatten it. Repeat several times so the paper is very pliable – similar to fabric.
2. Cover your painting area with a newspaper. Most siapo have black lines that divide the area into smaller ones. You can think of dividing the areas into halves, quarters, or thirds.
3. Inside each of these areas, use other colors to paint geometric shapes. Dab the brush to get paint inside the paper cracks, or brush it on top of painted areas–even over the entire piece. Apply several coats for different effects.
4. You can paint smaller shapes on top of larger ones after the paint is slightly dry. Leave some of the bag showing through. Add Samoan designs to make your fabric unique. Air-dry completely before you display your work.
Conclusion with Inquiry Question
What is the significance of siapo in the Samoan culture?
Before the Samoan tradition is lost forever, encourage your family and friends to learn and practice this art of siapo making. It takes a lot of knowledge, skill, passion, and patience to transform a humble strip of bark into a beautiful work of art.