Pictorial tapa

Wallis Island
mid to late 20th century
Artist Unidentified, Pacific Islander

Object Place: Wallis Island, Polynesia


Overall: 80.3 x 322 cm (31 5/8 x 126 3/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Pounded bark cloth with pigment

On View

Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Gallery (Gallery 177)


Africa and Oceania, Contemporary Art, Textiles and Fashion Arts



Polynesian artists, as well as those of other populations of Oceania, create paintings on barkcloth called tapa or on wood. Barkcloth is made of the inner bark of the mulberry tree and sometimes the bark of hibiscus. The bark is first soaked in water to become white. The small strips are joined together with the glue-like sap of a tree and the help of a wooden hammer. Paintings of Polynesian artists are figurative, while those of the Melanesian counterparts are geometric. This tapa is interesting for its lack of perspective, as in Egyptian paintings for example, and the symbolic size of its figures. Among living creatures humans do not occupy a privileged space. Thus, the octopus, which is important in their mythology and has a special status, occupies a larger space reflecting its symbolic meaning replacing reality. Western painters, among them Paul Klee, also at time use symbolic proportions. Tapas are used in daily life to dress the body or decorate the house, for example as a curtain for honeymooners. Tapa is a gift presented at each stage of life such as birth, circumcision and first menstruation. It is exchanged between family lines during special ceremonies and offered at each important event.


1961, presented by an official on Wallis Island to Governor Carlton Skinner (b. 1913 - d. 2004), Boston; 2002, year-end gift of Carlton Skinner and Solange Skinner to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 22, 2003)

Credit Line

Gift of Governor Carlton Skinner and Solange Skinner