Art on Fijian bark cloth reflects unity in diversity

November 25, 2000
Artists Robin White and Leba Toki in front of the ‘Rewa Milk’ tapa at the Helen Maxwell Gallery, Canberra, Australia. They are with Naminapu, Aboriginal artist-in-residence at the School of Fine Arts at the Australian National University, her daughter Jennifer and her nephew Michael. (Left to right: Robin, Jennifer, Leba, Naminapu, Michael)

CANBERRA, Australia — Artists Robin White of New Zealand and Leba Toki of Fiji recently opened an exhibit at the Helen Maxwell Gallery here of collaborative works on tapa (bark cloth) that won widespread admiration for their uniqueness and harmonious blending of Western and Fijian artistic traditions.

Ms. White and Ms. Toki are both highly regarded artists and members of the Baha'i Faith. Their collaboration was "not just a way of experiencing new forms of artistic expression," said Ms. White, "but also a way of demonstrating the potential for people from very different cultural backgrounds to work together in harmony, in a positive and creative manner."

The opening of the month-long exhibit on October 20 was attended by the High Commissioner of New Zealand, Simon Murdoch, and the Counsellor of the Fijian High Commission, Akuila Waradi. Mr. Waradi spoke during the brief formal portion of the opening, and he expressed his pleasure at having the opportunity to view art work that was the product of collaboration and said the work was "very different and very beautiful."

The three works, each approximately two meters by two and a half meters revolve around "tea" as a symbol of people coming together in a convivial atmosphere, a symbol which is common to English and Indian culture and has been incorporated into Fijian culture as well. The designs, integrating European and Indian imagery with traditional Fijian patterns, are based on the packaging of three well-known products: Punja's Tea and Rewa Milk, which are very commonly used in Fiji, and Chelsea Sugar, which is produced and sold in New Zealand from sugar grown in Fiji.

"While for some, tea, milk and sugar might seem like a rather superficial expression of togetherness, we were interested in taking the idea of having a cup of tea as a means for conveying a deeper significance and investigating a broader theme, that is the possibility of different cultures being able to come together harmoniously, to honor and celebrate their diversity and to share in the pleasures and benefits of this world," said Ms. White. "The work is about the process involved in exploring the interface between cultures and arriving at a visual metaphor for the concept of unity in diversity."

Tapa was chosen as the medium because it is inseparably associated with indigenous Fijian culture and other indigenous Pacific Island cultures.

"By using tapa to convey designs that include recognizable Indian and European elements, we aimed at suggesting the possibility of one culture embracing, in a positive way, features of other cultures, and that this process generates change without necessarily compromising the essential values that form the basis of a secure sense of identity and belief," said Ms. White. "Leba and I wanted to produce a work that could not have been done by either of us on our own, something that sits at a fine balance between what is familiar and traditional and what is unexpected and new. In recognition of this goal, the set of three tapa have been titled 'Cakacakavata,' which means 'working together.'"

Leba Toki and Robin White apply decorative elements to the tapa cloth in Robin's studio in Masterton, New Zealand. Slideshow
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Leba Toki and Robin White apply decorative elements to the tapa cloth in Robin's studio in Masterton, New Zealand.

The project came about when Ms. White was visiting Ms. Toki at her home in Fiji about three years ago.

"I questioned her about some samples of tapa that she had in her home. Leba explained that she had made them herself and that she came from the island of Moce, one of only two islands in Fiji where tapa is made," said Ms. White. "For some time I had been attracted by the particular aesthetic quality of Fijian tapa and had a long-held desire to experience the making of it. This prompted me to ask Leba if she would be interested in entering into a collaborative art project with me and she readily agreed."

The set of three tapa has been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.