by Tristan Rayner in New Art on Thursday 3 July 2014

There’s something about handmade quality art. And when it comes to cultural art, crafted from tradition passed down by tribes and villages for generations, it’s something very special. Fijian Masi Art is one traditional art form that’s surviving and thriving on the tiny Fijian islands.

What is Fijian Masi Cloth?

‘Masi’ is a cloth made exclusively by women from the bark of the Mulberry Tree (Broussentia papyrifera). Making Masi is a traditional craft throughout Polynesia, and is known as different names – often tapa – throughout.

It involves stripping small sections of paper bark from the mulberry tree. The bark is then steeped in water, with scrapers made of shells to clean it and prepare it. The bark is then treated to make it soft and pliable.

Then, using a wooden club-like implement known as tapa beaters, the strips are beaten out on a long wooden block known as a dutua, or ‘anvil’, to form pieces of cloth. The mallets are grooved on one side for spreading the bark, and are plain on the other side for smoothing and finishing the paper. The pieces are overlapped and pushed together to make larger sheets to allow for artworks of any size to be produced.

How Makereta Matemosi used the cloth to make her iconic artwork

So, when Fijian native artist Makereta Matemosi was asked to make the Fiji Airways artwork, she didn’t take out her iPad and moleskine, have team meetings to touch base about creating synergy and then get to work on a couple of designs between morning coffee and brunch.

Instead, she got down to work combining the rituals and harmony with nature that evokes powerful messages in the Fijian way of life.

Makereta, who has been creating Masi art for 34 years, says she was first inspired to try the art by watching old ladies create the artwork – “When I [saw] how they beat the Masi, how they dry it, how many pieces they make in a day, and see how they give their life and everything for a piece of Masi to be totally finished, from then on, I was really interested and eager to know everything about the Masi process.”

The techniques for decorating the Masi with the repeated geometric motifs varies from region to region across Fiji, including stencilling, printing, dyeing and freehand painting.

Makereta explains in the video above how she created her materials to create the Masi artwork for Fiji Airways – a fermented sap was used to create the brown pigments by soaking tree bark for a week to create a dye bath. (No overnight shipping of your required colours!)

Other dyes that can be used by Masi artists are mangrove sap, terracotta clay and specially prepared soot.

The Fiji Airways Masi artwork was created by using a stencilling technique called ‘Masi kesa’, by taking banana tree leaves (draudrau) and using a small knife to create the fine detailing of the patterns. The leaf stencil is then overlaid on the Masi paper and the pigments are dabbed onto the stencil.

Makereta says, “I was asked to create a Masi for Fiji Airways that captures all that is unique and positive about the airline and the Fiji experience. I knew the symbol needed to represent all that is good of Fiji.” The finished artwork is her take on the spirit of Fiji Airways – the 15 motifs represent ideas such as the people of Fiji working hand-in-hand towards Fiji’s future, to the idea that Fiji Airways connects people to the island.

Masi Art is in many museums and exhibitions across the world – including the Met Museum in New York – and you can still buy it from local Fijians who craft it for a global audience.