Tapa Cloth – An Ancient Fijian Craft Revisited by Creations 23

Designer Using Ancestral Craft to Create Innovative Designs and Promote Fijian Cultural Heritage

Tapa cloth, made from the inner bark of mulberry trees and hand-printed, is a cultural treasure of the Pacific Islands. In Fiji, Wati Talavutu combines tradition and modernity to produce original designs, hoping her creations can promote and preserve Fijian cultural heritage.

Wati Talavutu, owner of Creations 23 with Fiji Masi
Image: Creations 23

Wati grew up surrounded by a mother and an aunt who were experts in tapa block printing. In the Fijian Islands, tapa cloth is called “masi.”

As a child, she was always interested in art and design. However, her parents pushed her to study for a bachelor’s in management and public administration with economics at the University of the South Pacific in 2006.

“But I was more into art,” she said. Following her heart, she did not complete her degree and joined her mother, making masi to earn a living while selling her artwork at the Flea Market in Suva from 2010.

Best Traditional Artist of Fiji of 2014

By 2012, she wanted to start her own business and registered “Zoelo Creations,” named after her son’s middle name. After joining the Fiji Arts Council in 2014, she participated in national exhibitions and earned certificates for being “the Best Traditional Artist” in a few categories. She was also awarded her Fijian Crafted License through collaboration with the Fijian government campaign for “Fiji Buy Fijian Made” products.

Developing Wati’s Entrepreneurship Skills for Fijian Masi Trade

a light brown and cream flower garland made from mulberry tree bark
Image: Creations 23

In 2017, she joined the Women Entrepreneur Business Council (WEBC), which facilitates workshops, seminars, and business training, providing Wati with valuable learning opportunities. In November of the same year, the family settled down in Lautoka, and Wati opened a shop, which had to close when Covid-19 hit.

To weather the crisis, she turned to making tapa casket flower arrangements and tapa casket covers to keep the business afloat, and went online. In 2020, she rebranded her company to “Creations 23.”  The family moved around in Fiji, following Wati’s husband’s work, before settling in Ba in 2022, where Wati spotted a vacant spot on the main street “on the top level so there was no risk of flooding.” In 2023, she opened a new shop, which currently employs two staff members.

Tapa Cloth Designs, mixing Fiji’s Tradition with a Twist of Modernity

Wati designs and manufactures different products from tapa, such as wall pieces, backdrops, framed tapa pieces for home decoration or gifts, table wear, and traditional and contemporary outfits for special events, including shirts and dresses. She also makes traditional salusalu (hibiscus fiber garlands) for celebrations like birthdays, graduations, and special events.

An example of a girl dress made out of mulberry tree bark
Image: Mark Dy

She uses traditional hand-block printing to imprint her designs onto the cloth. While her grandmother and mother used leaves and paper to cut out their designs for block printing, Wati, like many, uses empty hospital X-ray films to cut out her designs (then used as stencils). However, for the inks, she sticks to the traditional way, using black ashes mixed with mangrove sap for stabilization for black and the mangrove sap on its own for brown.

She favors mostly linear patterns and traditional motives influenced by Fiji’s cultural identity and nature-inspired. “I use traditional influence and twist it into a contemporary design,” she says. She also designs logos for local businesses, and one of the highlights of her journey was designing the logo motifs for “Tourism Fiji”. Printing one small piece of masi takes one day, she explained.

Protecting Tapa designs to prevent Counterfeiting

Her products are sold in her shop in Ba, as well as online, on Facebook and Instagram, and as far as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France.

Wary of illegal copying, Wati is refraining from posting new designs online. She is now actively seeking ways to protect her name and designs with intellectual property rights. She is exploring copyrights and trademarks, particularly as she wants to continue to expand her business outside Fiji’s borders.

Wati Talavutu standing next to an exhibit of her block printing masi
Image: WIPO/Saez

Wati joined the multi-stakeholder training on the strategic use of intellectual property for small businesses organized by WIPO at the margins of the Heads of IP Office Conference (HIPOC). In the coming months, she will be enrolled in mentoring sessions under WIPO’s IP Management Clinics.

How to Make Tapa Cloth Sustainably

Tapa is made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussentia papyrifera). The inner bark is soaked, beaten into softness, and turned into strips of cloth that are glued together, according to a lengthy method (2-3 weeks), passed down from generation to generation.

Wati Talvutu with her husband and son wearing traditional Salusalu
Image: Creations 23

Despite her determination and the rising success of Creations 23, Wati is struggling with the supply of raw cloth. Currently, she gets her supply from Fiji’s outer islands, but it can only be delivered once a month because of the distance. The price of the material is also a concern.

To address this challenge, she has planted mulberry trees on her plot of land, hoping to self-supply her company while continuing to support suppliers from Fiji’s outer islands. She said it takes 20-24 trees to make a backdrop (3.5m x 3m). Trees take eight months to mature; then, they can be cut down and processed. The trees will then regrow.

Preserving Fiji’s Ancient Crafts of Salusalu and Tapa Block Printing

Wati’s shop has three rooms; one is devoted to designing and printing. She recently advertised training sessions in that room for women from different communities to learn how to block print or make salusalu so they can start making a living out of the craft. So far, three ladies have begun learning and once their training is complete, Wati plans on hiring them.

Two large masi with traditional block prints in brown, black and white colors
Image: Creations 23

She also reached out to women in charge of community groups in different villages and provides them with business training. According to Wati, most of those women work, including making Tie-dyes, doing screen printing, and selling freshwater mussels, but “they don’t know how to put value to their work.” They need financial literacy, she said, adding that the training gives those women options.

Getting International Recognition for Tapa Art

In the next five years, Wati hopes for an international recognition of authentic and contemporary tapa art. She wants to expand her online presence and reach a broader international audience. She plans to establish strategic partnerships with global retailers and cultural institutions and foster a sustainable network of collaboration between local artisans to promote and preserve Fijian cultural heritage while embracing innovative design trends.

Last update:

February 19, 2024


Company name:
Creations 23

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