While other countries such as Tahiti and Hawaii are experiencing a revival in traditional arts, Fiji has no such contemporary movement – the reason being, for the most part, that Fijians retain a great deal of their cultural heritage.
That’s not to say, that traditional art, such as mat weaving and masi making are as prolific as in former times. As the population increasingly moves from rural to urban areas and social media engages sucks available bandwidth, young people simply aren’t taking the time and effort to learn the old art forms.
Most of the folkloric crafts are practiced in the villages, and village life is still the foundation of Fijian society. That’s not to say that modern life and the drift to urban areas hasn’t impacted Fiji’s traditional arts and handicrafts. It certainly has taken a toll.
The good news is that the Arts Council of Fiji, a mostly government funded agency, is encouraging village artisans to practice their age-old skills and sell their works to visitors via handicrafts fairs that are held throughout Fiji during the year.
Critics do point to the decreasing quality (primarily due to the commercialization of crafts caused by the tourist trade) of woodcarving and pottery, but there are still people around who know what they are doing. Except for a few skills like traditional house-building, which may disappear within 15 years in the near future because village homes are not built with traditional materials anymore, the arts remain part of contemporary culture.
Mat-weaving is taught to nearly every village girl, and the making of masi (tapa) cloth is widespread. Likewise, the meke (traditional dance) continues to be handed down from generation to generation and is often performed, with new mekes being created for special occasions, just as has always been done.
A craft that dates from the original settlement of Fiji around 1290 BC, pottery-making is still practiced in the lower Sigatoka Valley, the islands of Kadavu and Malolo, western Vanua Levu,the Rewa Delta and the province of Ra. Each district has its own distinct signature in its pottery style. Today the technique and division of labour differ little from those of pre-European contact times. Sometimes the men dig the clay, but it is almost always the women who are the potters. The clay is first kneaded, and then sand is added to control shrinkage and to improve the texture. The mixture is left to dry for a short period before being worked into its final form.
Lapita period bowl (courtesy Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)
The tools used by today’s potters are also the same as those used in the past: a rounded stone, a large pebble or a wooden paddle for beating; apiece of coconut husk for rubbing the clay; a shell or stick for ornamenting;and a cushion of leaves on which to place the work during the molding process. Pottery wheels were unknown to ancient Fijians and are still not used. Instead, a saucer-like section is shaped for the bottom of the pot or bowl and the item is progressively built up withslabs, strips orcoils. The sides are shaped by beating the clay with a paddle or pebble. Considering the implements used, the Fijians achieve remarkable symmetry.
After the object is shaped and finished with moistened fingers or a smooth stone, it is dried for several days and fired for an hour in a fire made from brush, reeds or coconut fronds. Fijian pottery is not glazed – instead, certain plants are rubbed on the finished objects as a kind of varnish to improve water-holding qualities.
Mat & Basket Weaving
Whereas pottery is a skill shared by very few villages, basket and especially mat-plaiting is a universally practiced art – every village girl has learned how to weave a mat or ibe by the time she is 10 years old. Palm fronds or the long fibrous pandanus leaves are vital construction materials in Fijian culture. The traditional bure (Fijian home) is constructed from plaited pandanus or palm fronds; pandanus mats are woven into floor coverings, bedrolls, fans and baskets. Almost every home in Fiji, whether in a village or town, has at least several mats for use as rugs or for sleeping on. They are considered an important element in the wealth of the Fijian family and are traditionally given at weddings, funerals or during the visits of high chiefs.
Masi and tapa are names for bark cloth. This art form is practised in many regions of the South Pacific and in several areas of Fiji. Masi has many uses, including as ceremonial dress, wall decorations and more recent innovations such as table mats and handbags. It also makes a fine souvenir for visitors.
Masi is produced from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussoneua papyrifera), which is cultivated by Fijians expressly for this purpose. The process of making the bark cloth is time-consuming and arduous work, and typically a job given to women. The bark is stripped from the tree, soaked, scraped clean and pounded with a rolling pin-like beater on a wooden anvil.
Masi can be purchased in many shops. The most inexpensive place to buy it is from villagers who make it themselves. The thicker the masi the better the quality.
Woodcarving is a declining art in Fiji, no doubt another victim of the modern era. The woodcarver’s role was a highly specialized one, important because of the cultural value of the items he produced. The war club, for example, was a vital part of Fijian culture. Not only was it the primary weapon in a warrior’s arsenal, it was a symbol of authority used in ceremony and dance. Likewise, the tanoa, or yaqona bowl, also played (and still plays) an important part in Fijian society. Artist clans were so specialized that carvers in the old days only produced one particular kind of artifact – say clubs or yaqona bowls – and that was it.