Three generations keep siapo making alive in Palauli

By Sapeer Mayron 25 June 2020, 9:00AM

To many Samoans, the art of siapo making may be a mystery. Many know the ingredients, but have not watched the magic happen themselves.

So when you leave Salelologa, make sure you turn right at a small, almost imperceptible brown sign just a 15 minute drive away from the wharf.

In a rectangle fale with colourful benches all around it, is Tamasailau Lemeulu. At 21, she believes she is the only person her age with the ancient skill of beating bark into cloth. 

Ms. Lemuelu works alongside her two mentors, her mother, Faapito Lesatele, and grandmother, Faamuli Salu, who turns 80 in August. Both are hoping their young craftswoman will have children of own to pass the skill down to.

The siapo craftswomen have been inviting tourists to watch them work since 1966. Ms. Salu's brother made their screen print design boards, and he is too old to make more so the family will soon have to find new designs from nearby. 

During a busy tourist season, they host two groups a day (except Sundays), and often take their equipment to hotels and resorts for in-house demonstrations. 

School groups from overseas and family reunion groups are common, and Ms. Lemuelu said they usually make tens of thousands of tala a month from guests and sales. 

"I am happy to take over because it's our own business," the young owner-to-be said. 

"If you want take a rest, then we can rest. There is no one to say stand up, do this, do that, we can manage ourselves."

But the future is looking less rosy. The global COVID-19 pandemic caused Samoa and the world to close its borders and halt international tourism and it has slashed this family's wallet substantially.

In addition, several couples cancelled their wedding wear orders because they couldn't travel to Samoa.

"This is the only income we have. During the lock-down we don't have enough money because no tourists come," Ms. Lemuelu said. 

"If the lock-down continues there is nowhere else we can earn money from." The family has not discussed what they will do if the borders don't reopen to tourists within the year. 

Ms. Lemuelu is unique for her ability to make siapo, not only in her peer group but even in her family. She is the only one of her siblings to learn the art from their mother and grandmother, watching closely all through childhood and then finally doing it herself. 

When the occasional Samoans visit the demonstration, they ask themselves why they never learned this craft too, she said.

"Why don't all families in Samoa do siapo? Maybe their families didn't have the ingredients," she suggests.

But more Samoans should take the time to investigate this ancient craft and make the journey to their demonstration site when they visit Savaii. 

"Most Samoan people haven't watched this, so we encourage them to come and watch. It's such important stuff in our lives, that our ancestors back in the day wore as clothes," she said.

"So we must continue doing siapo. Even my sisters, my aunties, no one knows how to do the siapo."

Siapo is a soft, delicate fabric and it used to be the essential element of every Samoan wardrobe before the arrival of cotton. 

But making it is the opposite of delicate. Siapo is bark extracted from the paper mulberry tree, washed against a wooden board with a rough shell and beaten into submission between a drum and hammer. 

The explosive drumming, which often has tourists with their hands around their ears, caused matriarch Faamalu Salu to go deaf, and her daughter and granddaughter are now careful to work with protective ear buds. 

Using the world around them, the siapo women press their finely beaten cloth together, paint it and sell it to tourists, local families and lately brides for extravagant wedding gowns. 

Tapioca roots are half cooked and turned into glue, to paste two sheets on top of each other and thicken the product.

The pulverised insides of a mangrove branch makes a rich reddy brown paint, the colour deepened with the help of a scraping of clay. Trusty charchoal is black, and the tool: a sharpened pandanus fruit, so small the women's hands fly immediately above they cloth as they paint. 

A photo album of the process was compiled by a student from America called Coral who stayed with the women for two weeks in recent years. She painstakingly photographed each ingredient and every step of the way from root to elegant fabric. 

Ms. Lemuelu can conduct the entire demonstration on her own, without her mother's help. It's a point of pride for the young woman, who until recently was at the National University of Samoa before returning to Savaii to work with her family.

*Reporter Sapeer Mayron and Photographer Aufa'i Areta travelled to Savai'i, sponsored by the Samoa Tourism Authority.


By Sapeer Mayron 25 June 2020, 9:00AM
Samoa Observer

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