The Pacific: Arts and Crafts

Arts and Crafts

The top countries in which to purchase handicrafts are Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands. Not surprisingly, the traditional handicrafts that have survived best are the practical arts done by women (weaving, basketmaking, tapa). In cases where the items still perform their original function (such as the astoundingly intricate fine mats of Samoa—not for sale to tourists), they remain as vital as ever. A tourist will purchase whatever corresponds to his image of the producing community and is small enough to be accepted as airline luggage. Thus a visitor to Fiji may be looking for masks, figures with large penises, or carvings of pigs, even though none of these has any place in Fijian tradition.

Whenever possible, buy handicrafts from local women's committee shops, church groups, local markets, or from the craftspeople themselves, but avoid objects made from turtle shell/leather, clam shell, or marine mammal ivory, which are prohibited entry into many countries under endangered species acts. Failure to declare such items to customs officers can lead to heavy fines. Also resist the temptation to purchase jewelry or other items made from seashells and coral, the collection of which damages the reefs. Souvenirs made from straw or seeds may be held for fumigation or confiscated upon arrival.


Woven articles are the most widespread handicrafts, with examples in almost every South Seas country. Pandanus fiber is the most common, but coconut leaf and husk, vine tendril, banana stem, tree and shrub bark, the stems and leaves of water weeds, and the skin of the sago palm leaf are all used.

On some islands the fibers are passed through a fire, boiled, then bleached in the sun. Vegetable dyes of very lovely mellow tones are sometimes used, but gaudier store dyes are much more prevalent. Shells are occasionally utilized to cut, curl, or make pliable the fibers. Polynesian woven arts are characterized by colorful, skillful patterns.



To make tapa, the white inner bark of the tall, thin paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) is stripped and scraped with shells, rolled into a ball, and soaked in water. The sodden strips are then pounded with wooden mallets until they reach four or five times their original length and width. Next, several pieces are placed one on top of the other, pressed and pounded, and joined with a manioc juice paste. Sheets of tapa feel like felt when finished.

In Tonga, tapa (ngatu) is decorated by stitching coconut fiber designs onto a woven pandanus base that is placed under the tapa, and the stain is rubbed on in the same manner one makes temple rubbings from a stone inscription. The artisan then fills in the patterns freehand. In Fiji, stencils are used to decorate tapa (masi). Sunlight deepens and sets the copper brown colors.

Each island group has its characteristic colors and patterns, ranging from plantlike paintings to geometric designs. On some islands tapa is still used for clothing, bedding, and room dividers, and as ceremonial red carpets. Tablecloths, bedcovers, place mats, and wall hangings of tapa make handsome souvenirs.



Melanesia is especially well known for its woodcarvings, with designs passed down from generation to generation. Though shells are sometimes used for polishing the finest artifacts, steel tools are employed for the most part these days. Melanesian woodcarvings often suggest the mystic feelings of their former religious beliefs and the somber spirits of the rainforests. Polynesia also produces fine woodcarvings (especially kava bowls and war clubs), and those of the Marquesas Group are outstanding in detail.


Other Products

Other handicrafts include polished shell, inlays of shell in ebony, spears with barbs of splintered bone, thorn spines or caudal spines, "bride money," shell necklaces, and anklets. Among the European-derived items are the patchwork quilts (tifaifai) of Tahiti and the Cooks, and the hand-painted and silk-screened dress fabrics of Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands, and Tahiti.