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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Un­known mak­ers, Hawaii. Tapa cloth col­lected on Cook’s fi­nal voy­age, 1778. Rex Nan Kiv­ell Col­lec­tion (Pic­tures), Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia. On dis­play, Treasures Gallery, Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, Can­berra, un­til Fe­bru­ary 3. On Fe­bru­ary 20, 1779, a bun­dle con­tain­ing dis­mem­bered hu­man re­mains was wrapped in a large quan­tity of the finest white Hawai­ian tapa cloth and then in a black-feath­ered cloak. The Hawai­ians then de­liv­ered this bun­dle of flesh and bones to a group of griev­ing men who the next day buried the re­mains at sea.

That large bun­dle con­tained the re­mains of Cap­tain James Cook, who had been killed on the beach of Kealakekua Bay six days ear­lier.

This had been Cook’s third visit to Hawaii. Dur­ing pre­vi­ous vis­its he and his men had been treated vir­tu­ally as gods. But on Valen­tine’s Day 1779, things turned ugly af­ter the Hawai­ians stole a boat and Cook, in an at­tempt to re­trieve it, planned to kid­nap a Hawai­ian king. On the beach, a skir­mish broke out that es­ca­lated quickly, re­sult­ing in Cook’s death.

Al­though his death was a shock there is ev­i­dence the Hawai­ians treated his body with a de­gree of dig­nity, be­cause of the way his re­mains were wrapped. The use of the finest white tapa cloth was a sign of re­spect.

Tapa, or bark­cloth or kapa, was pro­duced through­out the Pa­cific from the inner bark of trees. It was ex­tremely ver­sa­tile and used for cloth­ing, wrap­ping new­born ba­bies and the de­ceased. It was pre­sented to im­por­tant peo­ple on sig­nif­i­cant cer­e­mo­nial oc­ca­sions. The finest white tapa was re­served for the Ali’i, the Hawai­ian rul­ing class, and for dec­o­rat­ing the sa­cred carv­ings of gods in the tem­ples.

Cook and his sailors were ex­tremely fa­mil­iar with tapa cloth and they cer­tainly col­lected it through trade or the ex­change of gifts dur­ing their voy­ages to Hawaii.

One rare piece of tapa, be­lieved to have been col­lected on Cook’s last ill-fated voy­age, is cur­rently on dis­play for the first time in its en­tirety at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia in Can­berra. Mea­sur­ing a re­mark­able 349 x 61.5cm, it has been de­scribed as a mas­ter­piece and the Blue Poles of Oceanic art.

It is cer­tainly a mi­nor mir­a­cle that such a mas­sive length of bark­cloth from the 18th cen­tury could man­age to find its way from Cook’s voy­age to Can­berra and still be in such good con­di­tion. The se­cret? One of Cook’s crew, Alexan­der Hood, ac­quired it and his fam­ily looked af­ter it for mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions un­til 1952. It was then bought by the prodi­gious col- lec­tor Rex Nan Kiv­ell, who do­nated it to the Na­tional Li­brary. On one cor­ner of the cloth is a hand­writ­ten la­bel: “Brought by Lieut. Hood when with Cap­tain Cook.”

At the li­brary, cu­ra­tor Nat Wil­liams says Nan Kiv­ell con­sid­ered it one of his great treasures: “What is sig­nif­i­cant is it is the last item from the 30,000 items he do­nated to the Na­tional Li­brary be­cause he holds on to it from 1952 to 1977. He had it framed and on the wall of his man­sion in Tang­iers, where he lived at the end of his life. Seven months af­ter his death it was re­ceived via Aus­tralia House in Lon­don.”

Wil­liams says it is fab­u­lous to have the piece on dis­play for the first time in the 40 years since it was ac­quired from Nan Kiv­ell: “It was from a so­phis­ti­cated pe­riod of tapa mak­ing and Cook would have no­ticed that the Hawai­ians were the most ex­per­i­men­tal and pro­duc­ing the most di­verse and beau­ti­ful tapa. It has spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance, it has promi­nence for its Cookre­lated his­tory, and it is a tes­ta­ment to the fine­ness of how the Hawai­ian peo­ple could make tapa cloth. The way it’s painted, the way it’s beaten, the way it’s sewn to­gether very fas­tid­i­ously, it’s a re­ally re­mark­able piece of art. It’s a great trea­sure cour­tesy of the Hood fam­ily look­ing af­ter it and then Nan Kiv­ell, so, I think we are very lucky to have it.”

Bark­cloth, hau cordage, ink on pa­per, 349cm x 61.5cm

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