Our ancient trees: Aute

In fact aute (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera), brought with the early Polynesian settlers, is now extinct in New Zealand – and when the tree was lost to Aotearoa so, apparently, was the local art of making tapa cloth.

Until my visit yesterday to Tauranga Art Gallery I had been unaware tapa was ever made here but thanks to a small show of modern tapa made by Nikau Hindin – who went to Hawaii to learn the craft she has now practised for several years – I’ve started 2020 the right way and learned something new!

The leaves of Broussonetia papyrifera. Image: Didier Descouens via Wikipedia.

Gallery information says the tree and cloth were both known as ‘aute’. The fibre was used for kite-making, adornment and the wrapping of valuables, and a short film with the exhibition demonstrates the making of aute from the felling of the small tree to the final, painted cloth. Apparently, it wasn’t used for clothing here (presumably after the first winter) because it simply wasn’t warm enough!

Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi) paints her aute with earth pigments and plant dyes, creating charts of celestial navigation. Here is a 2019 photo essay about her work.

“When I first beat Hawaiian [aute], my thin strip of inner bark expanded far beyond my expectations, over four times the original width!,” Nikau wrote for E-Tangata last year. “Once dried it became a fine, soft, pale cloth that could be dyed and printed … I enjoyed the intimacy of working with carved wooden tools and interacting with the fibre …” Read the full interview here.

‘Kuaka’, an aute by Nikau Hindin. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Native to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, aute, a member of the fig family, has been used for making paper, rope and feeding to stock. Its native range is subtropical to temperate. The Auckland Museum website says it is an economically important plant which was widely distributed by the Austronesian expansion across the Pacific in Polynesian prehistory – as far as Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawai’i and New Zealand. Throughout Polynesia the inner bark was used to make a cloth, known generally as tapa.

And yes, this is the same plant that’s been used for thousands of years to make paper in China and Japan.

Wikipedia notes, however, that paper mulberry hasn’t been a welcome addition to every country it’s been taken – and is considered to be one of Pakistan’s worst weeds (as well as sending thousands of people to hospital every year in Islamabad due to pollen allergies), one of the worst invaders of Argentina’s Pampas grasslands and a dominant invasive species in the forests of Uganda.

However, the plant doesn’t set seed in tropical Polynesia and so the Polynesian migrations carried with them cuttings and plants. In their 2004 book, Pacific Tapa, Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast state that in 1769 Captain James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks were shown aute plantations in the Bay of Islands but that the tree became extinct in New Zealand in the 1840s, thanks to neglect and browsing cattle.

The authors note that there may be some doubt as to whether there was an authentic New Zealand version of tapa as so few pieces – and these very small – have been found. The only evidence for the manufacture of aute in New Zealand, they say, are the 14 aute beaters found in swamps and coastal mud from north Auckland to Bay of Plenty and Taranaki, all made from native timbers.