The Tahiti Traveler

Crafts of Tahiti and her Islands – The great art of the emblematic «tifaifai»

Mahana Pae; Papeete

The “Tifaifai” is actually some kind of a patchwork that historically corresponds to a local adaptation of the art of making the British kilt (the kilt of Scottish origin, being itself a form of patchwork). In fact, the spouses of the first English missionaries introduced this practice into both the Austral and the Society islands:  By the end of the 18th century and in the early years of the 19th century, they undertook to transmit to the women of the ancient high Polynesian society, that new know-how that consisted of making bedspreads, in a patchwork pattern, from recovered or used pieces of fabric (scraps of fabric, sheets, old clothes or others). At that time, fabric was both rare and expensive in our so remote islands. In such a context, patchwork could only quickly become an advantageous and rewarding way of recovering and reusing the fabric.

Very soon the Polynesian women developed a true passion for this new know-how of which they truly made an art, appropriating it completely. The patchwork has thus become “tifaifai” (“tifai” meaning patching or mending in the Maohi language). The history of tifaifai is atypical because it is that of the evolution in genuine art of a simple technique of recovery of the tissues, which originally was only intended to avoid the waste and thus to make savings … Yet, the tifaifai have quickly become real creations, to the point that each realization is transformed into some space of expression, even in a vector conveying the world vision and the sensibilities of its creator.

It must be borne in mind that this technique of assembly was already mastered by the Polynesian women long before the arrival of the Europeans. In these times, women already could make a “plant tissue” called “tapa”, using tree bark. Beyond its functionalities, tapa was often treated artistically with motifs representing fauna, flora, sea, stars … This probably explains the immediate enthusiasm aroused by the patchwork, like the fact that the Polynesian women have proven to be extremely gifted and creative in making tifaifai.

Today, the art of tifaifai is part of the Polynesian cultural heritage, of which it is a strong symbol. The reputation and notoriety of tifaifai have spread to the whole world, as these works are truly unique because of their authenticity, the touching ingenuity of their naïve inspiration and the width of their colors range that include so subtle shades. In Tahiti and the Austral Islands, it is the “mamas” (affectionate and familiar term meaning “grandmothers”) who usually make tifaifai. The pieces of fabric are sewn by hand, thus respecting the tradition. The realization of these works often requires nearly 100 hours of work and can occupy one, two or three craftsmen working together and simultaneously on the same work. The motifs on the tifaifai are very diverse and usually based on figurative themes such as plants, fruits, sea, fish, animals … But today, some works go far beyond the figurative style to give free rein to imagination and artistic creativity: these “non-figurative” tifaifai take on symbolic tattoo motifs or tell in an encrypted way the history of an island or the history of a life …

The finest achievements are highly sought after, as much by the Polynesians themselves (for they love to decorate the interior of their houses with tifaifai of good quality), as by the amateurs and connoisseurs of the entire world. The art of tifaifai is now threatened by copies of Asian origin that imitate the patterns of our finest achievements on printed fabric. That threat appeared so unfair and serious at the time, that it ended up forcing our local craftsmen to react, mobilize and organize in committee defending the Polynesian label.

Traditionally, tifaifai is offered on great occasions, such as birthdays, weddings, departures … So, you’ve got only one good decision to make: just come to Tahiti and her islands; there you can choose a unique present for your relatives and friends. Also, do not forget to spoil yourself a bit and get a superb one to take back home… Sure that this colorful art masterpiece will stay with you forever as a live memory of your stay in paradise and as an eternal invitation to travel and dream …