A large and impressive Fijian bark cloth, masi tutuki, currently on display in the Polynesian gallery, has an interesting social history that has continued into the present. While the history of the makers and previous owners of the masi tutuki is unclear, it is possible to pinpoint a significant historical moment in which this exceptionally fine cloth played an important role. This moment was the cession of Fiji to Britain on 10 October 1874, when the cloth was given to Scottish-born New Zealand explorer and pastoralist Nathanael Chalmers (1830–1910). Now, 139 years later, it has brought together three of Chalmers’s descendants.
Chalmers had travelled from New Zealand to Fiji in 1868 to organise cotton planting and sugar milling. He also briefly acted as the native commissioner of Fiji and later served as a member of the Legislative Council of Fiji and as a magistrate. Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau (1815–1883), more commonly known as the King of Fiji, or one of his high-ranking chiefs presented Chalmers with two bark cloths at the ceremonial event ceding Fiji to the British. The cession to the British crown marked the beginning of a new era of peace in Fiji and is still celebrated today, as the same date also marks Fiji’s independence in 1970.
Fijian bark cloths are often given as gifts to strengthen social ties. To make such a cloth, strips of the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree are beaten continuously until they become matted, creating a wonderfully soft, pliable and durable sheet of cloth. Like the technique, which is still practiced in Fiji, the masi tutuki acquired by the Gallery in 1979 has endured. It remains in remarkably good condition and, perhaps more to the point, it continues to strengthen social ties, with three of Chalmers’s great-great-granddaughters having discovered each other after enquiring about the work.
The first to request a viewing of the Masi tutuki was Diane Markowski in 2010. Sometime later, I was contacted by Christine Cocquios, whose aunt had given her the other bark cloth Chalmers received that day. Following the history of the works, it appears that both bark cloths were originally passed onto Chalmers’s eldest daughter, Charlotte Ellen. Diane and Christine have since met, coming together at the National Gallery of Australia, where the masi tutuki that brought them together is on display.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Robyn Ann Chalmers was also researching her great-great-grandfather when Rod Ewins, an authority on Fijian history and culture, directed her to the Gallery’s Masi tutuki. After contacting the Gallery, she has now learned of her third cousins Christine and Diane in Australia.
These distant relatives now have a chance to reunite disparate branches of the family tree and to share in each other’s discoveries.
Crispin Howarth Curator, Pacific Art
in artonview, issue 75, Spring 2013