Siapo/Tatau Master at ASCC class
Indigenous Art (ART 161) is a studio course that introduces students at the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) to the art forms of Samoa and the Pacific. These art forms include woodcarving, siapo (bark cloth painting), weaving, pottery, and the tattoo.
ASCC art facilitator Regina Meredith, who designed the class and has taught it since its inception, has regularly incorporated input from local master craftsmen who offer their time and talents as a resource. “We engage students with Samoan thought and concepts that reveal a deeper understanding of the art forms introduced,” said Meredith. “Part of this knowledge comes from local master artists who have studied a particular art form and who are willing to share in their expertise. Students are then to engage in making a work of art based on that art form.”
This semester, the Indigenous Art class benefitted from the involvement of renowned tatau and siapo artist Su’a Wilson Fitiao, who helped Meredith guide the students through their introduction to the craft of bark cloth painting.
“Su'a is spending quality time with our students and sharing his expertise in the art form of siapo,” Meredith explained. ”Because he is also a traditional tufuga ta tatau, students have also been enlightened about the tatau and he has shared a general knowledge of both traditional art forms (tatau and siapo) and his experiences with them.”
Meredith describes Su’a’s knowledge of Samoan art as “prolific”, and in recent years Su’a has become a regular fixture at events like Tisa’s Tattoo Festival and related celebrations of the culture. “His approach to designing siapo is remarkable in that he has developed a unique and powerful style,” said Meredith of Su’a.
“From what I know about his background in art, he was taught siapo by our beloved Aunty Mary J. Pritchard—actually, we were both students of Aunty Mary. As for his mastering the tatau to become a tufuga, Su’a spent years as an apprentice to the tufuga ta tatau Su'a Lafaele Suluape and worked his way toward earning his own title as tufuga.”
Su’a confirms that his artistic journey began with a visit by the late Mary Pritchard to Faga’itua High School, where Su’a was a student in the 1970s. "Art was the only subject I got an A in,” he recalled. “At that time I was always drawing fales, fish, the usual stuff. And then I met Mary Pritchard, who was there to teach siapo."
Su’a’s classes with Pritchard, and her explanations of Samoan symbols and patterns, were to form the cornerstones of his career. "I had no idea, until Mary Pritchard, that our culture had these symbols and patterns that are ours—Samoan! I have respect for the patterns that have spoken to us from generation to generation. They talk from the sea, the earth, the sky and are as ancient as our thoughts."
Another Samoan artist the Indigenous Art students paid homage to was So'oalo Sven Ortquist, the master woodcarver who recently passed away.
“He used to come in every semester and share his sculptural knowledge with students beginning in the late 1990s,” explained Meredith. “I also learned how to carve from Sven, so this semester as a token of our love for this community icon, my students learned to carve and each of them designed an upeti board and a three -dimensional sculpture made of ifilele.”