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Eco-Friendly Art in American Samoa: Returning to Nature to Inspire Creativity

When many people think of art, they think of museums full of paintings and craft stores shelves lined with art supplies. However, for much of human history, and in many cultures today, art was derived directly from nature.

The art of American Samoa, traditional siapo, is a great example of eco-friendly art.

But what is the overall environmental impact of art? And how can we learn from cultures around the world that use natural materials to spark their creativity?

Siapo mamanu created by Regina Meredith Fitiao.

The Environmental Impact of Art

Before we get into more eco-friendly aspects of art, it is important to talk about the environmental impact of the art industry.

Many art supplies are wrapped in plastic before they are sold. The products are made in factories and transported using large supply trucks. The products themselves can contain harmful toxins, preservatives, oils, and more.

All of this, combined with how these products are disposed of after they are used, can create a devastating environmental impact. Just one example is the petrochemical smog (air pollution) created from the manufacturing of paints in factories.

Natural Artforms Around the World

In some parts of the world, art supplies aren’t bought from large-scale suppliers or craft stores. They are found growing from the ground, in the “back yard art store.” Here are some examples of how natural products are used in international art.

Art in American Samoa

If you have spent any time on our site, you know that our organization and our artists are based in American Samoa. Some of the traditional arts of American Samoa include siapo, tatau, and woodcarving.

Samoan siapo is a great example of eco-friendly art. Every material that goes towards the creation of siapo is grown in American Samoa, either by the artist themselves or by small farms.

The preparation of the materials is done by hand, without involving machines that may burn fossil fuels. There are no plastics in Samoan siapo, so over the centuries, as the art decays, it will not negatively affect the environment. .

The canvas of siapo art is made from the bark of the u’a tree (the paper mulberry tree or the Broussonetia papyrifera). The bark is stripped from the tree, scraped, and beaten until it becomes a cloth that can be layered to become a “canvas.” The dyes are created from natural ingredients, primarily the brown dye that comes from the bark of the o’a tree.

Even the scraping tools and brushes are found in nature! Artists use shells to scrape the bark, wooden tools called i’e to beat the bark, and the paogo (seeds of the pandanas tree) to apply to dye to the surface.

Student uses a paogo to apply dye.

Art in Hawaii

Barkcloth art is an eco-friendly art that can be found all around the world. One place that makes similar art to American Samoa art is Hawaii!

In Hawaii, they make kapa from the wauke tree (the Hawaiian name for the paper mulberry). The Hawaiians include a fermenting process in the preparation of their paper mulberry that involves soaking the bark for upwards of two weeks.

While the patterns and preparations may change across the Pacific Islands, the creation of barkcloth art is something that unifies our cultures, connects us to our islands and our heritage, and provides a form of expression that is safe for the ecosystems of our islands.

Art in Uganda

The Buganda people of Uganda create their own eco-friendly barkcloth art! Known as Lubugo, it was originally used as clothing, material for around the house, and more everyday purposes (similar to American Samoa art!).

Now, it is used by many for ceremonial purposes by the king and as a symbol of the identity of the Buganda people.

The process of making Lubugo predates the invention of weaving--making it an incredibly old and historically significant art form. The inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested and beaten until it is thin enough to be used as cloth.

While many people wear it in its natural light brown color, it can be dyed white or black if it is to be used by the king or another cultural significant figure.

Why Should You Learn About Eco-Friendly Art

While you may not have the materials you need to make barkcloth at home, learning about these kinds of art can help inspire you to incorporate more natural materials in your own art!

Whether you are experimenting with making your own paper, using plants and foods to make dyes and paints, or creating texture on your canvas with leaves instead of store-bought brushes, there are so many ways you can reduce your waste and use your imagination!

Ready to learn more about the eco-friendly art of American Samoa? Head over to our blog to read more articles like this one!

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