While Mary J. Pritchard is one of the most cited and recognized siapo maker in our modern history, she had to learn her siapo skills from someone.
In the early 1920s to the start of World War II, Leone was a cultural and artistic center on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa. When Auntie Mary came to Leone, Kolone Leoso and her sister-in-law Tui’uli were already siapo masters, leading others in the creation of beautiful works of art.
Specifically, Kolone worked with a kind of siapo called siapo mamanu. This method, often connected to the women of Leone, is what she taught to Auntie Mary and many others who came to her home to learn and create.
What is Siapo Mamanu?
There are two kinds of siapo in the Samoan islands--siapo mamanu and siapo elei.
Siapo elei involves using a wood carving or other surface to rub designs onto fabric or prepared u’a. Siapo mamanu, the method used by the women of Leone (and our artists here at Fa’asamoa Arts), is a freehand method. The siapo motifs are applied to the u’a with natural brushes known as paogo (the seeds of the pandanus tree).
While siapo mamanu is made all over the Samoan islands, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the women of Leone began to gain notoriety for their freehand skills.
Kolone’s Role as Teacher
In one of her books, Siapo: Barkcloth Art of Samoa, Mary J. Pritchard writes the following about Kolone Leoso:
She was a stately woman, seldom speaking unnecessarily except to direct those working with her...Surrounded by adult women, Kolone sat designing one siapo after another. Some of these were her own pieces, to be completed by young girls who would learn about siapo...Some designs were for women who would complete them for their own use, or to give as gifts or to sell...masterpieces of siapo were being produced under the direction of Kolone.
From a young age, the girls of Leone would spend time with Kolone and Tui’uli, running errands, fetching materials, making food, and finishing designs started by the artists. Everything they did helped them to learn about the art of siapo and the significance of this form of expression.
Although Kolone died in the 1970s, she and Tui’uli had spent the previous decades training Auntie Mary. In the aftermath of World War II, when there were few siapo artists left in American Samoa, their teaching paved the way for a resurgence of interest in this traditional, indigenous art form.
Kolone’s Artistic Influence
More than almost any other siapo artist in recorded history, Kolone was inspired by and unafraid to use large amounts of color in her siapo.
For many siapo artists, the traditional colors of black and brown are what is most commonly used.
Kolone was different from what had come before her. Inspired by the beautiful stained glass windows of the island’s churches, Kolone was known for her heavy use of red and yellow dyes, and her striking, colorful masterpieces drew attention from all over.
She could often be found staring up at the windows of the church in Leone, and her art was often separated into sections like the stained glass windows she drew her inspiration from. The increased use of color in the last hundred years can all be traced back to her innovation and her willingness to find inspiration in her environment.
The Memory of Kolone and Tui’uli Leoso
While there has been a decline in the creation of siapo in the past hundred years, the artists of American Samoa can all trace their practice back to the work that Kolone and Tui’uli did to teach the women around them.
Kolone taught Mary, Mary taught Reggie and Wilson, and Reggie and Wilson now teach dozens of students in this beautiful art.
Ready to learn more about siapo and siapo artists? Check out our Artists page for more information on our organization’s two founding artists.