Appropriation (?) of the Month: Fiji Masi for Fiji Airways or for Everyone? (Part 2)

Fiji Airways masi motif and new designs on airplane

By Brian Egan

Earlier this year I wrote about Air Pacific Ltd.’s intention to reinvigorate its business through a rebranding strategy, part of which relied on the use of elements of Fijian cultural heritage, and the controversy that this generated (click here to read the earlier piece). In this article, I present a brief update on the issue.


In 2012, Air Pacific Ltd. announced it was undertaking a rebranding strategy in an effort to boost its flagging business. The airline changed its name to Fiji Airways and unveiled a new brandmark designed by well-known Fijian artist Makereta Matemosi. (A brandmark is a symbol or image associated with a company, organization, or product; a brandmark may be trademarked, which gives the holder control over the use of the image or symbol.) The new brandmark draws on a series of masi motifs, an artform closely identified with Fijian cultural heritage and identity (common across many Pacific Island states, this artform is also known as tapa). In Fiji, the term masi refers to cloth made from tree bark and decorated with intricate designs, generally a grid of square or rectangular geometrical patterns or motifs, mostly black or rust-brown in colour, often with motifs repeated in a regular pattern across the fabric (Koojiman 1972).

At very top, Fiji Airways masi motif and new designs on airplane (By Simon_sees [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons); above, Fiji Masi (bark cloth), Island of Oneata Lau, 20th century, Honolulu Academy of Arts (By Hiart (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons). 

Masi play an important role in Fijian indigenous (or iTaukei) culture, used for functional purposes (clothing, blankets, curtains) and highly valued for ceremonial and decorative uses (Ewins 2004). The skill of masi crafting is passed down from generation to generation, with artists reproducing and elaborating traditional designs and motifs that are associated with particular peoples and places. This artform constitutes a form of ‘closed’ or ‘sacred’ indigenous knowledge, with masi making restricted to women and with the meanings of particular designs shared within the community but generally not with outsiders (Koya Vaka’uta 2013).

In January 2013, Fiji Airways announced that it was seeking trademarks on 15 of the masi motifs produced by Matemosi. The announcement drew opposition from those concerned about the impacts of trademarking on what is understood to be an important part of Fiji’s cultural heritage. Cresantia Frances Koya Vaka’uta, a Lecturer from the University of the South Pacific, argues that almost all of the masi motifs that the airline wants to trademark are derived from traditional designs that have long been in use by masi artisans; only two of the motifs, in her assessment, were judged to be entirely new creations (Koya Vaka’uta 2013). As Koya Vaka’uta and other critics noted, Fiji Airway’s trademarks application raises a number of troubling questions: What would be the effect of trademarking on the livelihoods and cultural practices of iTaukei peoples? Would masi artists have to request permission to use designs that have long been part of their cultural heritage?

NA NODA MASI - Do not TM our cultural heritage Facebook page. 

Over the past six months, opposition to the trademark application has grown and has been expressed through formal and informal channels. Opponents have used social media (e.g., see the NA NODA MASI - Do not TM our cultural heritage Facebook page) to rally opposition to the trademark, asking those concerned about the issue to sign an online petition, write letters to politicians and company officials, and file formal objections with the Registrar of Trademarks, the government body responsible for accepting, reviewing, and approving trademarks in Fiji. To date, five formal objections to the trademark application have been filed with the Registrar, including from the Fiji Museum, the iTaukei Trust Fund, and the Institute of Indigenous Studies at Fiji National University.

The controversy has also drawn international attention, as activists and cultural heritage specialists from across the South Pacific and beyond have expressed their concerns about the trademarking of Fiji’s cultural heritage. The subject is being explored in an upcoming special exhibition at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, Germany, which deals (in part) with the Fiji Airways controversy. Titled “Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Social Landscape”, the exhibition will feature a Fijian artist who deals with the airline attempt to trademark the masi motifs. The museum has requested permission to use the earlier article I wrote on this topic as a background piece to the exhibit, which reflects a vibrant global interest in this important issue.

Nanette Lepore Facebook page, with an image of the "Passport to Style" fashion spread from Women's Health Magazine

Recently, another controversy erupted over the use of masi or tapa designs. In this case, a New York fashion designer named Nanette Lepore used masi or tapa designs in her clothing line, which was featured in Women’s Health Magazine. To make matters worse, the fashion photo spread (called “Passport to Style”) suggested the designs were Aztec and African in origin. The appropriation of these designs and the improper attribution of their origins drew protests from South Pacific artists and activists (Mata’afa Tufele 2013).

With respect to the Fiji Airways case, the Registrar of Trademarks is expected to make a ruling on the company’s trademark application in late September 2013, deciding whether the application will be approved or denied. The decision of the Registrar can be appealed to the Fijian High Court, meaning that this debate may continue for some time yet.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to David Burley for helpful information on this issue.



References Cited

Ewins, Roderick. 2004. "Symmetry and semiotics: the case of Fijian bark-cloth figuration." In Embedded symmetries, natural and cultural, edited by D. Washburn, pp. 161-183. Amerind New World Studies Series, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque,.

Koojiman, Simon. 1972. Tapa in Polynesia. Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Koya Vaka’uta, Cresantia Frances. 2013. Anthropological evidence of the 15 intended iTaukei tapa cloth (masi) motifs pre-dating the creation of the Air Pacific/Fiji Aiways logo. Unpublished paper. 

Mata’afa Tufele, Tina. 2013. Pac Islanders in New York City to protest against ‘Aztec’ dress


The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations