Oro Province dancers display the drama of barkcloth design. Barkcloth is made in New Guinea for ceremonial costumes and exchanges as well as for sale. Designs are specific to clans. Individuals may reinterpret traditional designs or create new ones. The rights to a design are often owned.
Barkcloth was widespread throughout Polynesia and parts of Oceania at contact. It was used for clothing and other everyday items and for ceremony. The generic term tapa probably came from the Hawaiian term kapa.
Store cloth has replaced barkcloth for daily use, but it continues to be made for ceremonies and for sale. Tapa makers in the Pacific range from select groups of royal Polynesian women, to village women in craft cooperatives, to a single Highland man beating out his hat.
Most barkcloth made for sale in PNG comes from Oro Province. These geometric patterned pieces are sold in 1-2 yard (1-2 m) squares, framed as paintings or inset into coffee table tops and other decorative items.
Cultivated paper mulberry is the preferred bark, although breadfruit and other forest trees are used if they have suitable thick, fibrous inner barks. Strips of bark are soaked, scraped and beaten out on logs or special tables/anvils with tapa beaters. The beaters are made of stone or heavy wood and are sometimes beautifully carved and patinaed from use.
Damp, glutinous pieces of bark are over-lapped and beaten together to form large sheets. Sheets are folded and beaten out, refolded and beaten out yet again and again to make a uniform cloth without holes. Early explorers wrote that villages resounded with groups of chanting women beating barkcloth.
Tapa can be made as thin and fine as lace or layered into lengths with the consistency of thick felt. Plain tapa, sometimes bleached to pure whites, was often important in traditional Pacific island ceremonies, but it was seldom collected by outsiders. Pattern books of tapa made in the colonial period were very popular. Patterned tapa is still the choice for commercial sale.
Pattern, whether traditional or contemporary, adds meaning to barkcloth beyond decoration. Alfred Gell writes in Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia, Oxford University Press, 1993, that both barkcloth and tattoo designs are seen as an additional layer of skin wrapped around the individual.
Tapa patterns are created by staining, painting, stamping and stenciling. In New Guinea, the designs are hand painted. Traditional colors come from local clays, native plant dyes and charcoal.
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Artifacts on this site were collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. Background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do.
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