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Art-Pacific (Carolyn Leigh - Ron Perry): Guide to Artifacts

Barkcloth (tapa) from Oro Province, Papua New Guinea

[terra cotta and sienna on white geometric patterned tapa bark-cloth capes: 51k]

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.

Figure 1: Barkcloth dance capes and laplaps worn by Oro Province dancers at the Mt. Hagen Show, 1998, Papua New Guinea.

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.

[terra cotta on white geometric patterned tapa bark cloth for sale in Port Moresby: 36k]

Figure 2: Detail of barkcloth sheet (wan) made from mulberry tree bark, probably from the Maisin people of Collingwood Bay, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. The open linear diagonal designs are accentuated with dots (sufifi). Their young women's traditional facial tattoos use similar patterning.

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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Links in this site:

Books used to research this series.

Figure 3: Art areas of Melanesia (map of New Guinea and adjacent islands), Oro Province, PNG is 10. Link to the article for explanation of other numbered areas.

[map of Melanesia: 10k]

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Melanesian art TOC | Map of art areas of Melanesia
Papua New Guinea: Highlands: body art - Bundi tapa - jewelry/dancers | Karawari and Blackwater Rivers: masks - carvings - map | Massim: artifacts- Trobriand Kula - map | Kula canoe | New Britain: Baining - Sulka - Tolai dukduk | New Ireland: Malagan | Ramu River: masks - carvings - map | Sepik River: masks - carvings - villages - map | Papuan Gulf: masks - carvings - map - Gogodala - Kukukuku
other areas: Asmat | Solomon Islands: crafts - jewelry - map
art and craft:
barkcloth (tapa) | body art | cane and fiber figures | canoes and prows | jewelry/dancers | masks - Middle Sepik | phallocrypts | pottery - Chambri | shields | story boards | suspension hooks | weapons | yam masks - fiber | yam masks - wood

Indonesian art TOC | Dyak baby carriers and masks | furniture | Java folk art | Lombok baskets | Lombok lontar boxes | masks from Bali and Java | puppets

China: Bai textiles/art TOC | baby carriers | baby hats | woodblock prints

Collecting New Guinea art in the field since 1964.

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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. by Carolyn Leigh is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0