Barkcloth from Niue (detail). Circa 1880s
Barkcloth paintings from the Pacific
Barkcloth is made by soaking and beating the inner bark of specific trees, most commonly the Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). Across the region, from New Guinea to Hawai’i, barkcloth has been decorated, in some places in the form of huge sheets featuring optically dynamic abstract patterns, while elsewhere barkcloth garments feature plant and animal life, sacred creatures and mythic narratives. Some barkcloths were wealth objects, spectacular fabrics many metres in width and length which operated as vital valuables, presented by one clan to another on great ceremonial occasions. Others marked sacred spaces, or were incorporated into masks and other ritual assemblages. Cloth was often understood as a kind of skin, a powerful wrapping for the body which revealed its inner state and identity. Primarily created by women using inherited clan designs, the manufacture of barkcloth formed a major vehicle for both creative expression and social cohesion, maintaining and communicating the artists’ deep connection to their ancestors and country.
Barkcloth from Cook Islands, Aitutaki (detail). Circa 1900