Across the islands of the Pacific artists have been creating intricate and captivating works of art from bark cloth for hundreds of years. The Denver Art Museum’s Oceanic exhibition Printed and Painted: the Art of Bark Cloth explores the variety and ingenuity of expression found in this medium. In creating bark cloth, also known as tapa, patterns with a myriad of designs and motifs were used. However, only four primary techniques were used to apply this patterning.
Fundamental to making bark cloth is the use of wooden or stone beaters to pound strips of the inner bark of trees together to flatten them out and felt them together to make large sheets. Sometimes beaters are carved with patterns or inlaid with teeth that will imprint the bark with a subtly patterned texture as the maker strikes it. You can see this sort of subtle texture in the surface of this Hawaiian piece.
Also note the pink hue of this tapa; this was created through a more unusual approach to pounding. DAM conservators examined fibers of this cloth under a microscope to discover that the maker integrated cotton fibers that had been previously dyed red by pounding them into the bark as the cloth was created. This cotton likely came from red cloth sold to the Hawaiians by European or American traders.
Decorating tapa with stamps printed on the surface is a versatile method of decorating a bark cloth. In this example of a Fijian skirt the artist used a number of small stamps carved with floral and geometric patterns. Though each component is relatively small and simple, when combined and repeated the artist achieved a rich surface that, along with the fringe, would have added to the wearer’s adornment and highlighted any movement they made.
Pattern boards, like stamps, often are carved as modular elements that can be repeated multiple times to cover the surface of a bark cloth in a design. This Samoan cloth is about 11.5 feet long by 8 feet wide and is covered by 24 elements coming from a single pattern board. Known as an upeti in Samoa, the carved pattern board was placed below the tapa while pigment was rubbed onto the surface. Perhaps when you were young you took rubbings of corner stones or grave markers using paper and a crayon. In a similar way the tapa picks up the pigment on the high parts of the design board while the carved areas leave only the natural color of the bark fibers.
In the photo below you can see the upeti was used to create areas in two different colors. To the left you can see the back of the cloth where some of the pigment bled through. On the right is the front of the cloth where the pigment was rubbed; to complete the work the artist hand-painted over the top of parts of the pattern with a dark brown pigment further accenting the overall design.
While paint is often used by artists to elaborate on printed or rubbed patterns, painting alone is also used to decorate bark cloth. This Fijian loincloth is decorated with bold black and white geometric patterns contrasted against fine line work rendered in red pigment. Though the pattern is strictly geometric, it was likely painted without the aid of a straight edge. However, pointed drawing tools as well as brushes were probably used to create the crisp lines.
Besides functioning as decoration and adornment we also know that patterns in Oceanic bark cloth often held meaning. They could reference part of a story or an element from nature. For instance, the author and artist Mary Jewett Pritchard identified numerous design elements used in Samoan bark-cloth decoration. Though often highly stylized they represent things familiar and important to Pacific islanders including starfish, shells, and the leaves of the pandanus palm.
I’ll leave you with one last pattern from the current exhibition of bark cloth for which we know the name. The design on this painted loincloth from New Britain, Papua New Guinea is called megaru which means “holes in the ground from which taro has been taken out." Taro is a staple food crop in the Pacific islands grown in marshy paddies. The flowing, swirling pattern is evocative of mud that has been disturbed during harvest.
Take a look at the slide show below to see how these patterns come together as an overall composition or design on each of these tapa.