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.
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.
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.