Saturday, July 8, 2017

Barkcloth Art of the Ömie

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The South Pacific is broken up into a number of sub-regions: Polynesian, Micronesia, Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.

South Pacific regions.

Each Polynesian culture is unique, yet the peoples share some common traits. Polynesians share common origins as Austronesian speakers (Austronesian is a family of languages). The first known inhabitants of this region are called the Lapita peoples. Artists were part of a priestly class, followed in rank by warriors and commoners.

In all these distinctive cultures, gender roles were clearly defined. Gender played a major role, dictating women’s access to training, tools, and materials used in the arts. For example, women's arts historically utilized soft materials, particularly fibers used to make mats and barkcloth. Cloth made of bark is generically known as tapa across the region, although terminology, decorations, dyes, and designs vary through out the islands and Papua New Guinea.

Hawaiian tapa (barkcloth), 1770s (Te Papa Museum, New Zealand).
Size: 64.5 x 129 cm.

In Samoa, designs were sometimes stained or rubbed on with wooden or fiber design tablets. In Hawaii patterns could be applied with stamps made out of bamboo, whereas stencils of banana leaves or other suitable materials were used in Fiji. Barkcloth can also be undecorated, hand decorated, or smoked as is seen in Fiji. Design illustrations involved geometric motifs in an overall ordered and abstract patterns.

Masi (tapa cloth), likely used as a room divider, Fiji, date unknown (Te Papa Museum, New Zealand).

The most important traditional uses for tapa were for clothing, bedding and wall hangings. Textiles were often specially prepared and decorated for people of rank. Tapa was ceremonially displayed on special occasions, such as birthdays and weddings. In sacred contexts, tapa was used to wrap images of deities. Even today, at times of death, barkcloth may be an integral part of funeral and burial rites.

Barkcloth strip, Fiji, ca. 1800-50, worn as a loin cloth, decorated with a combination of free-hand painting, cut out stencils and by being laid over a patterned block and rubbed with pigment (The British Museum).

Barkcloth Art of the Ömie[2]
The Ömie live on the southern slopes of Mount Lamington in Oro Province in Papua New Guinea.

Oro Province in Papua New Guinea.

Mount Lamington is an andesitic strato volcano in the Oro Province of Papua New Guinea. The forested peak of the volcano had not been recognized as such until a devastating eruption occurred in 1951 that caused about 3,000 deaths. The volcano rises to 1680 meters above the coastal plain north of the Owen Stanley Range.

Barkcloth is the customary textile of the Ömie with women wearing "nioge" (skirts) while men wear "givai" (loincloths). Ömie barkcloths are still worn today by men, women and children during traditional ceremonies which can involve feasting and spectacular performances of singing, dancing and kundu-drumming. Barkcloth also serves important purposes in marriage as offerings to the ancestors, bride-price gifts, as well as in funerary and initiation ceremonies. It is an integral part of everyday life for the Ömie and plays a critical role in defining their unique cultural identity.

Filma Rumono barkcloth (detail).
Size: 100 x 194 cm.
Photograph courtesy of D. Baker.

Barkcloth is prepared by women who harvest the inner layer of bark from the rainforest trees. They then rinse, fold and pound repetitiously the bark on flat stones using black palm mallets until a strong, fibrous sheet of cloth is produced. The cloth is left to dry in the sun. The barkcloth is dyed using a rich and earthy palette of natural bush dyes including red, yellow, green and black pigments, which are created from fruits, ferns, leaves and charcoal. Ancient clan designs are painted in freehand onto the cloth or the cloth is dyed in river mud and the designs are appliquéd using a bat-wing bone needle. Common painting implements include strong grasses, fashioned wooden sticks and brushes made from frayed betelnut husks.

The Ömie women spread the nyog'e (double skin designs) on the mat.

Artists inherit clan designs as young women by birthright or marriage from their mothers, grandmothers and mother-in-laws, and in some instances from their fathers and husbands. Most designs are generations old but some elderly artists who have attained a level of mastery, usually Duvahe (Chiefs), are free to paint their uehorëro (wisdom), creating new designs.

Ömie barkcloth - detail (2005).
Size: 112 x 130 cm.
Photograph courtesy of D. Baker.

The Ömie’s female Chief system is primarily based upon a woman’s barkcloth painting talents and the cultural knowledge she attains over a lifetime. All painting designs originate or are derived from traditional Ömie culture and the natural environment, maintaining and communicating artists’ deep connection to their Ancestors and country.

An Ömie painting on barkcloth of custom fish skeleton by Jean Margret Hoijo.

Vivian Marumi, barkcloth.
Size: 65 x 108 cm.
Photograph courtesy of D. Baker.

Filma Rumono barkcloth.
Size: 100 x 194 cm.
Photograph courtesy of D. Baker.

Since the first exhibition in 2006 the barkcloth art of the Ömie women has been highly celebrated, culminating in the National Gallery of Victoria’s landmark exhibition Wisdom of the Mountain: Art of the Ömie in 2009.

Fate Savari: Gardens (with yams, red pandanus, white yams, beaks of the parrot, pig hoofprints, bees, boys chopping tree branches, beaks of Blyth’s Hornbill, spots of the wood-boring grub and old animal bones found while digging in the garden) - 2013.
Size: 104 x 73 cm.
Courtesy of Ömie Artists.

Botha Kimmikimmi - Ömie mountains, eggs of the Dwarf Cassowary, beaks of Blyth’s Hornbill and spots of the wood-boring grub - 2012.
Size: 113 x 93 cm.
Courtesy of Ömie Artists.

Ömie Artists is fully owned and governed by the Ömie people. Five Art Centers service artists across twelve villages and each of the centers play a vital role by ensuring that the ancient tradition of barkcloth painting as well as traditional culture remain strong and provide economic returns to their artists. For further details of their work and their collective - see their website: Ömie artists

[1] Dr. Caroline Karr,


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