Patterns in the barkcloth


The rich tradition of barkcloth clothing stretches back to over 5,000 years ago in the islands of the Pacific. It is a highly distinctive cultural vernacular that has manifested in distinctive forms from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east of New Guinea. The inner bark of the mulberry trees are painted with beautiful patterns and depictions of stories and fables unique to each island.

Exhibiting seventy-seven artifacts from the British Museum’s Oceania collection, visitors are invited to see a range of objects from barkcloth poncho-style garments known as tiputa, to dance costumes for hula groups. This is the British Museum’s first ever exhibition focusing on barkcloth and comprises objects dating from the 18th century to last year. The pieces chosen also chart the history of the peoples of the Pacific, with the nineteenth-century tiputas being adopted as a mark of conversion to Christianity popularized by missionaries because they covered the upper body. The myriad cut-out designs, ornate fringing and painted symbols springing from this new influence therefore mirror the socio-cultural climate in fascinating ways.

While the introduction of machine-made cloth to the Pacific had differing impacts to the production of barkcloth, its continued importance is validated by pieces such as the hula group clothing that dates to 2011. Such objects illustrate the continued use of barkcloth due to its strength and flexibility making it well suited to dance. The barkcloth masking traditions of Papua New Guinea also feature in the Baining mask made in the 1970s and worn in day and night dances. A stunning custom-made wedding dress created by Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk in 2014 incorporates plaited coconut fibre into the patterned barkcloth. Such pieces illustrate the continued centrality of barkcloth in both everyday use and ceremonial occasions. Chan Cheuk is the first to use coconut fibre in this method, furthering the innovative possibilities for the material. It is also heartening to see the British Museum funding the commission of such objects with sponsorship from the New Zealand Society UK and donations as it augments the respect, care and protection such objects require. 

During the preparation for the exhibition, curator Natasha McKinney also discovered some unexpected clues relating to the production
of the barkcloths. Two red patterned Hawaiian barkcloths dating to the late 1700s were analysed and found to have a high level of protein on their surfaces. McKinney suggests that according to contemporaneous references, this could be the use of spiders and hens eggs as a way of sealing
colours, which are preserved beautifully. In addition to mulberry, banyan and breadfruit trees are beaten to spread the fi bres which itself leaves a beautiful pattern. The cloth is then painted with a wide variety of stars, fish, figures and even seaweed impressions. Many are understood to enhance the power of the barkcloth to mediate the wearer’s transition from one life stage to another.The exhibition truly is a must-see for anyone interested in pattern-making and fabrics but, more importantly, how often does one get the chance to see such beautifully made barkcloth?


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