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Panel 17: Barkcloth in Pacific environments


Fanny Wonu Veys, Andy Mills

Session presentation

This panel explores barkcloth’s unique role in mediating human-environment interactions in Oceania. Little has been written about barkcloth’s impact on the environment. Since the 18th century, foreigners have imported woven textiles, tapa has been gradually replaced and introduced plant fibres widely cultivated. But what was the environmental impact of historical barkcloth production, and how has its marginalisation transformed the environment? Various plants and minerals have long been gathered for pigment production, but few details are known about their classification, procurement, circulation or processing. Barkcloth offers a rich visual record of the environment, but can changing iconography also inform us about changing attitudes to the environment?
Cloth protects the body from the environment and the gaze of others. In Polynesia, barkcloth especially wrapped and insulated powerful beings, and ceremonially it provided them a conduit through the environment. What can this tell us about barkcloth’s materiality? Paper Mulberry was historical Polynesia’s most important inedible crop. Elsewhere in Oceania, and locally in Polynesia, bast from breadfruit, Ficus species and other wild trees supplemented or replaced it. What can such wild-harvested materials tell us about tapa’s role in mediating human relationships with the wild and cultivated, earthly and divine?

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