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Panel 17: Barkcloth in Pacific environments


Fanny Wonu Veys, Andrew 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?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Blood, Bones, and Land: Barkcloth as procreation in Melanesian Ontologies

Anna-Karina Hermkens (Macquarie University)

This paper explores how across Papua New Guinea, barkcloth has functioned as a mediator between humans and their environment, and between humans and the divine. Revisiting origin myths and various uses and meanings of barkcloth in West Papua, Oro province and New Britain, it is shown how barkcloth is intimately connected with human ontology, and in particular with female blood and reproduction, as well as with death and decay. At the same time, this paper will elucidate the dynamic interplay between barkcloth production (from both domesticated and ‘wild’ tree species) and people’s environment. Focusing on changes brought about by colonialism, logging and climate change, I will show the intimate relationship between barkcloth and people’s future existence, especially in terms of cultural identity, and economy.

Bark-capes and the transformation of the person in Anga male rituals (Papua New Guinea)

Pierre Jean-Claude Lemonnier (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)

The Anga of PNG continue to produce or obtain beaten bark for their own use, rarely in view of neo-traditional events, never for tourists. Besides the consumption of those maro as mats and cloths, several artefacts made from the semi-domesticated Ficus and Broussonetia papyrifera are central to the male initiations I observed in 1979 (Baruya) and 1994-2006 (Ankave).

The paper does not deal with the production or exchange of maro, which I have previously described; it looks at the very materiality of their usage – and not only their “meaning”.

Ribbons of bark are essential because they mechanically link the initiates with the powerful entities that help perform the series of transformations imposed on them. Bark capes are both a temporary skin, a container and a screen behind which initiates hides from female eyes. In terms of psychology of attachment, they play a fundamental role in the physical annihilation of the relations with the mothers (sight, caresses, reliability).

Although the initiations continue to desintegrate, there is “no doubt” that the regular exploitation of Ficus will soon collapse – although it thrived during the 1980s and 1990s when bark mats were cheaper than Chinese-made blankets.

Tapa Belts and Masculine Display on Tanna, Vanuatu

Lamont Lindstrom (University of Tulsa)

Men’s tapa belts on Tanna are a significant item of dress and exchange during the island’s occasional Nakwiari dance festivals. When a festival approaches, participating dance teams manufacture toti—some to wear and some to exchange with other dance teams. Most belts are plain (brown, white, or yellow in color) but some are painted with black and/or red dentate designs. These designs signify the wearer’s claims to one of Tanna’s two chiefly statuses. Although Christian converts on Tanna turned away from dancing and regional exchange festivals between 1900 and 1939, the association of toti with Nakwiari festivals preserved knowledge and practice of belt manufacture, while imported cloth and leather belts eliminated tapa production elsewhere in the archipelago. Toti’s function as masculine display probably also helped maintain the tradition. Alfred Gell suggested that tapa wrapping insulates and guards personal power and sacredness. Tapa belts on Tanna may do the same but they more obviously display and celebrate masculinity. Belts once tied men’s wrapped penises in upright, rampant position. Men also sometimes use them to tie back the traditional hair style, another marker of masculinity.
Tourist visits to Tanna have increased notably and the Nakwiari is a popular spectacle, possibly increasing belt production. While growing tourism itself portends worrisome ecological consequence, belt production itself should have little effect as banyan trees remain common.

Going Around the Mulberry to the Bush: the significance of alternative tapa species

Andrew Mills (University of Glasgow)

Most historical discussion about Polynesian barkcloth has understandably focused on the cultivation and processing of Broussonetia papyrifera, the Chinese Paper Mulberry. But we also know that several other species were locally used to make tapa of different kinds. Some of these species, such as Artocarpus altilis (the Breadfruit), provided bast as a bi-product of the cultivated plant’s principal economic function. Others, such as Ficus prolixa (Banyan) and Pipturus albidus (Māmaki) were wild and gathered from the bush. Although such cloths are all generally described in historical sources as structurally coarser and less durable than Paper Mulberry, and several were made only by commoners when they could not source Broussonetia bast, such materials frequently also possessed a cultural capital and ceremonial role highly suggestive of the fact that their otherness and wildness themselves played a key part in defining their symbolic value. Here I will review the historical evidence and discuss some of the cultural themes surrounding alternative tapa species.

White for purity, brown for beautiful like us and black because it is awesome

Fanny Wonu Veys (Museum van Nationaal Wereldculturen - National Museum of World Cultures)

This quote, spoken by Lady Tuna Fielakepa in November 2014 at the occasion of the Tapa Festival conference in Tahiti, describes and values the colours used in contemporary Tongan barkcloth. While most historical and contemporary ngatu make use of white, brown, or black, a few historical pieces and written accounts suggest a much wider range of colours were used including red, yellow and purple. This paper explores from which plants or minerals barkcloth dyes were extracted, comparing historical early explorers’ descriptions, with contemporary techniques. I will discuss in what way many of these plant and mineral resources play a role in Tongan medicine showing how barkcloth, the healthy body and the environment are intimately connected to each other. To conclude, the symbolic meaning and value of colour and its links to rank and ceremonial occasions will be studied. In so doing, it will be argued that barkcloth colours shape perceptions about landscape and environment.