Paperskin - the bark arts

maskThe South Bank of the Brisbane River has been awash in recent months with contemporary art from the Pacific and Asia. Most prominent has been the display of over 300 works at the Asia Pacific Triennial. But alongside it, the Queensland Art Gallery hosted an exhibition of barkcloth from the Pacific.

Travellers to the islands would know 'tapa' from the mats and wall hangings they picked up on their last trip to Tonga or Fiji. But barkcloth is much more widely made across the Pacific for very different ceremonial purposes. More than a souvenir or heirloom exchanged within families, works of barkcloth are now being recognised as works of art in their own right. 


Pacific islanders have long painted on bark to create garments and ceremonial cloth. The variety in Tonga is made from the bark of the mulberry tree and is called ngatu and in Fiji masi is made from the bark of breadfruit. 

odunege_1Large sheets of bark are pounded into a cloth ready for decorating as tapa. And although the hard work of preparing the bark is done communally by groups of older women, some younger women are emerging as tapa artists, finding markets for their work outside the islands.

It was recognition of tapa as an art form in itself that led three institutions to pool their resources and bring together some of the most striking barkcloth art in the region. Material from the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum and the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa was assembled in an exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery earlier this year. Those same works will tour to New Zealand's national museum in June.

Maud Page is the curator of Pacific collections at the Queensland Art Gallery. She gave Telinga Media a guided tour of the exhibition Paperskin while it was hung in her gallery. In this three-part series, Maud takes us through more than 200 years of art history from paintings on bark canvas in Hawai'i to giant ceremonial masks from Papua New Guinea.

Take Maud Page's Paperskin tour - Part 1

Take Maud Page's Paperskin tour - Part 2

Take Maud Page's Paperskin tour - Part 3