Cloth Without Weaving
Unlike most textiles, which are made of interworked yarns, beaten barkcloth is made of strips of the inner bark of trees such as the paper mulberry, breadfruit, or fig, pounded together into a smooth and supple fabric. It is an ancient craft, practiced in southern China and mainland Southeast Asia over 5,000 years ago. From there, the skill spread to eastern Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. While the technique is also known in South America and Africa, it is most closely associated with the islands of Polynesia.
In Polynesia, the making of beaten barkcloth, or tapa, as it is commonly known, is primarily women's work. The technique is essentially the same throughout the Pacific Islands, with many local variations. Bark is stripped from the tree, and the inner bark separated from the outer. The inner bark is then pounded with wooden beaters to spread the fibers into a thin sheet. Large pieces of tapa can be made by overlapping and pounding together several smaller sheets. Women decorate the cloth in many ways, and techniques are often combined. Mallets carved or inlaid with metal or shell designs may impart a subtle texture to the surface. Color may be applied with stamps, stencils, freehand painting, or by rubbing dye into the tapa over a patterned board. Glazes may be brushed onto the finished cloth. Each tapa-producing culture has its own vocabulary of recognized decorative motifs. Many pattern names are drawn from the natural world, and the motifs appear as highly stylized images of local flora and fauna or simple geometric shapes. Still other motifs hold special clan significance. Polynesian cultures use beaten barkcloth to fashion serviceable and practical clothing and furnishings, but have also employed it to create objects with ceremonial or ritual significance.
The arrival of Captain Cook and other European explorers in the 18th century changed Polynesian tapa-making traditions. Islanders began to use imported cloth for their practical needs, and barkcloth manufacture turned largely to production meant for sale to travelers and tourists. Today, tapa-making continues in some parts of Polynesia as an expression of women's creativity and cultural pride. While time may have stiffened the once supple texture and dulled the once bright reds to browns, the barkcloth in this exhibit remains a tangible connection to island cultures past and present.