London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

Pacific barkcloth clothing exhibition, at the British Museum, London.

David Burlak – Monday, 9th March 2015.

Barkcloth wedding dress by Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, New Zealand, 2014, commissioned with support from the New Zealand Society UK and private donors © The Trustees of the British Museum

Barkcloth wedding dress by Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, New Zealand, 2014, commissioned with support from the New Zealand Society UK and private donors © The Trustees of the British Museum

An out of the ordinary exhibition, “Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing” is at the British Museum, London.

This small exhibition is focused on barkcloth, a material of many different usages. The barkcloth use is dated at least 5,000years ago in the islands of the Pacific.

Cloth made from the inner bark of trees is a distinctive art tradition. Barkcloth and plaited leaf fabrics were the two principal textiles people produced in the tropical island environments of the Pacific, where there were few land animals to provide fur or wool.

Probably introduced to the Pacific region by the first human settlers, barkcloth is made from particular trees – predominantly paper mulberry. Bark is the outermost layers of stems and roots of woody plants, such as trees, woody vines, and shrubs. Bark is a nontechnical term referring to all the tissues outside of the vascular cambium of the plant. It overlays the wood and it consists of the inner bark and the outer bark.

The inner bark includes the innermost area of the periderm. The basic techniques of making barkcloth are the same right across the Pacific. Once removed from the tree, the inner bark is separated. It is repeatedly soaked, scraped beaten to produce a cloth of the desired thickness and softness. The way you beat and the time you do it determines the quality of the material.

“Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing” exhibition is dedicated to clothing and adornment made from barkcloth,

Barkcloth dance skirt, pā’ū, by Dalani Tanahy, O’ahu, Hawaiian Islands, 2014 © The Trustees of the British Museum, Courtesy of the artist

Barkcloth dance skirt, pā’ū, by Dalani Tanahy, O’ahu, Hawaiian Islands, 2014 © The Trustees of the British Museum, Courtesy of the artist

displaying a range of garments, headdresses, masks and body ornaments. Present in the region from New Guinea in the west to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, barkcloth is made in numerous styles and designs, reflecting the distinct histories of each island group and the originality of the producers.

This is the first British Museum exhibition focussing on barkcloth. It exhibits seventy-seven objects from the museum’s extensive Oceania collection of almost nine hundred items. Barkcloth must be carefully prepared for display, and many hours of conservation using the British Museum’s new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre have been invested in the pieces exhibited. The exhibition includes works from the late 1700s collected during British voyages of exploration to the Pacific Ocean through to garments nowadays produced.

Barkcloth garments, wrappings and adornment can be worn as everyday items and on ceremonial occasions, including those linked to key life cycle events such as weddings and funerals.

There is extraordinary diversity between barkcloth made in the different island groups of the Pacific. Some are plain, while others have textural or applied patterns, which can be painted, dyed and stencilled onto the cloth.

The British Museum exhibition also examines the different changes of the form and importance of barkcloth clothing through time. Following the impact of missionaries, Pacific Islanders adopted new forms of clothing as a sign of conversion to Christianity. Therefore, from the beginning of 1800s new ideas inspired an explosion of innovative decorative devices.

Oc,HAW.19 Barkcloth, kua’ula, Hawaiian Islands, Eastern Polynesia, late 18th Century © The Trustees of the British Museum

Oc,HAW.19, Barkcloth, kua’ula, Hawaiian Islands, Eastern Polynesia, late 18th Century © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another important change was the introduction of machine made cloth into the Pacific which led to a decline in barkcloth-making in some places.

However, the tradition continues in other places and new developments have also come out. For example, many artists from Pacific Islands moved to urban centres such as Auckland (New Zealand) following an exodus from their communities. Those artists integrated barkcloth into high fashion designs which take both western and indigenous clothing styles as inspiration. In the Hawaii, instead, in 2011, a leading hula group performed for the first time in dance costumes made from kapa. This challenged kapa makers to produce cloth that was flexible and durable enough for these vigorous performances.

This exhibition gives a new perspective about the barkcloth and its employ. It is a material not used outside of the Pacific area, and it might be of inspiration for fashion stylist, even architects, or similar.

“Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing” is at the British Museum from 5th February until 16th August 2015, Bloomsbury, London.

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