Shifting patterns
Pacific barkcloth clothing

5 February – 6 December 2015

Recommend this exhibition

Hula dancers from the Hālau Nā Kipuʻupuʻu group, Kaʻauea, Hawaiʻi, Hawaiian Islands, 2011. Photography: Dino Morrow.

Ribbed barkcloth, kua’ula, used for men’s loincloths. Hawaiian Islands, late 1700s–early 1800s. 
British Museum number Oc,HAW.19

Discover a selection of textiles from the Pacific made from barkcloth. Used to wrap, drape and adorn the body in a myriad of styles and designs, these garments demonstrate the long history of barkcloth, and its ongoing relevance today.

In the islands of the Pacific, cloth made from the inner bark of trees is a distinctive art tradition. Probably brought to the region at least 5,000 years ago by some of the first human settlers, its designs reflect the histories of each island group and the creativity of the makers. Spanning the region from New Guinea in the west to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, the exhibition will show a selection of 77 garments, headdresses, masks and body adornments from the Museum’s collection. Dating from the 1700s to 2014, the pieces on display include those worn as everyday items and ceremonial costumes linked to key life cycle events such as initiation and marriage.

Barkcloth is generally made and decorated by women, but garments intended for ritual purposes may be made by men. This is particularly true in the masking traditions of Papua New Guinea. The Baining people who live on the large island of New Britain continue to make masks for day and night dances. In the exhibition, an elaborately decorated Baining mask made in the 1970s demonstrates how barkcloth can be used in dramatic three-dimensional creations.

Imported cloth and the changes brought by colonial activities across the region have had different impacts on the art form. In some locations, such as Tonga, barkcloth making never completely stopped. In others, such as Hawaii, the practice has actively been revived and Hawaiian kapa is now worn for high profile hula performances. The exhibition considers these recent developments, and shows a barkcloth dance skirt made in 2014 by Hawaiian practitioner Dalani Tanahy alongside some fine examples of early Hawaiian cloth, including a cloth with striking red and black designs thought to have been made in the late 1700s.

New arenas for cultural expression continue to emerge through barkcloth creations, as urban Pacific Island designers incorporate barkcloth elements and patterns into garments intended for the catwalk. A stunning wedding dress made by New Zealand-based Samoan designer, Paula Chan Cheuk illustrates this movement and reflects the continuing relevance of barkcloth as a flexible, resilient art tradition.