Cook Islands, Aitutaki, late 19th century
I was interested to see the cloths, but was entirely unprepared for the scale and stunning effect. The cool, white space of the Ikon, with its high ceilings, is a perfect setting.
Fiji, early 20th century
Some of the pieces are smaller, but others are wall sized. Further reading reveals that some of larger pieces are actually fragments of enormous cloths many metres in length that were ceremonial objects intended to be divided among the participants at an event such as a wedding. The photograph here gives an indication of scale. While the larger cloths would have been used for bedding, the smaller ones were worn, as illustrated here.
Though the scale is vast, the paintings are incredibly detailed.
Fiji, early 20th century, detail
Futuna, early 20th century, detail
Variation and interruption to the geometric designs creates a strong sense of movement. It’s hard to look at some of the pieces without feeling that the patterns are in motion.
Futuna, early 20th century
The cloth is made by beating and felting the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (and some other barks) in a long process that was undertaken by women as a communal activity. The paddles used to repeatedly beat the bark are sometimes patterned to introduce a patter or ‘watermark’ to the cloth. The processing of Hawaiian barkcloth is described here with pictures of the equipment used, included the decorated paddles.
Fiji, 1870s, detail
I particularly enjoyed this early 20th century piece from New Britain, Papua New Guinea
and this Niue piece from the 1880s
I was itching to touch the works on display, with my hands held behind my back to keep them out of mischief. The member of staff on duty must have recognised the pose as she came over and offered me a sample of cloth to fondle. It was much softer than I expected, warm and comforting.
I highly recommend a visit to the exhibition, which is on until 14th July. And if you can’t make it to Birmingham to see the cloths in person, the catalogue, with interesting information and excellent images, is the next best thing.
— words & pictures by Elizabeth