Barkcloth in Melanesia

Map of Oceania highlighting the region of Melanesia (© Pacific Peoples' Partnership; edited to add region overlay)
Map of Oceania highlighting the region of Melanesia (© Pacific Peoples’ Partnership; edited to add region overlay)

Art Historical Description

Although the Polynesia-Melanesia distinction is open to question, there are recognisable traits in each region which are useful to a discussion of barkcloth style, materials and manufacturing techniques. Barkcloth manufacture was not a universally practiced art form in the western Pacific (as it was, broadly speaking, in Polynesia), but rather sits within a complex geographical mosaic of garment production and fibre art practices. Partly as a result of that, Melanesian traditions of barkcloth manufacture can generally be characterised as regionally diverse but locally conservative. It seems unlikely that Melanesian barkcloth production has ever strongly favoured one fabric species in a regional sense (as paper mulberry has dominated Polynesia); instead, each national or sub-national tradition has favoured its own, and these are as often Ficus prolixa, Antiaris toxicaria or Artocarpus altilis as Broussonetia; as often wild-harvested as cultivated. That said, there is little evidence for a broad range of different fabric types in concurrent production in most Melanesian societies, and most seem to have relied on a single species. The decoration of Melanesian barkcloth is (in this same material, rather than aesthetic, sense) more limited than Polynesian: bast processing and composition were simpler; decorative methods relied heavily on hand-painting; and, despite a greater biodiversity in the environment, the palette of exploited colourants was narrower. All these traits suggest that, although barkcloth production was a significant art form in the western Pacific, it did not attain the level of social and cultural significance that it did in the east.


Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

Characteristic Fabric Types

Barkcloth within Melanesia – Eastern Melanesia

The sub-region defined as Eastern Melanesia here, and comprising the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, contains many remarkable .


Vanuatu; Solomon Islands

Barkcloth within Melanesia – Papua New Guinea

PNG is, famously, the most linguistically diverse nation on earth and has a cultural and artistic diversity befitting that. The number of barkcloth objects from New Guinea included in this iteration of the web resource is very small – neither the Hunterian nor Kew has a large collection of Melanesian material – and so we do not present distinct provinces. That said, barkcloth art in Papua New Guinea presents several impressive traditions. On the New Guinea mainland, these include the ceremonially important ficus barkcloth initiation cloaks of the Anga in the Eastern Highlands. The Papuan Gulf has produced fine ficus barkcloth belts and magnificent Broussonetia masks. Two strong traditions of Broussonetia cloth-making in Oro Province are associated with striking and colourful hand-painting, and command respectable prices on contemporary Pacific art market: the long-known art of the Maisin around Wanigela and the recently-publicised art of the Ömie. In the Bismarck Archipelago to the west, New Britain stands out for the Baining’s creation of vast Broussonetia masks, and other finely painted cloths.


Entry created on 28 August 2020