The next exhibition in our Ian Potter Gallery celebrates the unique and dynamic barkcloth art movement of the Ömie people of Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse places on earth, with a population of approximately 8.8 million people, speaking over 800 known languages. Around 80-85% of people live a predominately village-based life, making a living from subsistence and small cash-crop agriculture.
About 1800 Ömie people live in ridgetop villages to the south of Dahöre Huvaimo (Mount Lamington), in Northern (Oro) Province. Their villages are remote, with a transient local airstrip and homes up to a three-day trek from the nearest road, which links the regional town of Kokoda to the provincial capital, Popondetta. Their rainforested territory provides bush foods, medicine, and other raw materials. Traditional forms of wealth include garden produce, pigs and mahudane (pig’s tusks). However, in common with many other New Guineans, they have been seeking a maja ‘ i’e (new day), and access to the wider cash economy since the country started moving towards Independence in 1975.
The marketing of Ömie nioge (barkcloth) has been a recent success, meeting some of these aspirations. Through the generosity of donor Todd Barlin, the Macleay Collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum, now houses what is thought to be one of the largest public collections of these barkcloths. Over 100 cloths represent a diversity of Ömie artists, and mostly come from the private collection of Pacific Arts collector/dealer David Baker, who passed away in 2009.
Baker initially made contact with Ömie villagers in 2002, sparking a mutual interest in selling their distinctive barkcloth. The earliest cloth in our collection dates to this trip. During a 2004 follow-up visit, Baker was joined by author Drusilla Modjeska, and the cooperative, Ömie Nemiss Inc. (now Ömie Artists Inc.), was established. The collection represents this early transitional period, the development of cloths as contemporary art for walls, not only for local ceremonial and domestic use. Artists continue to produce work today which is exhibited and sold through the cooperative with the support of an Australian-based manager.
Two of the foundational ancestors of the Ömie were a man called Mina and a woman called Suja. It is said that Mina instructed Suja to make the first cloth from the bark of the sihe tree, to soak it in the water and mud of the Suhojo (Uhojo) River. While introduced western-style clothing is popular, nioge continue to be made for a range of domestic purposes and are especially worn and used as skirts and loincloths for ceremonial celebrations.
Nioge is made through a complex process of felting the inner bark of a variety of rainforest trees. Levered off in long strips, the inner bast is separated from the outer bark. It is cleaned, folded, and beaten smooth with heavy mallets. The cloth often retains natural elements such as fine holes.
The first red mud-dyed nioge had a relationship to ancestor Suja’s first menstruation and female fertility. Nioge dyed red and grey with volcanic and riverine muds are still made. Other pigments used by Ömie are derived from a range of rainforest plants, including reds such as birire made from a type of fern, shades of black-green called barige made from a variety of catalysed leaves, and a yellow dye made from ripened aré fruit.
The mountains, rainforest, and rivers of Ömie territory are the seat of their spirituality, home to their sacred sites and kinë’e (bush spirits). Historically ma’i ma’i (land-based totems) and anie (plant emblems) defined social identity and ancestral relationships to land. Human social and physiological development was conceptualised with tree metaphors: ancestors and elders extend from the roots, and children and grandchildren are associated with fine twigs and leaves. Ömie recognise male and female duvahe, clan and community leaders of learned and respected status. Duvahe is an adjective for the fork of a tree, the point where major branches diverge.
Senior women and duvahe (clan leaders) are responsible for painting the black or'eseegé (pathways), the outlines of nioge designs. Younger artists learn through observation and play a support role, applying the colour in the interstices of these important decorative frameworks. In time, they inherit and gain rights to paint the designs themselves, adding their own hand to the distinctive Ömie design repertoire of their mothers, fathers, aunts, and grandmothers.
Vibrant and stylistically distinct nioge resonate with the cultural jögore (law), environmental knowledge, and creativity of their makers. They feature diverse patterns, from the sharp peaks and contours of mountains to concentric ‘cycling’ square motifs called nuni’e, the ‘design of the eye’ or ‘weaving pattern’. Minutely observed details from nature are a prominent design feature reflecting intimate and coded information in organic and geometric arrangements.
Faunal motifs include delicately observed patterns of animal bones, skin, tracks and webs. Botanical motifs include fruits and the patterns of bark of revered trees, and for example, the ubiquitous tendrils and thorns of the ödae climbing vine. In a form of cultural archiving, some designs record historic tattoo patterns, applied to the cloths but no longer onto bodies.
Ömie barkcloth: Pathways of nioge opens on Monday, 9 January 2023 on Level 4 in the Ian Potter Gallery.
Rebecca Conway is Curator, Ethnography, Macleay Collections
This article was first published in issue 29 of Muse Magazine, November 2022.
Header image: Ömie nioge, Ömie territory, Northern Province, PNG. Photo: Drusilla Modjeska, March 2004