Tapa cloth

Photography Carl Warner

Photography Carl Warner

Registration number
Item name
Tapa cloth 
Indigenous name
Associated cultural group
Sahuoté clan, Ömie language 
Pacific > Papua New Guinea > Oro (Northern) Province > Ijivitari District > Gorabuna village
Acquisition date
Acquisition method
Unrecorded by Unrecorded 
Raw material
barkcloth; natural pigments
H: W: 645 mm L: 1505 mm D: Circum:


Research notes

Until recently this barkcloth skirt was only known to have been created in Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. In 2012 two female senior artists of Oro Province’s Ömie tribe, Chief of Dahorurajé clan women Fate Savari (Isawdi), born c.1933, and Chief of Sahuoté clan women Celestine Warina (Kaaru), born c.1947, identified the cloth as Ömie. Both Chiefs indicated that the barkcloth, otherwise known as nioge, was most likely painted by a Sahuoté clanperson from the Gorabuna village area. The first thing Fate said when she saw the image of the cloth was ‘Ojé’, the ancestral name of Gorabuna village. Both artists had different interpretations of some of the designs due to their respective clan knowledge, however Fate also pointed out that the different clans of Ömie tribe share many of the same designs. Astonishingly, most of the designs seen in this barkcloth are still painted today.

The lines that run parallel to one another are known as oriseegé, representing pathways. The main arc design is jaje, the design of the kundu drum. The succession of short lines within the ‘pathways’ is udan’e une, the eggs of the Giant Spiny Stick Insect (Eurycantha calcarata). The repetitive lines that run diagonally within the ‘pathways’, Celestine calls cobburé jö’o si’o si’o ve’e representing the pattern of the snake’s mouth, and Fate calls ije bi’weje – boys cutting the leaves of a tree. Fate tells the story for this design:

“The mother was cleaning the bush to make a garden with her two young sons. The boys climbed a tree to cut all of the branches and leaves down. The branches fell down and the mother took all of the leaves and threw them away. Then the mother got plenty of bananas, taro and yam to plant in their newly cleared garden. When they finished planting all of the plants, they ate all of the food from the garden and lived a long life.”

Since the early 1900s missionaries have attempted to convert the Ömie to Christianity and suppress their ancient culture and beliefs. In some outlying Ömie villages barkcloths were incinerated and the practice of barkcloth painting banned. Examples of early Ömie barkcloths are incredibly rare and their survival is important to the Ömie as it evidences their ancestors' knowledge and artistic traditions at a time when it was unaffected by outside influences.

This Item of the Month was written by Brennan King, Manager of Ömie Artists, and Ömie Artists Inc.

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