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Ikon presents the first major European gallery exhibition of tapa, the great painted barkcloths from the islands of the Pacific. For millenia, Pacific Islanders have made traditional cloth from the bark of trees. Often taking on ceremonial significance, its decoration is extraordinary, with patterns that are enjoyed for their abstraction as much as their symbolism. Curated by Professor Nicholas Thomas, material for this exhibition is drawn from the worldclass collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, dating from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Barkcloth is made by soaking and beating the inner bark of specific trees, most commonly the Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). Across the region, from New Guinea to Hawai’i, barkcloth has been decorated, in some places in the form of huge sheets featuring optically dynamic abstract patterns, while elsewhere barkcloth garments feature plant and animal life, sacred creatures and mythic narratives. Some barkcloths were wealth objects, spectacular fabrics many metres in width and length which operated as vital valuables, presented by one clan to another on great ceremonial occasions. Others marked sacred spaces, or were incorporated into masks and other ritual assemblages. Cloth was often understood as a kind of skin, a powerful wrapping for the body which revealed its inner state and identity. Primarily created by women using inherited clan designs, the manufacture of barkcloth formed a major vehicle for both creative expression and social cohesion, maintaining and communicating the artists’ deep connection to their ancestors and country.

This exhibition includes cloths spanning over 200 years, from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific. Although the painted barkcloths collected by European museums have remained largely hidden from public view, the tradition remains alive in the Pacific. Ikon’s exhibition includes several works from the small Ömie community who live in the mountains of Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. There, a remarkable group of women are adapting the ancient tradition to create work for the contemporary world.