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Prized barkcloth shown in 'Second Skins' at UCLA's Fowler

The show is the first exhibition of Ömie barkcloth at an American museum.

April 01, 2012|By Scarlet Cheng, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Drawing on Barkcloth Mbuti Peoples, Ituri Forest, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 20th century. Plant fiber, natural pigments collection of Jeffrey B. Spurr.
Drawing on Barkcloth Mbuti Peoples, Ituri Forest, Democratic Republic… (Fowler Museum, Fowler Museum )

For millenniums, human beings have been ingenious in putting tree bark to a range of uses — as canoe coverings, containers, cork bottle-stops and even clothing. Among cultures that still make barkcloth, two have become well known: the Mbuti of the Ituri rain forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Ömie of Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea, although these days they wear it mostly at ceremonial occasions.

"Second Skins: Painted Barkcloth From New Guinea and Central Africa," an exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (through Aug. 26), highlights the beauty and intricacies of barkcloth's hand-drawn designs, qualities that have made it a prized collectible.

In both regions, the basic process is the same — stripping the fibrous inner bark from trees, then pounding and folding it repeatedly to create a soft, felt-like cloth. Women are the key artisans and decorate the cloth with vegetable dyes, applied with a stick or brush or the fingers.

In 2004 the Ömie organized into a cooperative, now known as Ömie Artists, to bring in much-needed income, so much more is known about their practice.

The Ömie section is arranged by 15 artists, each noted for her patterns. "The women have always been individual artists," says Roy Hamilton, senior curator of Asian and Pacific collections at the Fowler. "Collectors have been interested in the quality of spontaneity, the improvised nature of the work."

On the other hand, Mbuti barkcloth, exported in large quantities beginning in the late 1980s through France and Belgium, has little background information attached. Mbuti artists "were known for their spontaneity and unconventional decentered approach to composition, " says Gemma Rodrigues, the Fowler's curator of African Arts, "and they were collected by artists like Terry Winters and Brice Marden." Rodrigues believes some of the work was made collectively, as one often sees the design split into two patterns, such as one from the 1940s with striped lozenges on one side and dots on the other.

In both cultures, barkcloth patterns reflect stylized representations of plants, animals and the land around them. One by Ömie artist Ivy-Rose Sirimi shows jagged trees, mountains and hornbill beaks; another by Vivian Marumi shows a dense net of climbing reddish-brown and yellow vines with thorns.

While most designs are non-narrative, Lila Warrimou, paramount chief of the Ömie Women, has made several based on cultural lore. One links the origin of the barkcloth to the origin of humankind. In it the first man and first woman stand atop a triangular Mount Obo, with trees from which she will later make barkcloth growing from its side. "Second Skins" is the first exhibition of Ömie barkcloth at an American museum.

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