Second Skin: Everyday and Sacred Uses of Bark Worldwide
These pages are based on RAMM's 'Second Skin' exhibition.
This exhibition demonstrated the many uses of bark and showed the amazing range of barkcloth designs produced in the last 250 years by artists both known and unknown.
RAMM has a collection of about 160 examples of barkcloth from many parts of the world. Only a small number are displayed in the World Cultures galleries at any one time. You can see more in this theme and in the objects theme.
Barkcloth combines the exotic and the familiar. The uses to which this kind of cloth have been put may be obvious – costume, matting, house decoration. The designs are vibrant and immediately attractive, yet the material itself is unfamiliar to most westerners.
We hope this theme sparks your interest in a little-known material.
Try our barkcloth printing game!
Bark is the many layered, outer covering or skin of a tree. Bark adapts to protect the living tree from its environment. The outer bark, the periderm, has several layers - as in the nearby drawing.
Most cultures have long understood that plant chemicals have medicinal properties. Bark has been used as medicine in China for the treatment of arthritis.
Cloth made from beaten bark is found only in the tropical regions of the globe. The main centres are in the tropical Pacific Islands, island south-east Asia (the Philippine Islands, Sulawesi, Borneo), east, central and west Africa, central and tropical South America.
Bark as a surface coating has been attractive to artists and craftsmen worldwide: print-makers and furniture-makers in Europe, canoe-makers and north America, home-builders in aboriginal Australia.
Clothing has been made from bark sheet and bark fibre by peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, the Ainu nation of Hokkaido in northern Japan, and groups in Melanesia and Africa.
Bark can be split into pliable, long strips suitable for basketry making. Vine rinds or barks can make very long weaving elements, producing a strong even structure, free of joints.
The main uses of barkcloth in Africa include everyday and ceremonial clothing, for bedding, as room decoration, as shroud material and most recently, as examples of craft items for tourists.
Aztec accounts were kept on paper called amatl, made from fig bark. Moctezuma had a ‘great house’ full of such record books.
The Pacific galleries have been split into seven sections: Fiji, Hawaiian, Marquesas Islands and Cook Islands, Melanesia, Samoa and Uvea, Society Islands and Pitcairn, Tonga
Barkcloth (masi) in the Fijian Islands is only made of the paper mulberry tree. Masi has many forms and design styles.
As in other Polynesian islands, paper mulberry was the most usual source of bark for making barkcloth or kapa, although breadfruit and wild fig were also used.
Marquesan barkcloth (hiapo) is made from paper mulberry, breadfruit and banyan, a fig species. The collection made by Jenny Balfour-Paul in February 2001 on Fatu Hiva, the most southerly and remote of the islands, includes pieces manufactured from each of these three species.
The vast island of New Guinea is the most culturally diverse region in the world. Over 700 separate languages are spoken. So it is not surprising that there are many different kinds of barkcloth in New Guinea but it is not found all over the island.
Decorated barkcloth in Samoa is known as siapo. It is made exclusively from paper mulberry bark. Siapo is decorated in two ways.
Tahitian barkcloth was made from three types of tree: fig (aoa or are) breadfruit (uru) or best of all paper mulberry (aute).
In both the islands groups of Tonga and Samoa, barkcloth was and is usually made using the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree.