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. It is likely to have been made for thousands of years. The best known use of barkcloth in New Guinea is in the masks of the Elema groups of Orokolo Bay in the Gulf of Papua. The most common are the eraho mask types. These are quite common and of a huge variety. On the North coast of Papua New Guinea in Collingwood Bay and adjacent bays of Oro province paper mulberry cloth is highly decorated by women in freehand designs in red, black and brown.
Bismarck Archipelago: New Ireland
Barkcloth was mainly used in making masks. The top-knot on the mask in the exhibition, dating from the 1860s, is made of a small section of plain coarse barkcloth.
Barkcloth in the Solomon Islands is found mainly on the central islands of Santa Isabel and the New Georgia group. The cloth is often decorated with motifs of fish, human figures and a distinctive ‘key’ like design. These cloths were often traded to other islands as in the example collected by Brenchley from the Maidstone museum.
Santa Cruz Islands
Breechclouts and cylindrical head-dresses were made of barkcloth, decorated in rectangular panels filled with fine hatched diamond designs. The source of the cloth is paper mulberry. Most evidence points to the island of Ndende as the manufacturing centre. This is the largest island of the group. Production was started again here in the 1970s.
The craft died out on all islands except Tanna by the early 20th century. Where it was briefly revived during the beginning of the Second World War. Most Vanuatuan pieces in museums are from Erromango, including the one in the World Cultures gallery, collected in the early 20th century. The sheets were made and decorated by women and used by women as a cape, for ceremonial display and in transactions such as marriage payments.