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Bark Cloth Revival

The following article appeared on the ABC News website on 3 April 2014

Pacific traditions living in a contemporary world

Updated 3 April 2014

Australia Museum in Sydney is spearheading an innovative approach which helps reconnect Pacific communities with their cultural artefacts held in its collections.

This new approach has been instrumental in the revival of bark cloth painting in Erromango, Vanuatu.

The practice had completely disappeared until one traditional leader from South Erromango, Chief Jerry Taki Uminduru, visited the Australian Museum bark cloths collections in the 1980s and decided to revive the tradition in his home island in Vanuatu.

Collections Officer at the Australian Museum Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman said she was extremely moved by Chief Jerry Taki’s story of how encounters with the outside world had severely dislocated Erromangan identity. It was this discussion which prompted Ms Carrillo-Huffman to investigate ways to strengthen that identity.

Many of Erromango’s bark cloths and other cultural items had been either destroyed or donated to museums around the world.

“As a result of that, all aspects of cultural productivity die out because of the process of missionisation and people start leaving their grass skirts and bark cloth production and they start wearing european clothing,” Ms Carrillo-Huffman explained.

“In addition to that, there was the issue of the traditonal designs, they were fading into the memories of many people because of the process of conversion…there was no bark cloth being made.”

The process of reviving the practice had to be done with a lot of cultural sensitivity which required people to identify aspects of their designs and their associations with different clans. One of the sensitive issues was that of copyright.

“Every single design, every single motif, whether it’s the smallest stripe or whether it’s a line or whether it’s a circle or whether it’s a sun, every single aspect of each bark cloth is subject to very strict traditional copyrights.”

But the most essential element of the revival was community interest, “if the community have no interest then it’s worthless to pursue it, but in this case people are really interested…this is the beginning of a major cultural shift that is happening.”