Papua New Guinea


The Block

Papua New Guineans are renowned for their intricate carvings, produced in different areas according to traditional skills and beliefs. The three-dimensional carving at the centre of the block is typical of the works created in the Murik Lake district. The background, upon which it hangs, is tapa cloth, a soft felt-like fabric that has been created in Papua New Guinea for hundreds of years.

The making of tapa cloth, traditionally done by women, is a labourious process. It involves cutting a two metre piece of bark from the wuwusi tree (a type of mulberry tree), moistening it with water and then beating it across the grain with fisigas (prized palm mallets often handed down from one generation to the next) to spread it into thinner and wider strips. The pieces are folded several times and then pounded with a heavier mallet called a fo, until the desired thickness and width is achieved. Once dry, the cloth is then painted free-hand with natural dyes––black mii for the many small dots and outlines and red dun for the fill.

Designs are often made up by the artist as she works; others are based on clan symbols or geometric patterns. Traditionally used for ceremonial dress, tapa cloth is still used to make garments, such as women’s embobi (wrap-around skirt) and men’s koifi (loincloth), as well as mats, handbags, wall hangings and table tops. For Papua New Guineans, creating and selling tapa cloth is a way to make money from the forest, while still maintaining it as a source of food, medicine, and building materials. The materials used to make the block were collected and donated by Helen Dennet.


A young boy in Papua New Guinea
Girls dressed in ceremonial clothes
Neuirland Wand eines Kulthauses EthnM
Wall panel made of painted bark
Sepik 0057
Village life
Koroba people

Cultural Profile

Papua New Guinea, in the south-west Pacific, comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea together with numerous island groups lying off the coast. The world’s second largest island and formerly a territory of Australia, it was named ‘Ilhas dos Papuas’ by the Portuguese. It was later called ‘New Guinea’ by Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes, who thought the islanders resembled the people of Africa’s Guinea Coast.

A land of volcanoes and earthquakes, Papua New Guinea lies along the so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ and is home to nearly 9,000 species of plants and 700 species of birds. It is also home to the world’s largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing, with a wing span of 27 centimetres (10 inches). The population is comprised mainly of Papuans and Melanesians, with small minorities of whites (mostly Australians) and Asians (mostly Chinese). English, Motu and Tok Pisin (a Creole language) are the official languages, although there are an estimated 848 indigenous tongues spoken as well. Many people however, speak Pidgin (neo-Melanesian), which is derived mainly from English and German.

Papua New Guinea is one of last places on earth where humans virtually untouched by civilization are being introduced into the modern world. The cultural diversity of the country is unique in the world. In some remote places, inhabitants of villages are unaware of the existence of other villages situated nearby due to natural barriers such as dense forests and mountains. As a result, almost half of the 800 and some languages spoken in the country are not related to any other, and 40% of the population lives in complete self-sustainable villages with no access to major cities. Most villagers live a traditional way of life revolving around agriculture and fishing. Haus Tambarans (enormous ceremonial houses), used as a place to gather, carve and market artefacts, are an integral part of daily life. Children also occupy a prominent place within the culture and are viewed as ‘the saviour of today and the promise of tomorrow.’

Papua New Guinea’s art forms are as diverse as they are unique. The country is known for its distinctive pottery, carvings including elaborate canoes, basketwork, and musical instruments including the principal garamut and kundu drums created according to regional traditions and beliefs. Women weave the bilum bags, which feature handles that usually rests on the carrier’s forehead. The bag and handle are made of sisal fibers and can be used to transport goods and carry children. Papua New Guinea is also known for its dramatic sing-sings where recreated stories of battles and conquests involve as many as 20,000 people dancing to the sounds of beating drums and stamping their feet.


Sponsor: Rotary Club of Cornwall | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons