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.