Tapa cloth, a traditional handcrafted material made from tree bark, holds an undeniably crucial place in the rich tapestry of Papua New Guinea's cultural heritage. This article seeks to illuminate the significance of this fascinating textile, focusing on its place within Oro Province. Here, in the eastern part of Papua New Guinea, tapa cloth is not merely a craft but also a storyteller and a symbol of tradition that brings the community together.

History and creation process

Tapa cloth, known locally as "barkcloth," is steeped in centuries of tradition.

Exploring the anatomy of tapa cloth

Let us explore the art of tapa cloth creation and its intricate details. Every section of the fabric conveys a distinct aspect of the narrative, and each phase of the procedure contributes an additional stratum of significance and past events.

Bark selection

Tapa cloth creation starts with the selection of the right tree. The paper mulberry tree, known locally as 'u'a', is preferred for its soft, pliable inner bark. The trees are carefully cultivated and their growth is monitored until they reach an optimal size for harvesting. This initial process of bark selection is a communal effort where knowledge of the local flora is passed down through generations.

Soaking and beating

Once harvested, the bark undergoes a soaking process to prepare it for the next step: beating. The bark is submerged in water, a method that softens the fibres and makes them easier to manipulate. It is then pounded with mallets. A process that can take hours or even days. The repeated action breaks down the fibres, gradually expanding the bark into a cloth-like material. This labour-intensive stage is often a social event, bringing together groups of women who share stories and songs as they work.

Design and decoration

The newly formed cloth is then dried and prepared for decoration. The motifs are drawn freehand or through the use of stencils. They use a variety of natural pigments derived from plants, clay, and charcoal. In Oro Province, the designs reflect local symbols, stories, or natural elements like the fronds of the sago palm or the flight of the bird of paradise. Designing and decorating the cloth is a form of storytelling, turning each piece into a visual narrative.

Finishing touches

Often, for ceremonial purposes, the cloth is embellished with additional materials like shells, feathers, or seeds. This adds an extra layer of beauty and has a symbolic intention. Feathers, for instance, might represent status or achievements, while shells might signify wealth or trade relationships. Every piece of tapa cloth is not just a piece of decorated bark. They are testaments to the skill, patience, and creativity of their maker and a vibrant page in the living history of the Oro Province. While the precise origins of tapa cloth production are lost in the mists of time, it is believed that the craft was developed in parallel across many Pacific cultures, reflecting the needs and aesthetics of each region. In the Oro Province, tapa cloth is distinguished by its intricate designs, traditionally applied with natural dyes and often adorned with shells or feathers for ceremonial purposes.

Cultural significance of the tapa cloth

Tapa cloth is more than just a textile in Oro Province; it's a cultural artefact bearing the weight of historical significance and communal identity. The designs imprinted on the cloth are usually representative of tribal symbols, legends, and traditional motifs. The Oro people use these patterns as a means of storytelling, historical preservation, and passing down wisdom from one generation to the next. Cloth is a crucial element in various social events and rituals. They are a part of weddings, funerals, and rites of passage. It is seen as a bridge that connects the present generation with their ancestors, weaving together threads of their cultural fabric. Women, traditionally the producers of tapa, pass on these techniques to their daughters, ensuring the survival of this cultural cornerstone.

Symbolism and designs

The beauty of tapa cloth lies in its diversity of designs and symbols. They range from geometric patterns to stylised animal and plant motifs. The meaning embedded within these designs is often profound, representing spiritual beliefs, status, or historical events. The Kikau pattern, for instance, resembling a fringed broom, is common in Oro tapa cloth and symbolises unity. In a broader sense, it communicates that a community working together can sweep away difficulties and challenges.

Preservation and challenges

Despite the cultural importance of tapa cloth, the traditional art form faces challenges. Modernisation and changes in lifestyle have led to a decline in tapa production. Younger generations, often lured by urban life, sometimes neglect these traditions. However, concerted efforts are being made to preserve this unique art form. Schools and local organisations conduct workshops and festivals celebrating tapa cloth production and its cultural significance, reinforcing its relevance among the younger generation. International recognition has also helped preserve the tradition. Tapa cloth has attracted global attention for its intricate designs and traditional manufacturing process. It has generated interest among anthropologists, historians, and art enthusiasts worldwide.


Tapa cloth is a testament to Oro Province's rich cultural legacy and intricate relationship with nature. This cloth, crafted from tree bark, reflects the community's values, beliefs, and history. Despite contemporary challenges, the tapa cloth remains a resilient symbol of Oro Province's cultural identity, an enduring testament to the area's unique heritage, and an eloquent demonstration of the intricate link between man and his natural environment. It is a tradition that deserves to be celebrated and preserved for future generations to appreciate and understand the depths of their cultural roots.