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Pacific art

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Ceremonial barkcloth cape

mid 20th century


Unknown Artist


Across the eastern highlands region of Papua New Guinea, the inner bark from a species of wild-fig tree is stripped and pounded to form sheets of 'cloth'. In the Siane-speaking area west of the township of Goroka, these trees are known as 'kafo'. Bark strips are beaten out by laying lengths over a log as an anvil then tapping it with a stone beater that has a grille-pattern incised at one end [1]. Among the Benabena people living east of Goroka, large sheets of barkcloth are used to create soaring dance banners, known as 'kafi' [2]. The Alekano speakers north of Goroka name these 'gaheisi'. These objects were previously worn as part of large ritual ceremonies and today are integral to the spectacle of the annual cultural festivals held in Goroka and Mount Hagen.

In the Kamano speaking region south-east of Goroka, capes and emblems known as 'nama' (from the general term for 'bird') are made from barkcloth ('kafé' in Kamano) and sometimes created for dramatic performances known as 'krina'. These performances, as described by anthropologist Catherine Berndt, use material from mythology and human actions to create short skits, 'intended to entertain and amuse in spite of their moral undertones' [3]. The 'krina' always has two 'actors' who must be men or boys and, as Berndt notes, 'those with erotic content arouse the noisiest enthusiasm'. Woris Kubo, a Kamano from the village of Avananofi, contends that the 'krina' also tell stories about the dead and that dancers run among villagers, 'hitting people and frightening the children, enforcing a respect for his spirit' [4].

Ceremonial capes and dance banners are adorned with various designs, painted on with charcoal and earth pigments, usually in shades of pink, red and orange-yellow or brown ochre. The motifs are derived from flora and fauna, specific landforms or conceptual forms, such as a tree drifting downstream.

[1] Richard Salisbury-Rowswell, 'Economic change among the Siane tribes of New Guinea', PhD, ANU, 1957, p 78
[2] Lewis LeRoy Langness, 'Bena Bena social structure', PhD, University of Washington, 1964, pp 81-85
[3] Catherine Berndt, 'Ascription of meaning in a ceremonial context, in the Eastern Central Highlands of New Guinea', in JD Freeman and WR Geddes (eds), Anthropology in the South Seas, Thomas Avery & Sons Limited, New Zealand, 1959, pp 161-183
[4] Woris Kubo, 'Papua New Guinea', in Rosalind Bradley, A matter of life and death: 60 voices share their wisdom, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 2016, pp 208-209


Place where the work was made

Eastern Highlands Province Papua New Guinea


mid 20th century

Media category


Materials used

barkcloth, red and black pigments


134.0 x 66.0 cm


Gift of Chris Boylan 2017. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program


Not on display

Accession number



Where the work was made
Eastern Highlands Province