Bark cloth from Wallis and Futuna

Waist Cloth (Salatasi), Futuna Island, Wallis and Futuna, late 19th–early 20th century and Sash (Lafi), Wallis and Futuna, late 19th–early 20th century, bark cloth, paint (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Additional resources

Waist cloth (Salatasi) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sash (Lafi) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Polynesia, 1900 A.D.–present in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tapa: Pacific Style at the Museum of New Zealand

Adrienne L Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast, Traditional Tapa: Textiles of the Pacific (Thames and Hudson: London, 1997).

Simon Kooijman, Polynesian Barkcloth (Shire Ethnography: Aylesbury, U.K., 1988).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re here in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at some beautiful hand-painted bark cloth.

Dr. Billie Lythberg: [0:10] We’re looking at two pieces that are from the Wallis and Futuna island group. What we’re looking at is a dance costume, probably worn by a man. So we have a beautiful waist cloth that would have been bundled up and secured around the waist, and then we have this wonderful long sash, one draped over the shoulder and secured at the waist point.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] In the Pacific Islands, you have woven textiles, and then we have textiles made of bark cloth, an important material in so many aspects of life.

Dr. Lythberg: [0:41] In fact, we know that it was already incredibly important to the ancestors of the people who we now recognize as Pacific Islanders, because those ancestors brought with them to the islands most of the plants that they needed to make these textiles. So they carried with them the paper mulberry plant, which is the actual material itself.

[0:58] They also brought with them the plants that they used to make the dyes. They brought with them the plant that they would grow into tall trees and use to make the mallets and anvils that they used to beat bark into cloth.

[1:11] A paper mulberry, which in the Pacific can only be propagated using a tuber propagation method, small saplings are cut. Their bark is peeled from them in a strip. Then the softer inner bark is peeled away from the harder external bark. That’s called bast. That is the material that is beaten into the bark cloth that we’re looking at.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] There are lots of ways of creating the patterns, historically, on the bark cloth. The two pieces that we’re looking at are beautifully hand painted.

Dr. Lythberg: [1:42] These pieces have been entirely decorated with a freehand technique. What you can see around the salatasi, which is the beautiful waist cloth, is a border of painted plant-based pigment, and in the center, a richly decorated intricate pattern that has been created freehand using a sharpened coconut frond midrib.

[2:06] The pigments are all plant-based. We have a beautiful brown pigment that is made from a tree called koka. There is a darker pigment that is made by burning the nuts of a candlenut tree. Sometimes an earth-based pigment is used as well.

[2:24] So when we’re talking about beating the inner bark in order to make these pieces, obviously we’re not going to end up with a piece large enough to form this salatasi. What you actually end up with are strips. These strips are pieced together using a tuberous vegetable, in this case probably arrowroot. Again, another introduction to this area.

[2:45] Here, what we’re looking at are two pieces that have probably been made by an individual woman, but when the larger pieces are made, they’re made by groups of women who work collectively to produce extraordinarily big pieces.

Dr. Harris: [2:56] We see very intricate patterns based on a grid, where some of the squares have been filled in forming these diagonals. There is a sense of movement and energy here. When we see regular patterning like this, it’s easy to immediately jump to “this is made on a machine,” but there are small irregularities. One feels the hand of the artist.

Dr. Lythberg: [3:19] It would have taken someone an awfully long time to do. Definitely a prestigious garment and something to wear with great pride when performing.

[3:27] If we take a look in profile at this sash, which is known as the lafi, you can see that it’s quite thick, and it would have been fairly stiff. It’s a heavy fabric. Part of the wonder of them is that they are quite stiff, and they do create an incredible sense of volume when they’re worn on the body.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] I imagine there’s a kind of heavy sound when someone is dancing in them or moving in them.

Dr. Lythberg: [3:51] In Tonga, for example, which is not too far from these islands, there is a special word that is used only to describe the noise that is made by a new piece of bark cloth when it’s being worn.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] I wish we could take it out of the case and hear what that sounds like.

Dr. Lythberg: [4:06] The other fun thing would be to get a sense of what this smells like, because some of these pigments have got the most extraordinarily earthy scents to them. And where pieces have been specially prepared with coconut oil, sometimes scented coconut oil, or they’ve been worn on the body of a dancer that is themselves shining with coconut oil, then they had that, too. Really evocative.

[4:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Billie Lythberg and Dr. Beth Harris, "Bark cloth from Wallis and Futuna," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2021, accessed July 13, 2024,