The art of tapa: Celebrating the Omie’s intricate and expanding designs


Since 2017, curator Joan Winter has been spending time with the Omie, an isolated community living in the remote rainforest mountains of Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province. Getting to know the approximately 1800 people living there, Winter has been learning about the cultural significance of tapa, a type of bark cloth made from trees like the paper mulberry and fig. Created by removing the inner bark and beating it until soft and supple, this process forms a material akin to cloth, which is decorated and worn as a skirt for marriages, rites of passage and ceremonies.

When Skirts Become Artworks: Sihoti’e Nioge is a result of a joint project between Winter and Court House Gallery in Cairns, exhibiting works by emerging and senior Omie tapa artists. A tradition spanning multiple cultures across the Pacific, tapa is primarily created by young women, and has only recently been extended to male practitioners. As an artform, the Omie’s tapa designs continue to evolve: “The Omie’s use of grid lines and repetitive patterning gives their tapa a contemporary aesthetic, making their beaten bark cloth remarkable among the Pacific nations,” says Winter.

Nelly Haruto Keme, Uwaje sor’e, (initiation tattoos for young men).

In the exhibition are two forms of tapa distinct to the Omie. Nioge, a painted bark cloth and Sihoti’e, an appliqued cloth that remains unpainted or minimally soaked with mud. On the Nioge cloth’s surface are intricate designs depicting hornbill bird beaks, eggs from the dwarf cassowary and fern fronds. The artists use natural pigments extracted from leaves, sap, fruit and ash. Depictions of ancient tattoo designs and tobacco pipe carvings also illustrate the surface of several tapas.

The Omie’s dynamic compositions will tour nationally. “This is the first tour of their work to public institutions in Australia,” says Winter. “The Omie deserve this attention given their innovative, diverse and most colourful tapa art.”

When Skirts Become Artworks: Sihoti’e Nioge
Omie Tapa Artists
Caloundra Regional Gallery
21 October—4 December

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Briony Downes