There is nothing quite like these barkcloths anywhere in the world. What differentiates the Ömie nioge from Pacific and South American barkcloth is the simplicity of its creation: Ömie women work individually, and only by hand. The lines wobble and weave along the uneven, untreated surface, and avoid symmetry or mimesis; but the Ömie aren’t interested in contriving their art. Their art reflects nature in its freeness, and in its composition. Everything used in the making of nioge comes from nature. There is an integrity to nature in this work.
In 2004, David Baker came across the barkcloths while exploring the isolated regions of Papua New Guinea. Since then, Ömie have exhibited their work in galleries in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and San Francisco. In 2010, the first exhibition came to the Osborne Samuel gallery in London, and then, in 2013, the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, which took its collection from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Among this collection is the work of Brenda Kesi, whose nioge are rare and unique, coloured by the mud-dying techniques she learnt from her grandmother, replicating the first nioge created by the first woman, Sujo. We are privileged to have some of her work exhibited at JGM Gallery.
How Ömie Nioge Began
Along the south-eastern end of Papua New Guinea, between the Solomon and the Coral seas, lies the Ömie territory. The villages cling to an active volcano, Huvaemo, a nine hour walk from the nearest road. Ömie isolation, and proximity to nature, has allowed them to develop a unique vision of life. Nature and ancestral forces are their guide and teacher; they live on the same mountain that the first Ömie were created.
Think of the Christian creation story. Now imagine that Adam sends Eve into exile, and orders her to paint a picture as a symbol and manifestation of her wisdom, and ability to bear children. That’s what happens in the Ömie creation story. In short:
The first man, Mina, and first woman, Suja, emerge from the waters of the Girua River, which flows down from Huvaemo. Suja, whose name means ‘I do not know’, cannot have children, and Mina sends her away until her first menstrual cycle is over. He then tells her, when it does end, that she should create a nioge (barkcloth). She cuts into the first tree, and creates the first barkcloth. She soaks it in red river mud to symbolise her blood, and her ability to bear children. The couple reunite, cut the barkcloth in two, and each wear a piece to cover themselves.
The importance of nioge seems apparent: Suja can bear children, and so she makes a nioge to symbolise her fertility.
But there is more going on here. It is suggested that Suja can only create nioge once she has grown out of her ignorance; it seems that the nioge is more than a symbol of fertility, and, in fact, a manifestation of wisdom. It is as if the creation of art reflects the creation of life.
And that is why, even today, only Ömie women are allowed to create nioge. It takes some training for a woman to be allowed to create nioge. Until a woman reaches that stage, she is allowed to practice her art by filling in the red and yellow paint between the black lines of the work. The black lines cannot be touched. They are the pathways, the essence, the energy and wisdom of the art, and a woman must be initiated as an artist before she can create the pathways. That such importance is placed on the training, and the wisdom, of these women is testament to the value the Ömie place on the artist, and their process.
It starts as a duvahe (chief) selects a tree from which to make the nioge. The chiefs are selected on merit, not birthright; one critical requirement is that the chief is deemed to possess uehorëro (wisdom), and understand the symbolic practices that govern the creation of nioge, which include a collection of rituals, rules, and magic cumulatively called jögore. It is the jögore that gives the nioge its spirit, or kinë’i. I use the word spirit cautiously, for our language is inadequate to describe things we do not culturally understand.
The selected trees are most commonly paper mulberry, fig, or hibiscus. Once a tree is chosen, the woman positions herself towards a stream coming off the mountain, then speaks words of ritual, and removes the outer bark from the tree. The incision runs from the top of the inner flesh, down to the bottom. From here, a long strip of bast, or inner bark, is produced.
The tree gives its ‘spirit’ to the infant nioge. The bast is then left to dry, and laid under sleeping mats for several nights to keep it flat. Then, it is beaten into a cloth using a hitaborota (flat stone), and then a kiveroi (broad mallet). During this process, the artist drips water on the cloth to stop it breaking.
There are three basic colours from which most nioge are made. The black paint is called barige, and is made from burnt leaves of omu hane (a small bamboo tree). The ash of these leaves is wrapped in tulif leaves, and chewed up, before being spat into the shell of a coconut. Sometimes, this black has a green hue. The shade is modified by the amount of fresh leaves that are included in the chewing process.
The red colour, called barire, is ingeniously procured. The skin of the biredihane tree, which grows by the rivers, is placed on ferns that line a bark container. Stones are heated in a fire, and added to the mixture, along with some ash. The fern lining is folded over to help to cook the mixture. Water is added, and the liquid turns red with the heat; the ferns are squeezed to release the paint. With varying applications of heat, the shade of red can be modified from a dark brown to oxblood.
The yellow colour, called are, is made from a guava-like fruit. It is green when young, and so has to ripen to the perfect shade of yellow. Then, it is cut open, and the flesh is scooped into a coconut shell. Water is added to make a paste, which is worked to make cadmium yellow.
From here, there are several directions for the progression of the art. Some artists have designs handed down to them by their family. Meanwhile, the duvahe are allowed to paint out their own uehorëro (wisdom), and visions. The men will contribute stories to the women, but it is up to the initiated women to interpret them, which they can do freely. The Ömie emphasis on interpretation reflects a certain openness, a freeness of mind, and an understanding of the importance of the individual – the artist – and what they see, rather than what they are prescribed. It leads to a more natural, open, and honest form of art that can be seen in every nioge, none of which are the same. This interpretative stance allows for one story to result in many different styles and forms, which again highlights something of Ömie wisdom – perhaps, that no one view can be deemed ‘right’, and no one deemed ‘wrong’.
The artist starts with the black paint. She holds a sharp stick between her first and third finger, and dips it into the mixture. She usually starts with the frame, lines of two or three, and then the ore sige (pathways), which vary in density and thickness, giving the life-force to the nioge. However, there is no prescribed rule for the order of painting. Some artists move methodically from one corner across the cloth, whilst others have several starting points, and move freely between them, letting the pathways meet. When the artists paint, they sing and dance, offering ritual to the proceedings, and a special kind of ancestral homage that awakens the art. When they sing, they sing ‘This place, our art’.
Ömie then, Ömie now
It has not been an easy recent history for the Ömie. That is why the rituals are so important; they have become increasingly sparse over the last century.
In 1942, war between the Australians and Japanese broke out on the Kokoda trail, causing devastation and loss of life to the Ömie people. That same year, an Australian patrol drove deep into Ömie territory, hoping to recruit labour for the war. When they entered, they interrupted a special Ömie tradition, which took place every seven to twelve years, known as sore bijiohe. Young boys were kept in underground cells for months at a time, before they were tattooed to signify and announce their manhood. The patrol halted the ritual, and the tradition started to break up with the ever progressing influence of Christian missionaries. The missionaries burnt nioge. Then, in January 1951, Mount Lamington erupted. Many of the Ömie, especially the lower villages near the abandoned airport in Asapa, believed that this was a sign from their ancestors, who reside in an invisible village on the volcano. They believed it was a sign that the old ways were being lost. Many of these villages gave up nioge creation, and sore bijiohe, and decided to join their Orokaivan neighbours, with whom they had previously warred, by adopting the evangelical teachings of the missions, in the hope that they would find monetary wealth. Marta Rohatynskyj, who worked in some of the areas that abandoned traditional practices, describes how she heard reports of ‘mass burnings of ritual paraphernalia’, and that the Ömie ‘literally gave themselves up to another configuration of power in the control of their lives’.
Meanwhile, the villages further up the mountain, and therefore less accessible to tahua (white people), felt differently about the eruption. They believed that it was caused by the wandering spirits of foreign soldiers, who could not rest because they had died on a land that was not their home. These villages strengthened their traditions, and decided to double up and use the nioge as a kind of second skin on which they could rekindle the tattoos that had once signified so much to them.
It is worth noting that the nioge you see here are not simply husks of tradition, or vain attempts to appease some ancestral spirit; this is the living culture of the Ömie people, an art that marks their vision of life. It is a beautiful vision, and one that, in many ways, we have moved far away from, as our society spends less time with nature; but in the pathways, in the lines and colours and shapes, we can hope to glimpse something of the world that transcends language or culture, to reach something essentially human.
“I paint from my observations of the mountains and forests and creatures. Dreams give me inspiration…”
- Dapeni Jonevari (Mokokari), Chief of Ematé clan women.
Jennifer has selected a wide range of artists for this exhibition, each displaying different styles and techniques, echoing the freedom with which they work. While all artists take ‘observations’ from the natural world, their visions are unique and personal. They observe nature, and learn what it has to say. From this source, the artists reveal little truths, patterns, and ways of envisioning life, and the natural world.
In some cases, this patterning is profound and dense. In Dapeni Jonevari’s piece, ‘Men’s Ceremonial Initiation Tattoo [Heads of men (with pattern of a leaf, jungle vines, siha’e fruit design of the belly button) and Ömie mountains]’, we have such an example. The minute details of the vines, and the tendrils that wave in untouched, negative space, give the barkcloth a rhythm and a motion. Ilma Savari offers a similarly dense detailing of nature in her work ‘Design of the bush snail, design of the bellybutton, spots of the wood boring grub, tattoos and beaks of the parrot’. But when you step back, and look at the piece in its entirety, the details amount to striking patterns. The energetic, zigzagging black and white triangles offer varying suggestions of depth as they spread from the centre to the corners of the bark.
In other cases, the patterning is less dense, and more abstract. Ilma Savari offers such a piece, demonstrating her range of styles, in ‘Tail feathers of the swift when sitting in the tree’. Here she uses thick, bold strips of black. The tail feathers of the swift are but the bones of inspiration – if we did not have the title, it is unlikely we would recognise the subject of the piece. While the subject is literally a tail feather, it seems that the artist is offering us a more broad comprehension of the pattern and unity of nature. The bold strips, which resemble the arching form of a swift’s tail, form into triangles, and the triangles form parts of larger triangles, and so on. The piece, as interested as it is in swift’s tails, is more about the artist’s ability, and vision to take the shapes of nature into a powerful, yet reticent, piece of work.
Brenda Kesi is perhaps the most renown for bold designs. We have on display several of her rare mud canvases: we have three named ‘Ancestral Design of the Mud’, a homage to Suja’s first nioge, which was dyed by being soaked in mud. These three pieces are unified by the small squares and rectangles that are laid over the bark, stitched in with
the wing bone of a flying fox. One piece is a black background with white squares; one a white background with black squares; one a mud-red background with white squares. That Brenda Kesi has made designs of mud, without using mud in some instances, demonstrates the figurativeness in which the Ömie operate. She has interpreted the creation story, Suja’s first nioge, and how the mud relates to it. In the piece that actually has been soaked in mud, the overlaid white squares are generally smaller, and spaced further apart, than the others, as if to give some importance to the mud; the white squares, as they pop out and draw the eye, seem also to fade into the murky waters around.
Brenda Kesi’s design, ‘The Ground-burrowing Spider’, has one large, black spot in the middle of the bark, with thick black lines radiating out from it, like spider’s legs, or a spider’s web. The piece is incredibly familiar to my eye; it looks like something I’ve seen before, like something incredibly natural to do with a piece of paper and a pen. I think, in this, we reach something quite interesting about all the pieces – as strange as much of this work can appear, there is something quietly familiar in all of them.
As much as we could seek to understand in this art, whether it seems busy and in need of inspection, or abstract and in need of thought, there is a reticence in all of them. The beauty of these pieces is in their quiet energy, and the rhythm they create. The works are all complete and unified within. That is why nioge do not separate easily into foreground or background elements. Each piece deserves a holistic view; they are, after all, created through a holistic relationship with life and nature.
Through their art, the Ömie are offering us their perspective of the world. It is a perspective that seems at once strange, and yet so familiar. The art is borne from the essential human desire to know and understand life; the art itself echoes that, and in the wisdom they espouse, and the rhythms they create, there is something beautiful and powerful that reminds us that, although countries and cultures divide us, we are not so different after all.
I do not believe in the vain application of poetry. But I think that this art reverberates with something that the great Romantic poets half-understood, half revealed and tried to reflect in their poetry. As Wordsworth writes, as he recalls the power of nature in tranquility:
I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
– Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth
Whereas Wordsworth can only trace strands of this phenomenon, of the spirit of nature and humanity in words, the Ömie achieve the thing itself. These pieces of art, borne from nature, crafted through nature and the language of wisdom, hold an energy and a power that can help us, too, see into the life of things.
See the gallery page here.