Ömie barkcloth: Pathways of nioge

A thoughtful and concise exhibition is the quiet achiever in a museum full of bold and timeless objects.

Ömie barkcloth: Pathways of nioge is currently on display on the fourth floor of the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum. Upon entering the gallery space, one is met with a black title wall, and illuminating the text design, is a creative and understated use of exhibition lighting. It is employed throughout the entirety of the exhibition, giving one the immersive feeling of almost being situated within the shadows, and silhouettes of the rainforest highlands of Northern (Oro) Province, Papua New Guinea.

The Ömie people are a distinct cultural group with their own language; a population of around two thousand lives in a series of seven main villages and many more hamlets. Their region in the Mount Lamington Huvaemo, and Mount Obo foothills – close to Kokoda – is sacred to them as the site of their creation stories. Their art is prolific and diverse.

Ömie tapa or nioge in Ömie language is beaten bark cloth, made from the inner bark, or bast, of certain rainforest fig trees including banyan to give a brown finish, and the paper mulberry tree – mori arobe, for the whitish tapa. The bark is cut, then the outer bark is cleaned off to make the inner bark or bast ready for beating. Drops of water are continually sprinkled over the bark as it is beaten to soften it. Paint dyes come from various roots, bark, leaves, fruit, seeds, and nuts. These include combinations of natural plant materials, ash, and water.

The works that comprise the exhibition form the basis of the largest public collection of Ömie nioge, donated to the Chau Chak Wing Museum over the last five years by oceanic art collector and dealer Todd Barlin, who acquired much of the work from fellow collector, and dealer David Baker.

This exhibition is full of vibrant and arresting works, striking for their diversity of size, shape, colour, and symbolism. Many of the works are displayed on large, dark, floating walls, allowing you to walk around and view them while moving in and out of the light. The large white walls of the gallery space are subdued by the creative lighting design. This gives the exhibition more depth overall, and furthers the geometric pathways of nioge design that are the focus.

Information about the exhibition is also presented well, being displayed not as vinyl labels on the gallery walls, but as text printed on pieces of geometric felt; these communicate the complexities of this cultural practice and its evolution as an art market. The information offers a well-balanced combination of geographical and linguistic contexts, as well as seeking to elevate Ömie voices and perspectives.

Of particular interest is the way in which the complexities of this cultural practice have interwoven with the Ömie desire to participate in new and developing cash economies and markets. It is a great inclusion in the exhibition having this aspect detailed, if only briefly. It is crucial to understand the artists’ varied motivations and goals, to be aware of their entrepreneurial ambitions in the making, and marketing of their own cultural products.

In the centre of the gallery is a room to view a single projection display of images of Ömie people making nioge and using them as garments in culturally specific activities. This provides another level of visual connectivity to understand the purposes of making nioge; seeing the process and the adornment of them gives us more context, and shows them animated by their makers. It would have been more engaging if this display was a moving video piece, perhaps in the format of on-site artist interviews, rather than what feels like a slideshow of touristic images.

All of the nioge in the exhibition are well calibrated, showcasing the diversity of meaning that is present in the designs. Many designs are inherited ancestral clan motifs, while others reflect gendered tattooing practices associated with rites of passage. There are just enough to highlight the clear depth and diversity of this practice, and plenty of space is left in the gallery itself and in between works for the viewer to make connections and feel a sense of cohesiveness, rather than being overwhelmed by objects.

While the Chau Chak Wing Museum has incorporated past collections and galleries of the University of Sydney, it is nevertheless a relative newcomer to the landscape of Sydney, and it demonstrates clear character in its architecture, floor plan, and visual design. Many of its exhibition displays are drawn from the University’s large and eclectic collections of cultural objects and materials from across the globe, and which span millennia.

Ömie barkcloth: Pathways of nioge is a great achievement for the museum in the creative display of its collections. This art form and medium will perhaps be new to many visitors to the museum, as it has not been widely exhibited since its arrival in the art world some twenty years ago. The curatorial team have done an excellent job in elevating this distinctive practice through a thoughtful and subtle display that highlights the voices of the artists, and the meaningfulness of their work.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64

Ömie barkcloth: Pathways of nioge
Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney 

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