Bark paintings from Lake Sentani, West Papua

Bark painting, also called Tapa, or Bark Cloth, nonwoven fabric decorated with figurative and abstract designs usually applied by scratching or by painting. The basic clothlike material, produced from the inner bark, or bast, of certain trees is made by stripping off the bast, soaking it, and beating it to make the fibres interlace and to reduce thickness. The most popular material is the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, although breadfruit and fig trees are also used. Hand-painted bark cloth is limited today primarily to northern Australia, the island of New Guinea, and parts of Melanesia.

BARK painting 3

Lake Sentani, near West Papua’s capital Jayapura, is home to traditional Sentani bark paintings. The bark from the Kombou tree is soaked for a few weeks, then pounded until flat and dried in the sun before being painted, using charcoal, lime and ochre. The designs signify mutual harmony in social relationships. Common motifs include the fish, which represents peoples’ livelihood, and the lizard, which is believed to have oracular qualities.

Kulit Kayu is a piece of cloth made from a sheet of bark which is processed into canvas and then painted. In the local language, the fibrous bark cloths are known as  ‘maro’ or ‘tapa’. Tapa cloths are made on Asei, one of the islands of Lake Sentani, which is situated approximately 30 km west of the capital Jayapura

Tapa was formerly used for women’s clothing but these days it is made to sell to tourists as a source of income. This development is not only due to influence from abroad, but is also related to the Sentani people’s interest in their own identity and cultural traditions. As soon as tourists arrive, the Tapa cloths are put out on display along the beach.


The bark of Mulbury and Fig trees

Suitable bark for Tapa cloth is mainly collected from mulberry and fig trees. The structure can vary from coarse to fine and smooth to stiff. The colour varies from light to dark grey and  includes various shades of brown. Thicker varieties of bark need to soak in water for a few days, while other varieties can be processed immediately to make a thin and flexible cloth.

Harvesting the Bark

The felling of the tree is done with a machete, preferably at full moon. At this time, the juices are well distributed over the tree and bark comes off more easily. After felling the tree, it is divided into separate pieces. The most suitable parts for making Tapa cloth, are the pieces between the knots.  Notches are cut into the bark, right up to where it meets the wood:  twice around the circumference and once lengthwise. The bark is then loosened very gently along the length of the trunk. This is done first with a machete, then with a kind of wedge, which is made there and then  from one of the branches. The wedge is jiggled very carefully  from side to side in order to separate the bark from the tree. The last piece of bark is pulled off by hand.

BARK painting 4

Processing the bark

After the bark has been removed, it has to be worked immediately. If you wait for too long, it will dry out and start to curve. Three types of tools are used for processing: A flat iron bar, a heavy wooden club and a hammer. Working the bark is done in two phases.

Washing, stretching and drying the bark

The processed bark cloth canvas is rinsed in water to ensure that the juices and resin are removed. If is not rinsed out, the canvas will turn black during the drying process.  After washing it for just a few minutes, the canvas is mounted on a stretching frame constructed from the stems of the Sago Palm leaf.

Painting the Tapa cloth: The artists use various techniques to paint the canvas:

  • By hand
  • With the use of templates which they have designed themselves
  • A combination of both


BARK painting 2

Designs and Motifs

Traditional drawings and images are commonly used for the designs on Tapa. Parts of the drawings have been handed down form one generation to the next. However, a lot of the knowledge has been lost.

Now and then people use a design of their own. Almost always the design is based on a particular story and/or it is related to spiritual issues, their ancestors, important spirits and symbols (of animals and supernatural signs).   The drawings also tell the story of everyday life in the village or in the bush.

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