Barkcloth paintings from the Museums collections highlight cultural tensions in West Papua, says Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman.

The paintings known as maro are among the most striking to be found in Melanesia, and some of the finest designs come from Sentani, a freshwater lake district in the vicinity of Jayapura, the provincial capital of West Papua.

Sentani maro has been interpreted by Europeans since the 1920s as an ‘art form’, and the beautiful and intricate designs certainly give the viewer an impression of fluidity and movement. But to Papuans the designs have both a functional and spiritual role associated with their cosmology, animals, spirits and environment.

Sentani maro paintings

Traditional maro (painted barkcloth) was produced by women from the beaten bark of fig trees. Decorated maro was worn by initiated girls, while married women wore maro waistcloths. Maro was also worn by men in ceremonial dances, hanging from the waist-belt.

The arrival of European colonial administrators and missionaries in the nineteenth century dislocated the production and use of barkcloth and it was gradually replaced with cotton. Knowledge of barkcloth production has been revived at different times in Sentani history (such as in the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s) and today the Hamadi markets of Jayapura offer both traditional, handpainted examples created by Papuans and cheaper, stencilled versions painted by non-indigenous migrants.

Papuans and a growing migrant population from across the Indonesian archipelago live in the Sentani area but only Papuans live on the islands in the lake, the main one being Asei, where the paintings are known as malo.

Maro barkcloth
maro barkcloth Image: Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

Designs, cosmology and landscape

During a personal visit to the region in 2009, I was able to collect examples of malo and maro and meet with the artists to learn about the cultural significance of their paintings and hear about the social and cultural constraints that form part of their daily lives.

Certain designs are associated with ancestors and cosmic symbols which represent life, balance and fertility in Lake Sentani. Some of these designs are associated with the powerful village chief or ondoafi and are therefore regarded as a guarantee for plentiful fishing, hunting and harvesting of crops and wellbeing for the community.

The main traditional stylistic design from this area is the Sentani form fouw, which is represented on maro paintings and many carved objects such as bowls, paddles, gourds and knives. Earlier Museum collections from the Sentani area illustrate the fouw motif on wooden plates, bowls, paddles and model canoes.

The fouw holds profound spiritual significance associated with the sky and land, the surrounding Cyclops mountains, the waters of the lake and the relationship with animals, ancestors and spirits. The designs are, ultimately, important symbols of cultural identity, ancestry and wellbeing.

From the Humboldt Bay area, closer to the capital, the Museum holds maro paintings decorated with the nafri design, a distinctive stylistic variation. The nafri style in particular captured the imagination of European artists and collectors in the early twentieth century.

Malo barkcloth
Untitled painting by John Ohee, Asei, Lake Sentani, West Papua, 2009, showing the fouw, one of the most important motifs in Asei. It is found in many carved objects such as bowls and gourds from the area. Australian Museum collection E93823 Image: Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

Papuan perspective

West Papuans have become a minority in their traditional lands as new economic prospects including mining attract migrants to the area, bringing conflict and competition over land, barkcloth and other natural resources. Such competition has depleted the available trees in some areas and people now have to travel to other locations to buy bark for maro painting.

Sentani people recognise few individuals to be ‘true’ maro artists, the status being reserved for indigenous Papuans from Sentani who paint their designs mainly by hand (though some also use stencils) and who, most importantly, have the rights to represent specific clan designs.

But these rights are being ignored in the rush for tourist dollars, with nonindigenous migrants misappropriating traditional designs to create inferior versions of maro paintings for the Hamadi markets, which undermines the opportunity for Papuan artists to generate a small income.This was firmly stated during my visit to Asei when a woman displayed her barkcloth on the ground and said emphatically, ‘This is Sentani malo, not Hamadi!’

Today, the barkcloths are ‘holding onto the thread of culture’ for Papuan artists and the local communities who produce them. Accordingly, I dedicate this article to all Sentani artists and other Papuans in their determination to survive and hold on to their rich cultural identity.

Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, Collection Officer, Pacific

This story first published in Explore 35(1), pp24-25 (2013).