From bark to fashion wear

It is part of a community's struggle to protect its identity and environment that has turned into a story on its own.

A story that is still being written and may take another generation of the Maisin to write the concluding paragraphs.

For now let's look at the humble beginnings of the bark cloth that is slowly wedging a space for itself in a highly competitive emerging market of traditional items that have commercial value.

In 1986 I stumbled into the PNG Arts shop at Gordons in Port Moresby.

The Art shop displays a collection of traditional art and craft of all manner from different parts of Papua New Guinea followed closely by two of my older brothers from the village carrying with them rolled up bundles of elaborately designed tapa cloth.

In between work during my spare time and at weekends, I've been trying to sell the tapa cloth brought from the village to help raise funds for the parish back home.

Anyway to cut a long story short, I asked the young lady at the counter if I could speak with the manager or owner of the shop.

In the mid-morning scorching heat of Port Moresby while we waited, I was thinking of the past few weeks of unsuccessful sales attempts I made at various business houses.

Each time they would only make remarks on how beautiful the designs were and how they'd look on the wall but would opt to buy the smallest pieces.

Clearly, I wasn't born for it. I couldn't be a door-to-door salesman in a million years.

Why were such beautifully designed pieces of tapa not selling? What am I not doing right? These and a million other questions were rushing through my mind with apparently no answers at all until the manager arrived.

The very friendly man asked us in and while offering the three of us a drink of water, asked where we were from so I started, "We are from Uiaku."

He knew where that was and knew straight away what I was going to say next.

"Let's have a look at them".

After he had a look he apologized that he could not take them all but selected three large pieces for which he offered K150.

My heart immediately sank.

For all the effort and weeks of carrying the bundles of tapa cloth around the city and the expense at which my brothers had traveled to the city, the prospects of making good money was drowned. 

I could see in Joe Chan's eyes, he also felt the same way.

Him perhaps for making a bad business decision as just a few days before meeting us he had bought a whole pile of tapa from someone else. He led me into the shop and showed me a whole pile of what didn't look like tapa at all. They were dark brown almost like raw bark and didn't have the deep blood red paint I knew growing up.

These weren't real tapa I told Joe.

They came from a plant we called bowoghotu in my mums language.

It is a wild species of the mulberry paper wood. The Maisin cultivate and beat the other species called wuwus. It has a lighter softer texture and almost resembles woven cotton cloth.

The owner of the shop regretted that we didn't show up earlier but he would be interested if we supplied something different from just painted bark cloth.

Perhaps if the bark could be turned into some framed wall hanging or letter pouches, perhaps ties or ladies belts.

It suddenly struck home, that outside of the Northern Province the Tapa had very little or no value at all.

Its traditional uses have a very small and ever shrinking market.

If we didn't do anything about it we were going to lose a tradition passed on for generations from mother to daughter.

With western influence and as there were less and less traditional events, the demand for the cloth was dying out as well as an alternative livelihood.

That evening over dinner the discussion was about how to create a market and supply it. There must be a level of demand for tapa enough to sustain itself as a viable cash income alternative to logging and mining projects that politicians ever think of as the only means to bring 'development' to a community as remote as Uiaku.

The next few years were a really challenging time for me.

I was spearheading the anti-logging campaign in Collingwood Bay.

The whole of Collingwood bay was to be clear-felled for wood chips to supply Mitsubishi’s paper factories in Japan that promised huge cash incomes to the community in royalties. There would be jobs, roads and bridges would built.

Bush material classrooms and aid-posts will be no more.

After the clear-felling Virgin Oils will plant the whole area with hybrid coconuts for a coconut sap market providing over 30,000 jobs and Collingwood Bay will be the envy of any rural under-developed community in PNG.

Despite the popular demand for the logging project to go ahead, I was not convinced that this was the best option for a people who depended on these forests for their survival.

For me this was all lies, the promises were too good to be true.

Community awareness on the negative impacts of logging and loss of biodiversity didn't quite sink in.

Often I was threatened and at one stage there was a price on my head. 

The important thing was the transformation of a people from a subsistence economy to affluence.

I failed to see this happening in a flash.

Most communities that expected income and other benefits promised by logging their forest ended up much poorer. 

That was not going to happen to my people. 

In a village meeting I was challenged if I had an alternative for the people if I was successful in stopping the approved logging project.

My only answer was that there were better less destructive ways.

And as stupid as I was without a second thought I blurted “What about Tapa, we've been selling tapa since around 1964. Couldn't we promote it and earn an income from it?"

So the bark to fashion story starts.

I started buying tapa in bulk from the village women on a monthly basis at around K500.00 a batch just so I could save face.

Don't ask me what I did with the tapa I bought.

If shame could kill I'd die from shame 10 times over, I just bought them so the women could have some money while I saved face amidst growing skepticism for my choice of an alternative income from logging and often told that I should be ashamed of depriving the people much needed “development”.

In the meantime Green Peace Pacific heard the now full-fledged successful campaign led by the landowners themselves and offered their support for the anti-logging campaign.

Green Peace also realized that the only other source of income would be Tapa.

I felt a bit relieved that I wasn't the only one who saw the commercial potential in it.

And so with the support of Green Peace and other international and National NGOs and the National Cultural Commission the Maisin Tapa, in its bark form, went to every kind of exposition, starting in the US, Canada, then to England, Japan, Australia and all over the Pacific.

To keep a cap on logging and any form of destructive industry and to continue promotion of the bark cloth, the Maisin Integrated Conservation and Development Association, (MICAD), was formed in 1992.

MICAD had undertaken an intensive market campaign throughout PNG but again the tapa had very little value in its original form.

It was 10 years after the idea of turning the bark "perhaps into something else" at Joe Chan's PNG Arts shop that Gideon, one of the older brothers, sewed crudely designed baskets, hats and neck ties out of patterns he made up, much to the amusement of the village women.

Despite much skepticism from other men in the village, Gideon wasn't ashamed to introduce his products to the market and drive that first wedge.

When his first crude products got picked up like hot cakes it was the beginning of a new market for the bark cloth in a different form.

Today exactly 20 years later after the earlier designs have been refined the tapa hat, basket, cap, hair tie, phone pouch or bag is a common sight.

What was traditionally a feminine activity is no longer a woman's business.

Men and boys have their own plots of mulberry wood, beat into cloth, design and produce their own products. Income from Tapa outweighs all other forms of income in the Maisin villages.

Yes, it had come a long way from bark and there is still a long way yet before it becomes fashion and hits the market by storm!

I may never live to see that day, but history will have it that because of one man's response in a village meeting, the Tapa plant and its bark remains a tradition with a commercial value and didn’t become polished paper made in Japan.

Adelbert Gangai