Revived Erromango bark cloth painting heads to exhibition in Germany

Revived Erromango bark cloth painting heads to exhibition in Germany

Revived Erromango bark cloth painting heads to exhibition in Germany

Updated 2 October 2013, 15:18 AEST

The largest exhibition of Pacific Island bark cloth paintings ever is due to go on show at the Museum of the World's Cultures in Cologne in Germany, later this month. Among the paintings will be some from Vanuatu that have an incredible story to tell of survival and resilience.

In the bowels of the Australian Museum in Sydney are precious artefacts from across the Pacific, from Papua New Guinea in the west to French Polynesia to the east.

Today I've come to look at some very special bark paintings with a very special person. Jerry Taki Uminduru is a chief from the island of Erromango in the South Pacific.

He's one of a group of people on Vanuatu's Erromango Island who have revived lost art, music and culture. It's a positive outcome and noted change from what anthropologist and Australian Museum research assistant Kirk Huffmans says is one of the saddest histories of European contact in the Pacific.

"The original population of Erromango before the arrival of the first white visitors could have actually been as much as 25,000 people or more. Within a century of the benefits of contact with the 'outside world', their population was, by the early 1920s, less than 400," Huffman says

As a result, the culture of the islanders was nearly wiped out. The influence of the churches resulted in much of the material culture being destroyed or taken by collectors to places like the Australian Museum.

In fact, as Huffman says, the threat of disappearing completely was once so prevalent that Erromango leaders instructed their people to inscribe clan histories on the walls of hidden caves, so those who came after would know the people who had once been there and their gods and spirits.

And so the culture and world view of the Erromango people existed largely in offshore collections, until Chief Jerry Taki started his crusade to bring them back to life after visiting the Australian Museum in the 1980s. In 2002, he received some high quality photos of the Erromango paintings from the museum, took them home and travelled around the island, showing them to people.

"People were fascinated," Huffman explains. " It was very interesting to see photographs of things that often they had heard and they knew about, but they had never physically seen themselves."

Now, communities across Erromango are making bark cloth again, painting the old patterns and creating contemporary works as well.

Once the cultural renaissance got into full swing, the people of Erromango asked the Australian Museum to collect some of the new bark cloth paintings.

Some of those new paintings will now travel with traditional Erromango work to be displayed in Cologne, Germany, as part of the largest exhibition of Pacific Island bark painting ever staged.

Chief Jerry Taki is gratified that other people will be able to see the Erromango world view. Huffman feels the same.

"It's a shining ecample of how physical reconnection with ancestral material in a museum collection can actually spark off really important activities that are to do with real identity and real culture."