Independent curator Joan G Winter is a passionate advocate for the artists and art of the Omie people of Oro Province, Papua New Guinea and has created the exhibition ‘Sihot’e Nioge; When Skirts Become Artworks’ to showcase their work to an Australian audience and to generate much needed income for the participating artists.

The Omie live on the rainforest slopes of Huvaemo (Mt Lamington), in villages too small to appear on satellite mapping and too remote to be reached by road. Her first visit to Omie territory required a 7-hour mountain rainforest walk.

Sihot’e Nioge represents the two unique styles of Omie tapa. Sihot’e is a dramatic form of appliqued tapa, creating bold, assertive works in grey and white. Nioge is painted beaten bark cloth, the extremely varied pigments all coming from the Omie tropical rainforest, mountain environment.

Tapa/Nioge is sacred to the Omie people. There remain protocols around it, how to store it, what actions can and cannot happen near Nioge. It is central to the creation story of the first Omie man and woman. When the first man to arrive on Earth, Mina, told the first woman, Saja, to go down to the river, find the right tree, remove its bark and beat it on the river stones, then soak it in mud; together they were setting up the first Omie, cultural ritual. Saja came back wearing her first Nioge, thus sanctifying the first marriage. Omie society could now begin.

In isolation the Omie continue to develop the most colourful and compositionally diverse painted beaten bark cloth in the Pacific region. The willingness of Omie artist to design and innovate, combined with their use of grid lines and repetitive patterning, gives Omie tapa an aesthetic that is distinct and remarkable amongst Pacific nations. Omie artists have a reverent eye for the world around, above and below them. In their work you can find macro imagery of the moon and stars, as well as the minutia of fish and pig bones, feathers, tusks, teeth, eggs of the dwarf cassowary, beaks of the hornbill, grubs and caterpillars, and the habits and unfurling of plants.

For Nioge works, designs are placed on the tapa freehand and artists create an astounding array of colours from the leaves, bark, roots, seeds and fruits around them. All the colours are natural and come from the mountain rainforest environment. Sihot’e artists beat together two forms of tapa – undyed white tapa and grey, mud-dyed tapa – to create these dramatic, bold works.

Sihot’e Nioge reveals the stages of Nioge innovation from time immemorial until today, from Australia’s nearest Melanesian neighbours in PNG. No culture stands still. While certain Nioge and Sihot’e continue to be used in ceremonial and rites of passage occasions, to donate rank for cultural and other leaders and to define clan and family ties, today its significance has broadened to incorporate an increasingly cash economy. The Omie see the creation of Sihote and Nioge for exhibition and sale as facilitating access to education, healthcare and engagement with the wider world.