The Australian Office in Taipei has organized an exhibition titled “Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists” at the National Taiwan Museum. To promote the event, Australian Office in Taipei Representative Gary Cowan wrote an article about Australian and Taiwanese Aborigines having a shared heritage and creating a future together, which was published in the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) on Monday last week.
In the article, Cowan introduces the exhibition’s more than 140 pieces painted with ocher and clay on tree bark. Made between 1948 and 1985, these paintings incorporate patterns, motifs and stories that can be traced back 50,000 years and reflect the religious and cultural stories of the Aborigines living in Arnhem Land in northern Australia.
Although Cowan did not draw a connection between the Aboriginal bark paintings and Taiwan, perhaps due to space limitations, this connection is the focus of the exhibition.
Taiwan’s Aborigines are a branch of Austronesian-speaking peoples, whose origin has always been an unsolved mystery in research on human migration, but the key to the mystery was hidden inside the paper mulberry tree, the main material for making bark cloth.
The paper mulberry tree is a species native to subtropical zones, but most of them in Oceania are female and unable to bear fruit alone. The paper mulberry cannot be spread by birds flying away with the seeds or by the wind scattering them. The species is most likely found in Oceania thanks to human migration.
The bark of the tree was often used to make paper and cloth, also known as bark cloth, and was an important resource for Austronesian peoples.
A DNA analysis of paper mulberry trees found in Taiwan, China, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific by an Academia Sinica research team found that the trees used in Austronesian cultures were most likely transported from Taiwan. This groundbreaking research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America and can be found on the journal’s Web site.
The paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) belongs to the family Moraceae. In Taiwan, the plant is commonly known as the “deer’s tree.”
More than 300 years ago, the Tainan-based Kingdom of Tungning was able to export 120,000 deerskins per year because deer feed on paper mulberry leaves. Domesticated animals such as pigs, cattle, goats and rabbits also forage on the plant.
The tree’s fruit has a fragrant and sweet taste, but it cannot be commercialized because it is too soft and spoils quickly.
Paper mulberry trees also served as an outstanding pioneer plant because of their breadth and adaptability.
The tree can absorb large amounts of airborne dust and sulfur dioxide. Its strong tolerance to dust, as well as quick reproduction and growth, make it a suitable choice for urban greening.
Li Dao-yong is director of the City South Culture and History Studio.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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