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Global Patterns

Pattern as a map in Aboriginal art

This is a painting on bark painting by the Aboriginal artist Djilpa (1988.36.2). It depicts the journey of the ancestral Djangkawu sisters in Arnhem Land, on the north coast of Australia. Each of the circles in the painting represents the water holes that the sisters created wherever they put their digging sticks. The sisters also named the various plant and animal species they encountered, such as the stick insects (warrala warrala) shown in the lower section.

Read more about Aboriginal art, one of the world’s greatest living artistic traditions.

Geometric patterns

This ceramic bowl (1928.9.1) was made early in the 20th century by a very skilled ceramic artist from Acoma in New Mexico, USA. Pottery from Acoma is famous for its hand-painted geometric designs. The fine lines and distinct jagged patterns create a dramatic effect. Patterns can be symbolic for example indicating rain, lightning, thunder clouds or mountains. Sometimes pots from Acoma also have animals depicted on them. Orange and black are traditional colors, however, modern pots often incorporate bright colors. Read more about painted ceramic pots from Acoma.

Forms in Haida art

This bowl (1884.6.7) is from Haida Gwaii (off the North-West coast of Canada), the ancestral home of the Haida people. It is made from alder wood in the shape of a boat. Haida art looks abstract, but follows clear lines, structures and rules known as ‘formline’. Formline usually incorporates animal designs. This design depict the eyes of a bird figure. The individual artist decides how symbolic or realistic they want to be. Only Haida artists are permitted to create art in the formline tradition. The arrangement of forms is carefully designed to fit within the space available. Haida artists use a variety of media, but most commonly work in wood (carving and/ or painting).

Read an introduction to Haida art here and see this interactive resource on Haida art. Watch films about the Haida Great Box project.



Tattoo pattern blocks

These two tattoo blocks were made and used by the Iban people, an indigenous tribal group in Sarawak, Malaysia. Pattern blocks like this were carved from wood, smeared with black ink and pressed on the skin to create a template for creating a permanent tattoo. Traditionally Iban people have many tattoos. They are believed to protect the tattoo bearers or to signify certain events in their life. Find out more about tattooing in Sarawak here.

All human societies have their traditions of body modification. Find out more about tattooing and other forms of body art.

Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo in south-east Asia:


Repeat motifs painted onto moose-skin coat

These bold repeat motifs have been painted on to a coat from Canada made of moose-skin (1961.2.19). There is a ‘sunburst’ motif, alternated with a repeated black and red geometric motif. The striking motifs features on the front of the coat and also runs round the bottom of the coat, creating a border. The coat has also been decorated with spectacular appliqué quill-work on the arms and the back (top). This use of porcupine-quills is a traditional Native American technique. The coat was made before 1925, possibly in the plains or ‘prairies’ region of Canada. This is the back of the coat:

Pattern painted on to barkcloth

Barkcloth is a flexible, cloth-like material made from the inner bark of several types of tree. It was once commonly used like a fabric in Asia, Africa, Indonesia, and the Pacific. Barkcloth is often painted with geometric designs like these drawings of barkcloth from Fiji (left), Nicaragua (centre), Hawaii (right). This is a similar example of barkcloth (1924.6.17):

Read about how barkcloth is made here.

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