This is a common question by Norfolk’s visitors, and one that is usually answered with: “What are you looking for?” Despite Norfolk’s small population, the island boasts a profusion of artistic and creative people, and there is an impressive range of arts and crafts being produced for purchase or pure viewing pleasure. So, visitors are often asked to be more specific. While some crafts on Norfolk hold cultural significance and have remained largely unchanged over time, others are relatively new and rely on modern technology. And of course, hybrids of these two forms lie along a grand scale of creativity. Perhaps Norfolk Island attracts artistic people to her shores, or possibly it is the beautiful setting and earthy lifestyle that inspires – what is certain though, is that Norfolk Island hums with creative expression.
Arts and crafts generally comprise activities and hobbies that are related to making things with one’s hands and skill. This usually suggests items of decorative design and handicraft, though the term does also encompass skills such as cooking and musical composition. The expression ‘arts and crafts’ came into our vernacular around the late 19th century, at a time when handmade craftsmanship was making a comeback after an era of industrial mass production. Of course, humans were making articles of art and craft long before this – though their skills were seen less as a reflection of personal expression, and more as a means to survive or earn a living. In the case of the Polynesian women and European men who arrived to uninhabited Pitcairn Island in 1790, their skills or ‘crafts’ were essential elements to their survival and comfort. Whilst the women put to use their knowledge of natural fibres to make clothing, baskets, and bedding, the men used their skills to construct homes and make tools.
This is not to say, however, that the crafts made by early Pitcairn Islanders were purely utilitarian – artefacts that survived from these years suggest that efforts were taken to impart artistic flair to everyday items. Perhaps the greatest example being that of the beautiful tapa (bark cloth) made and dyed by the women. In traditional Polynesian society, different dying patterns and techniques were used to denote family and social status, though the designs on the Pitcairn tapa were instead a creative mixture of the women’s varied backgrounds, and also some new experimental designs. Incredibly exquisite lengths of tapa cloth were often gifted to those aboard visiting ships to Pitcairn, and the cloth gained a reputation in Europe for its workmanship and exotic beauty.
Today on Norfolk, the small population still thrives on this pooling of creative skills, and members of the community who possess artistic talent are prized and admired. In the times of subsistence living, most Norfolk Islanders had little time to devote to the pursuit of arts. It was not until the island became a popular tourist destination in the 1960’s that islanders were able to entertain a creative hobby or artistic career, for the demand of ‘homemade’ Norfolk souvenirs created a new source of income for the community. The Islanders found that they could adapt their traditional skills and crafts to make saleable items, such as natural fibre hats or porpieh (cherry guava) jelly.
The ability to plait or weave together natural fibres was an essential skill for many cultures, and the Polynesians were no exception. Such knowledge was passed down from the Polynesian women aboard the Bounty to their Pitcairn children, and continues to be passed down through the generations on Norfolk Island today. Items made from natural fibres became less essential to the wardrobe over time – but you’d be hard-pressed, even now, to find an Island home without a collection of plaited hats or woven bags. Plaited hats are somewhat of a cultural stamp of Norfolk Island, and are worn with pride on June 8th each year as the islanders commemorate the arrival of their Pitcairn forebears. From a range of fibres, plaits and decorating styles, these hats are beautiful works of art. Essentially the hats are utilitarian objects, though they are also a statement of skill, creativity, and the personality of the maker. A common misconception is that a Norfolk made hat won’t pass through Australian or New Zealand customs – though the only fibre that is prohibited is the rahulu (banana bark). Many visitors to the island are delighted to discover they can take home their own Norfolk hat, or even take classes to learn to make their own.
The Norfolk Island Pine is famed for its variety and beauty of colour and grain. It is the most abundant local timber available on the island, and popular for furniture and building construction. It is also excellent for sculpting crafty items such as bowls, or for framing images. Not only is the Norfolk Pine an attractive and versatile wood, it is also iconic of the island it represents, and hence souvenirs made of Norfolk Pine are highly desirable. Today, most wooden souvenirs are made on the lathe or worked with machinery – though they still manage to retain that old-world charm, as they are not mass-produced and many are finished by hand and touched with a decorative stamp. Clay pottery is another old-fashioned craft that is practiced on Norfolk, with many superb pieces designed or decorated with an island flair. Some items have kept that rustic appeal, whilst others are strikingly modern in appearance.
A fairly recent addition to Norfolk’s souvenir market, but one which has proven to be immensely popular, is Polynesian-inspired bone carving. It reflects a resurgence of pride in the Tahitian heritage of Norfolk Islanders, and a desire of the Pitcairn descendants to further define their identity though creative means. Traditionally, Polynesian bone jewellery was carved by hand with spiritual reverence and worn for specific purposes, such as to increase strength or bring good luck. Though the pieces of today have been carved with more sophisticated technology, the premise is the same, and each piece is created with a symbolic purpose. Another Polynesian art form that has received a fresh breath of life on the Island, is the making of tapa. Not commonly as clothing items, but as framed pieces painted with natural dyes. They are still relatively rare on the island due to the labour involved, though the idea of printing an island image onto a cloth has been replicated in a more convenient way – through the use of modern fabrics. T-shirts, sarongs and bolts of fabric that have been printed with Norfolk-inspired designs or patterns are popular souvenirs. Some have even been coloured with natural dyes, and dried in traditional fashion.
Paintbrushes, paints and canvases are all great sellers on Norfolk Island, as the enchanting scenery and lifestyle draw out the creative streak in people, accomplished artist or otherwise. Local artists have skilfully captured the essence of Norfolk Island through the medium of painting or drawing, and several Islanders have even shaped a career out of capturing Norfolk’s beauty. Imagery is a popular choice of souvenir, for as the old adage explains: a picture says a thousand words. In the age of digital photography, rarely a visitor comes to the Island without a camera in hand and the capacity to take hundreds of photos. They often find however, that the eye and insights of a Norfolk local are invaluable, and invest in images that resonate with them and are pleasant reminders of their Norfolk experience. For those who enjoy the written word, there is a multitude of literature available to enhance the Norfolk experience, from poetry books in the Norf’k language to Island cookbooks and fiction novels. Local musicians have also helped to preserve the Island’s stories through their song writing, and their CD’s have travelled far and wide from their Norfolk origins.
From the beginning of human existence, mankind has desired to obtain exotic and beautiful objects. With the advent of air travel, souvenirs could easily be brought back home from far reaches of the globe, and kept as a reminder of distant shores and past adventures. As the arts and crafts movement is unique to each location, the passions of the local people and their stories are reflected in their work: something that is clearly evident on Norfolk Island, as her many faces are represented through the variety of creative people who dwell on her shores. Anyone wishing to own a keepsake from Norfolk Island, made by the Islanders themselves, is spoilt for choice. From a Norfolk Pine door stop to a Polynesian-style tattoo, there really is something for everyone. As travellers are increasingly on the lookout for locally made arts and crafts, this will have a direct influence on the creative scene of Norfolk Island. And so exists the symbiotic relationship between Norfolk’s artists and her visiting patrons – as all those who contribute to the preservation of Norfolk’s artistic soul, get to keep their very own piece of beautiful Norfolk Island.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 03 Issue 01, 2013. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.