The bilum – an icon of PNG design, utility, fashion & identity
19 March 2017
AS Papua New Guinea celebrated International Women’s Day recently, my attention turned to the important role in our society of those skillfully netted strings bags known as bilums.
No-one knows when that twine was originally twisted and looped to obtain a robust string bag but we do know that its usefulness and beauty has extended forward in time to continue to be of significance even today.
The prominent British anthropological couple, Marilyn and Andrew Strathern, who spent years in the highlands of PNG, thought the bilum was a result of the practice of spirit worship as they observed women looping the string while singing ritual chants.
One article written about the bilum speculated that PNG women first started to weave them to relate to the womb; the bilum being the ‘outside’ womb for a new-born baby. It’s a thought that was picked up in in Tok Pisin in which the womb is described as bilum blo pikinini.
So who was that first woman to conceive the idea and start to teach other women the skills of looping string, often with intricate patterns, into these strong and useful artifacts?
We’ll never know; the origin of bilum making will remain a mystery known only to the past.
But still today, our Melanesian women loop and twist the strings – rarely now vegetable fibre but wool - into a cultural object connoting their attributes of care and love.
Of course, the aesthetic and utilitarian qualities of the bilum have now transitioned neatly into the cash economy and become an accepted symbol of the skill, beauty and determination of Papua New Guinean women.
At Goroka in the highlands and on Karkar Island in Madang, annual bilum festivals are celebrated. These events not only recognise the commercial value of the bilum but also acknowledge the skills of the weavers and the artistic quality of their creations.
Karkar festival chairman Pholas Yongole told me the event includes bilum displays and demonstrations of the process of bilum making.
Goroka’s festival head Florence Jaukae said her event is staged to celebrate the ancient skills, the fine design and also to preserve and protect the cultural importance of the bilum.
Over the last 50 years, the materials, designs and colours in bilum making have changed considerably. And the bilum’s purpose has been augmented as it has become an item of commercial value.
In today’s PNG it often purchased as a souvenir which serves to identify PNG internationally.
No two bilums are identical and they can be seen on the streets of Sydney, New York, London, or anywhere in the world. The bilum has also found find its way into high fashion.
In 2005, supported by the Australian government, a PNG bilum export and promotion association was created to help women derive income from their work.
So today bilum weaving remains as one of the great skills of PNG women throughout the country; a traditional art that is passed from one generation to the next.
The older style bilums made out of plant fibre and coloured with vegetable dyes are much more attractive than the one's made out of modern wool and cotton.
However, to make them would be even more labour intensive Robert.
Someone needs to invent a bilum-making machine.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 March 2017 at 06:10 PM
I work for the Research & Conservation Foundation, a national conservation NGO based in Goroka (EHP). We operate the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area (CMWMA) in close collaboration with customary landowners.
Our approach is conservation and development and some years back we promoted the production and sale of handicrafts including bilums as an alternative income source for women in these remote areas where economic opportunities are scarce.
However we received some rather strong criticisms that bilum-making as an economic enterprise tends to increase the already high (demanding) workload on the local womenfolk because they already have too much on their plates. What do readers think about this argument?
Posted by: Robert Bino (PhD) | 21 March 2017 at 03:52 PM
Peter, you have done well to promote the bilum, a part of our rich culture through writing this good piece.
I have promoted it by wearing a highlands cap and a bilum and giving them as presents where ever I have gone - from England to America, Mexico to Australia.
I believe different cultures of the world should be shared, appreciated and treasured.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 21 March 2017 at 11:36 AM
Dear Arthur Williams,
Thank you for this pieces on your experience with the bilum. I am collecting pieces from those who wish to share theirs on bilum. Please do buzz me via email below. Thank you once again. email: pekinjap[at]gmail.com
Posted by: Peter Kinjap | 21 March 2017 at 11:01 AM
Pasuwe Ltd with its 30 plus stores all bar 3 in the rural areas did its bit to promote women with its bilum buying scheme in the 70 and 80s.
The stores involved were each given a template by which to calculate payment for the many varying sizes that the Highland ladies manged to weave in their ‘spare’ time while making gardens, looking after pigs, husband, kids and new born babies and marketing veggies to provide income for their families.
On the template the area manager of Pasuwe would have drawn the various sizes of the bilum from smallest and cheapest to largest. I told my trade store manager to pay the lady the written price and then place a small piece of cardboard inside showing what it had been bought for.
My guys, no woman ran a store, would then parcel them up and send them to me on a MAF flight to my base in Kawito. Some I sold locally in our Aramia River stores but most would be shipped into our HQ in Gordons for direct sale there to staff, missos and in our Korobosea, June Valley shops.
Laurie Johnson Area Manager in Mt Hagen did the same with his group of rural stores. I think that originally it may have been his initiative which would provide the template idea for its uniformity of prices.
Some years later when I was working in Tari my coastal wife would carefully watch the Huli ladies weaving their new bilums while sitting on the ground at the market selling produce.
She eventually was able to make her own quite well woven version from both local natural strings she bought and back in New Ireland would make pretty ones with patterns using commercial twines.
I had quite a good collection of them from several highland areas in one of our bush material homes along with other collected artefacts. Sad to say most were destroyed in a ceremonial after death fire by my brothers in law.
The one I have on my hallway wall was a gift I received in a feast in Goroka in 2008 and the one in my computer room was a parting gift from an earlier departure that somehow avoided the fire.
Memories of the ‘good old days’.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 20 March 2017 at 09:59 PM