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.
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.