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Karkar Island bilum festival strives to maintain cultural values

Students parade with bilums
Karkar Island students parade with bilums


PORT MORESBY - With all the hype of tourism as a sleeping giant for Papua New Guinea economic prosperity, the community-based cultural festivals throughout the country remain a major asset.

In a recent statement, tourism, arts and culture minister Emil Tammur said a policy submission to the parliament is pending for the national government to fund major cultural events, shows and festivals throughout the country.

“Maintaining and promoting cultural events and festivals is not only important for tourism but also for our identify as a unique and culturally-diverse national in the world,” Mr Tammur said.

Madang’s Karkar Island bilum festival is one of those major national events not to be overlooked.

Karkar Island is located in the Bismarck Sea 40 kilometers north of Madang town. The island is 25 km long and 19 km wide with a population of 80,000. In its centre is a dormant volcano with two nested calderas. It is affectionately known as the ‘island of no return’.

The volcano erupted in the 1970s and evidence of its ferocity can be seen with volcanic rock everywhere. The economy of the island is dependent on the copra and cocoa introduced in German colonial days. Most of the people live a simple subsistence island life.

The success of the inaugural Karkar Island bilum festival proved that Karkar Island women were the creators of traditional and iconic artwork.

The event was not only for economic benefit and tourism promotion but also helped revive the unique bilum making skills of Karkar Island.

The festival with hosting venues switched between Mapor and Maporo villages features cultural performances, displays, traditional bands, arts, crafts and local foods.

The women of Karkar Island are known throughout the region for their weaving skills. Festival chairman Paulas Yongole said the event is also a platform to educate young Karkar girls and women in bilum making skills.

Apart from the main attraction of the Karkar bilum there are also flower shows and other cultural activities such as singsings.

The festival is a local concept aimed at connecting Karkar Islanders with the outside world and attracting tourism interest. It draws people from all walks of life as far away as the Highlands, Momase and the expatriate community in Madang town.

“The idea to stage the Karkar Island bilum festival came to mind after a conference at Madang Resort in 2007 for the Pacific Island Forum countries,” explained event chairman Paulas Yongole.

He said it has traditional significance and also provides a unique perspective of the volcanic island.

“There are two significant items we give to guests when they visit Madang,” Mr Yongole said, “and these are either the Karkar Island bilum or the Bilbil village clay pot.

International visitors with bilums
International visitors with bilums

“The festival was staged especially to promote the authentic art work of our island women, who use the bilum for various purposes and offer their creativity to bring traditions to life.

“When the small size bilum called ‘suwali’ is placed on a person’s neck by their fiancé it symbolises an engagement, it is more powerful than a wedding ring. It confirms a marriage is imminent,” Mr Yongole said.

“More importantly, the patterns on the bilum are of great value to the Karkar Islanders because it represents their square garden plots on the hillsides and the snail track-like patterns on it are the roads to their gardens. The patterns are beautifully woven and it comes out of a woman’s creative imagination. After considerable rolling and weaving that can take up to more than three months the Karkar Island bilum is created.”

Mr Yongole also explained that the medium size bilum is called ‘kitak gotek’. Pregnant mothers start weaving this bilum to carry their children when they are born. The fibres are carefully rolled to give comfort to babies, who are known to sleep longer in this bilum giving the mothers time to do other chores.

The medium to large bilums are called ‘kitak bia’ and are made of thickly rolled fibres. They’re used for gardening, fishing and similar purposes.

“The bilum represents the islander’s values and traditions as an art form and is much more than an economic commodity for trading," he said. " Dyes are obtained from local plants which are boiled and the dye extracted. We also get them from burned or crushed coral."

The art of bilum-making is part of the cultural initiation for young women and a young Karkar Island girl who makes a bilum passes into adulthood.

Karkar Island bilumsMr Yongole is very concerned that the art of Karkar Island bilum-making will die out.

He discourages contemporary bilums made of store-bought wool and string which he feels degrade the authenticity of the bilum.

Finding time to extract and prepare the materials is a challenge, but the women feel it’s important to be authentic in order to maintain cultural pride, values and traditions which identify their Karkar Islander art which is so aptly captured through the unique patterns and designs on the bilums.

Peter S Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email [email protected]


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