A Pacific of small island states is no fantasy
Déwé Gorodé: champion of Oceanic culture

The cruel & brazen theft of bilum designs

The sale of these splendid (and strong) string bags and other products based on bilum design is putting money into the hands of many creative and hard-working women who sustain this national art

Bilum designs on fabrics for sale (Florence Jaukae  Facebook)
Bilum designs on fabrics displayed for sale (Florence Jaukae,  Facebook)


DAGUA - The bilum is no ordinary string bag. It is part of the Papua New Guinea persona.

It is part of our identity. It is a national symbol. It is a shared experience in our diversity.

Papua New Guinea bilum designs are unique to our country.

Each region and most ethnic groups have their own designs that are a source of great pride and cultural integrity.

Designs have evolved over the years to encompass a myriad of intricate patterns, motifs, treatments and colours.

This intricate twining and weaving of string is traditionally the work of women.

In modern times the availability of multi-coloured wool and foreign interest in the art has seen the bilum trade boom.

Imported wool has given freedom to bilum weavers to create an even greater array of designs and colours.

Goroka and some other towns have become the centres of a thriving bilum industry.

Goroka is known for the first production and organised commercial imprint of bilum design and billum-wear in the mid-2000s.

The sale of these splendid (and strong) string bags and other products based on bilum design is putting money into the hands of many creative and hard-working women who sustain this national art.

They are creators and guardians of a quite spelndid national symbol.

Bilum-wear, mainly women’s bilum dresses, are also hand-woven in the tradition of bilum making.

The progenitor of fashion design is Goroka-based entrepreneur, Florence Jaukae.

In a recent Facebook post, she has called out the theft and importation from other countries of cheap bilum-inspired printed fabrics for retail sale.

The bilum designs were originally created through the ingenuity of our forebears and our now created by our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

This property of our culture is being brazenly stolen and mass produced on the cheapest of fabrics with crude and meaningless designs. They are no better than laplaps.

This seems to be a clear infringement of fair trade and intellectual property rights.

Someone for selfish reasons and monetary gain has stolen bilum designs or badly copied them to imprint on cheap fabric.

This is made into meri-blouses, dresses and shirts and defraud our bilum designers and weavers and remove their means of income.

This misappropriation of traditional designs infringes women’s rights of ownership over their designs and is now putting the billum-wear industry in jeopardy.

The bilum designs belong to Papua New Guinean women and should be a protected industry.

Citizens and foreigners alike should not take advantage of the cultural universality of the bilum to steal this important and useful artefact and symbol of our unique Melanesian identity.


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Raymond Sigimet

The National Cultural Commission and Investment Promotion Authority have released a joint statement cautioning against the misuse of PNG traditional motifs and designs from traditional bilum on textile and fabric materials.

This is a post from yesterday on the NCC Facebook page.


Papua New Guinea cultures are uniquely our own and readily recognizable as such in the region and by the world at large. We cannot be anyone else when our identities are deeply rooted to our cultures that provide us with a sense of belonging in our communities.

The expressions of our culture clearly are manifested in our artistic creations, songs, dances and rituals, artefacts, economic activities, social and political systems.

Protecting these has become necessary because of the widespread disregard to cultural sensitivity visibly underscored by threats inherent in commercial exploitation.

We cannot standby idly and do nothing while allowing large commercial operations that are mostly foreign-owned go about unrestrained and shamelessly exploiting our cultural heritage.

In light of the commercialization of PNG arts and designs, a joint inter-government task force set up by the National Cultural Commission and the Intellectual Property Office are taking steps in issuing this joint statement because of the widespread concern expressed by Papua New Guineans in relation to the unrestrained use of bilum designs on fabrics.

Robin Hide

Re Martin Hadlow's comment about UNESCO List. Worth noting that Indonesia has been trying this route for 10 years with the "noken" (e.g. bilum) of Papua/West Papua. See::


Noken multifunctional knotted or woven bag, handcraft of the people of Papua

Inscribed in 2012 (7.COM) on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding
© 2011 Centre for Research and Development of Culture :
Noken is a knotted net or woven bag handmade from wood fibre or leaves by communities in Papua and West Papua Provinces of Indonesia. Men and women use it for carrying plantation produce, catch from the sea or lake, firewood, babies or small animals as well as for shopping and for storing things in the home. Noken may also be worn, often for traditional festivities, or given as peace offerings. The method of making Noken varies between communities, but in general, branches, stems or bark of certain small trees or shrubs are cut, heated over a fire and soaked in water. The remaining wood fibre is dried then spun to make a strong thread or string, which is sometimes coloured using natural dyes. This string is knotted by hand to make net bags of various patterns and sizes. The process requires great manual skill, care and artistic sense, and takes several months to master. The number of people making and using Noken is diminishing, however. Factors threatening its survival include lack of awareness, weakening of traditional transmission, decreasing numbers of craftspeople, competition from factory-made bags, problems in easily and quickly obtaining traditional raw materials, and shifts in the cultural values of Noken.

Michael Dom

There are PNG women who sell meri blouses made from material with bilum designs at the Main Market and other locations (Asian run shops also sell them), and those blouses appear to be a growing fashion trend, at least in Lae.

I assume that the marketed meri blouses are made by PNG women but that assumption may be incorrect.

Dean Dungral

This is so true.

I don't know if there are amended laws regarding copyright of product design.

The bilum serves as a value in our societies in which it plays so many vital roles.

Bilum fashion has grown drastically as a source of income to most mothers and womenfolk.

If the government wants to promote SMEs [small to medium senterrises] and gain economic independence, they should deliberately deal with the foreign expatriates who, they invite in our country.

We are being robbed and the government isn't doing anything about it.

Our pride and identity has to be protected.

Martin Hadlow

Your correspondent may wish to seek to have 'bilum design and production' included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The list covers unique handicrafts, music, costumes, festivals and so on from across the world.

Examples of traditions include 'artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread' (France), 'Nordic clinker boat traditions' (Iceland and others), camel racing (Oman), falconry (Mongolia, Kazakhstan and others), Gamelan (Indonesia), and 'Carolinian wayfinding and canoe making' (Federated States of Micronesia)..

Raymond should contact the PNG National Commission for UNESCO should he wish to take the idea forward.

Chris Overland

Raymond has raised a significant issue and in so doing exposes a veritable witches brew of tricky problems.

Rightly, he regards the use of traditional billum designs for other purposes as what is commonly called 'cultural appropriation'.

This is a highly contentious issue at the moment because some people, especially those who regard themselves as 'woke', are expressing outrage and indignation at what they see as cultural theft.

Their displeasure is visited most especially upon those who, for example, have the temerity to adopt forms of dress or decoration or behaviour that are not deemed consistent with their own ethnic traditions.

To my mind, this way of thinking is actually a form of racism whereby it is deemed impermissible for a person from one ethnicity or nationality to adopt the dress or hair style or music of another ethnic or national group.

The truth is that this process has been an integral part of the development of human societies. In fact, begging, borrowing or stealing other peoples' ideas drives socio-cultural and economic change across the globe.

China has over the last 30 years or so consciously made an effort to do exactly this in order to achieve close to economic and military parity with its great competitor, the USA.

Just to add a layer of complexity to an already vexed issue, Raymond mentions the notion of copyright as it might apply to traditional patterns and designs, whether they be for billums or other traditional forms of craft or art.

I have had very little exposure to the law as it pertains to copyright but what I have learned is that it is a diabolically complex area of the law.

There have been and continue to be hugely expensive cases revolving around things like who owns the proprietary rights to the name 'Ugg Boots' or other brands, as well as things like the design of items such as footwear, hand bags, machinery and so forth.

In Australia, trying to figure out a way to protect the rights of the First Nations peoples with respect to their traditional designs is still a work in progress.

For example, some white artists want to paint in the dot painting style used by First Nations peoples since time immemorial. Is this theft or merely paying respect to a style of painting in the same manner as might be done for the Pre Raphaelite or Impressionist or Surrealist styles of painting?

Copying is not necessarily theft although I suppose it is a form of cultural appropriation.

To focus back on billums, I think that their value lies less in their design than in the fact that they are typically hand made artefacts.

A fabric may be printed with a design derived from traditional sources but it remains purely derivative in nature and thus has no inherent or added value beyond its purpose as a piece of clothing.

A traditionally woven billum, on the other hand, is entirely original, has utility and has been created in an entirely traditional manner. It is thus a genuinely creative piece of art. I think that this point of difference is what needs to be protected.

I do not pretend to know quite how this can be done other than creating a regulated market process in which the works of individual craft workers and artists are formally recognised, marked and perhaps even catalogued in much the same manner as the broader art market works.

What I do know is that it will be largely futile to try to stop of use of traditional billum designs in other products unless and until there is some sort of legal framework in place to facilitate this.

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