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Bilas – an exhibition of PNG body adornment


Bilas    Red feather headdress  Telofomin  (Belinda Christie)
Red feather headdress from Telofomin in Sandaun Province  (Belinda Christie)


NOOSA – Papua New Guinea, in all of its many modes, is an exciting place – and you don’t necessarily have to go there to get a taste of some of its exuberance and beauty.

The Australian Museum, in Sydney established as Australia’s first public museum in 1827 to procure ‘many rare and curious specimens of Natural History’, has an association of over 150 years with Papua New Guinea.

In the 1870s the first acquisitions were obtained from Andrew Goldie (1840–1891) who first landed in Port Moresby in 1876 to collect plants on commission from a nurseryman in London.

Goldie was to settle in Port Moresby and spent most of the rest of his fever-stricken life exploring (he considered himself pre-eminently as an explorer) and trading (he built Port Moresby’s first store).

On one of his expeditions he came across a large river and found traces of gold. For Goldie, it was too good an opportunity to miss, so he named the river after himself.

The other early collector to provide specimens to the museum was Reverend George Brown (1835–1917), a pioneer Methodist missionary in New Britain.

Brown became a towering figure in church and colonial affairs in the south-west Pacific and ‘accrued additional celebrity through descriptions of his collections in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London’.

Not long after the contributions of Goldie and Brown came a Melanesian bonanza for the museum, although it had to part with cash to acquire it.

Emma Forsayth, better known as Queen Emma (Emma Forsayth, 1878-1944), her first husband Captain Thomas Farrell and brother-in-law Richard Parkinson were successful entrepreneurs in East New Britain and Bougainville. In the 1880s they collected and sold more than 4,500 artefacts to the museum.

And so began the relationship between the museum and Melanesia, its material encompassing culture, history and archaeology.

“Our primary focus is on the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu,” the museum says. “Our collections are also the foundation for wide-ranging research.”

Bilas    Shell necklace  Ratavul  East New Britain (Stuart Humphreys)
Shell necklace from Ratavul in East New Britain (Stuart Humphreys)

Which brings me, in a rather long-winded way, to the Australian Museum’s next major exhibition beginning on Friday.

It’s an unusual presentation on materials that transform the human body into a living art form through self-decoration and it has been developed and curated by the museum’s Pasifika team in collaboration with Dr Michael Mel and Steven Gagau.

It’s called Bilas, a name well known to Papua New Guineans as the Tok Pisin word for finery or decoration, especially of the traditional kind.

Bilas features rare, never-before-seen cultural items from the museum’s Pacific collection, including 83 newly created cultural objects from three cultural groups: Koki (Laiagam, Enga Province); Yalu (Kagua, Southern Highlands Province); and Meingik, Koinambe (Jimi, Jiwaka Province).

The museum holds one of the world’s most important collections of body adornments from Melanesia and the new works were created for this exhibition.

Among them are the commissioned examples of the Maring/Kalam ‘glong’ headdresses, Enga wigs made of human hair and Kagua wicker helmets and body masks.

“In our culture, the body has long served as a canvas for self-expression and to convey a multitude of messages to the outside world,” said Dr Mel, who is from Kilipika Village near Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands

“Beyond being a vehicle for social communication and living art, there are also spiritual domains and meanings to the body adornment.”

With its juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary mediums, Bilas demonstrates the close relationship of PNG communities with the natural world.

Visitors will experience the colour and artistic dynamics of one of the world’s most diverse countries.

Bilas: Body Adornment from Papua New Guinea’ opens at the Australian Museum on Friday 9 June and will be on display until Sunday 8 October.


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