The Sisters of Mercy — a not-for-profit, faith-based organisation in Australia and Papua New Guinea — teaches textile-making skills to the disadvantaged, including prisoners in Bihute, in the Eastern Highlands Province. The Gallery recently acquired a group of six colourful bilums from Bihute, extending its Pacific textile holdings and engaging with this cultural tradition.
The bilum is a cultural icon, intricately knitted into the social, economical and cultural fabric of Papua New Guinea. Bilum is the name given to the handmade string bag, made almost entirely by women, through a process known as looping. Bilum-making is a self-taught skill acquired by watching other women, then trial and error until the maker becomes professionally adept. Traditionally, women carried knowledge of which trees and plants would yield good fibres for twining into strings for their bilums. In the Highlands, and in particular Mendi in the Southern Highlands Province, special expeditions were made by mothers, accompanied by young girls, in search of these plants in the jungles. Songs could be heard echoing back from the mountains, and if the search lasted until night fell, the girls would hunt for frogs to take home for the family dinner. The collected plant barks would be dried for several days and later immersed in mud to soften them before extracting the fibres. The fibres were then twisted into fine strings with the aid of dry white clay, rubbed onto the makers’ thighs to create a gripping surface. From time to time, other women would assist the makers in looping the strings, as this is both tedious and time-consuming. However, not all women could assist, as some lacked the skill of twisting the fibres to the maker’s preference. Looping the bilum is considered the simplest task, according to most women, and if able to work day and night, a bilum can be completed in less than two weeks. Bilums are categorised according to their usage, from the everyday to special occasions and rituals.
As with language, or tok ples (the local language), bilums differ from place to place and region to region. Most Papua New Guinean people can tell the differences in the designs, colours and styles. For example, bilums from the coast, like the Madang or Sepik, are identified by their unique colouring and looping; while bilums from the Highlands region are knotted with other material features, such as cuscus (marsupial) furs. Eastern Highlands bilums can be easily distinguished from Enga, Simbu or Southern Highlands bilums. The looping technique for which a bilum is recognised is the signature trait of the maker. In the recent past, Highlanders travelling to the coast often took a bilum from there as a souvenir, and vice versa. Nowadays, the bilums of Papua New Guinea have reached not only every part of this country but also stretched out to the four corners of the planet. Even the name ‘bilum’ has been patented by a French shop, which claims that ‘at this time you can only nab bilum bags in Paris’.1
Today, many women in Papua New Guinea have realised the economic value of bilums and are upholding the tradition while innovating with shapes, designs, colours and forms, including a move into high-end fashion. Some women have created cooperative societies and designed websites to sell their products. Corporate and charitable organisations have also recognised the value of bilums and incorporated various groups promoting the skills of bilum-making to other women. The Sisters of Mercy, a not-for-profit, faith-based organisation in Australia and Papua New Guinea, teaches bilum-making skills and other textile techniques to disadvantaged men and women. One of their projects is teaching embroidery to prisoners in Bihute, in the Eastern Highlands Province. The Gallery recently acquired a group of six of these bags, extending its collection of bilums and bilum wear to engage with this textile form. The five-kilogram rice bags, which are decorated with stitched designs, feature images of loved ones and slogans expressing the makers’ dreams of freedom. Often decorated in the same bright colours as traditional bilums, they would have been worn, like bilum, as a fashionable accessory and to carry personal belongings.
1 A French firm that makes bags and accessories using recycled advertising banners decided to poach and patent the PNG word ‘bilum’. For details, refer to garamut. wordpress.com/2009/02/09/french-firm-poaches-and-patents.