Cathy Kata showing “looping”, the traditional hand-weaving technique used to make bilums in Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), string bags, or bilum in Tok Pisin (a widely spoken Creole), are commonly used by men and women to transport commodities. Traditionally, men carried small tools, tobacco leaves, and small items in their bags. In the Highland region around Goroka, larger bilums served as quivers for arrows. Today, men’s bilums carry modern commodities reflective of Papua New Guinea’s rapidly modernizing society. Traditionally, men carried one bilum, while women carried several. Large bilums were used to transport crops from gardens to family dwellings, or to carry produce for sale or exchange at local markets. Smaller ones contained tools or objects necessary for daily activities. In some regions of the country, bilums cradled babies. Like men, women have adapted bilums to the necessities of urban life: looping techniques have become smaller and tighter so that bilums have become solid and opaque; carrying straps have become shorter so that “urban bilums” resemble European women’s shoulder bags.
Interestingly, although traditional bilum shapes and traditional twisting techniques have evolved to create new bilums, traditional techniques and open looped forms continue to coexist alongside modern bilums. Today, a wide range of acrylic yarns are available in most PNG markets. In Goroka and Mount Hagen, Highland centers of bilum production, up to 80 different colours maybe seen at some stalls. The availability of these new yarns at reasonable prices has deeply transformed the nature of bilums. While traditional dyeing techniques only allowed women to create small contrasted areas of patterns while looping bags, the large variety of colours now available permits shading subtle nuances of colour. This offers women opportunities to create new patterns or to increase the complexity of existing patterns.
Indeed, many Papua New Guineans living in town possess a collection of bilums that are often displayed on walls not as commodities, but as artworks. Many of these collected bilums come from the region where an owner was born, but others have a different provenance. For example, bilums may be given, bought, or exchanged in other places and so acquired by the owner in a variety of ways. When travelling to new places, women may also purchase an outstanding bilum. Often, it is hidden away and then and offered many years later to the bride of one of her sons at the wedding ceremony.
In contemporary PNG life, a bilum is not merely a commodity, but an artefact that signifies new values and engages the daily and ceremonial life of modern Papua New Guinea. Linked to this modernization, a new form of bilum and bilum production appeared about fifteen years ago, linked to body decoration and the significance of public aesthetic display. To give an example from the Sepik River, women now dance wearing bilums on their backs with a small branch placed in the bottom of each bag so that patterns are displayed. After Christian preachers condemned showing nude breasts in public places, Sepik women now cover their breasts with large bilums tied around the neck and at the waist. In the Highlands Region (in what today is Enga Province and Western Highland Province), men traditionally dance wearing long looped aprons. These two examples show that net bags and looped textiles are used to cover the body.
Cathy Kata and her bilum-making team in Goroka, 2008. From left to right: Aguni Michael, Emma Opa, Cathy Kata, Julie Reginol, Doli, Mama Titi, Everlyn Baina, Alice Sibili, Dorothy Wusik, Anna Kupa (Mama Hagen), Dunawa Sibili. (Photo: Pamela Rosi)
Susan Cochrane reported early examples of women’s cooperatives of bilum makers and cited the example of Maggie Wilson, an artist from the Western Highlands deeply involved in the development of filmmaking in Papua New Guinea. Wilson was probably the first to make bilum clothing for an exhibition in Sydney in 1996 (Cochrane 1997:101). In 1997, Sharon Brissoni, a Papua New Guinea-born Italian, initiated a new development in body adornment, drawing on indigenous bilum looping. Employing women from Morata settlement in Port Moresby, she designed a line of bilum clothing that offered them an opportunity to earn cash while developing their traditional knowledge in new ways. A first fashion show was organized in Australia and drew considerable media attention. Pictures of the new bilum “fashion” – available in a catalogue where the clothing was worn by Western models – then circulated in Papua New Guinea and abroad. Directed to an international clientele, the “bilum” dresses were made in natural fibres. Brissoni experimented to find bark fibres and twisting techniques that would produce a textile that was light and flexible. The success of this first collection was largely due to this unique combination of traditional knowledge and techniques that provided a preview of how bilum techniques and fibres from the natural environment could be adapted for an international market. From a PNG perspective it was, however, the collaborative aspect of the production that was new since, in traditional contexts, bilum-making is an individual creative process. In Papua New Guinea, it is uncommon to find a group of women working together to accomplish a single task – although cases have been reported of women selling their work together as a financial co-operative. In the Highlands, women may also work together to complete tasks such as gathering grass for thatching roofs or collectively preparing food for feasts and ceremonies. Women working collectively on a daily basis nevertheless remain the exception in Papua New Guinea.
Because making “bilumwear”- a term for clothing made from looping techniques- is time-consuming and looping a dress may take weeks and even months to be completed, it is a risky operation. Selecting an inappropriate design or a wrong range of colours could jeopardize a sale. Today, most women designing bilumwear work collectively. The development of bilumwear production (even if it remains on a quite limited scale compared to global bilum production) engages women to work in a rather new way. Although the markets they target are different, Sharon Brissoni, Florence Jaukae (whose parents are from the East Sepik and Eastern Highlands), and Cathy Kata (from the Western Highlands) have created co-operative groups of women to work under their direction. For example, Cathy Kata deals with marketing the products, looking for clients and advertisers, as well as taking charge of conceptualizing the style of the textile, including shapes, colours, and materials. Under her direction, the women then execute the garments. Sometimes, they may make only pieces of the garment, which she then assembles. Interestingly, the women who work for Cathy Kata and other bilum designers are not necessarily kin-related, although the social conditions they live under are similar and reflect recent issues confronting women living in urban societies. Because of the development of administrative and business opportunities in Papua New Guinea, men are very mobile and some abandon their wives in quest of new job opportunities. As a result, many women are left alone with their children and many live in locations that are remote from their home villages and far from any relatives. Often, in such circumstances, many are left without resources and support. Making bilumwear can therefore offer women in difficult social positions an opportunity to earn some money to sustain their families. At the same time, there is a possibility that this vulnerability could lead to exploitation.
Initially, bilumwear was for women. Around 2003, two types of clothing appeared – women’s dresses and men’s shirts. Many of these earliest garments, which were offered for sale in local markets, were made in Papua New Guinea’s national colours (red, black, and yellow) and were intended to be worn on special occasions such as graduation ceremonies and national celebrations. Prices for these garments were much higher than for Western of clothing sold in supermarkets. When bilumwear first appeared, production was very limited and drew little media attention, even though it was a creative attempt to design clothes fitting a modern Papua New Guinean way of life. By contrast, designs inspired by Melanesian traditional motifs that were printed on tee-shirts, laplaps (pareos), and textiles for household decoration in the years leading to independence in 1975 became far more popular as displays of national pride.
In documenting the development of bilumwear around 2003, there is no direct connection between the initial experiments of Sharon Brissoni to create a line of fashion garments and the work of PNG women, particularly Florence Jaukae and Cathy Kata, who began to make bilum garments as a result of their own creativity and in response to local demand. Soon, fashion shows were organized in Port Moresby for elitist charity events such as the Salvation Army Gala Night (2007) or the Election of Miss PNG Red Cross (2008). While Brissoni designed for an international market reflecting the expectations of world fashion design, PNG women expanded looping techniques to create garments with a PNG identity to wear for special occasions in urban areas. Previously, men and women would have worn western dress for special occasions or women would have worn a traditional Pacific loose top, introduced by missionaries in the 19th century, called “Meri blouse” in Papua New Guinea. These loosely shaped blouses, which can be extended in length to become dresses, became popular as standard dress for women throughout the Pacific Islands.
The styles of bilumwear dresses and garments vary, reflecting the individual choice of patterns, colours, and shapes selected by each woman designer. Nevertheless, a general style of design is becoming “traditional”. The basic form is a sheath with two straps attached at the shoulder, similar to those stitched onto a bilum bag. From this basic structure, women have developed several variations, including dividing the basic model into two pieces: a top and a skirt. Today, basic models are for sale in markets in Port Moresby and in Goroka, with prices many times more than the cost of a bilum. This higher price gives an idea of the time and the value given by women to these elaborate pieces. Looping clothing is becoming an increasingly common practice in Papua New Guinea.
Some bilumwear designers, including Florence Jaukae and Cathy Kata, who both live and work in Goroka, have developed a client-based mode of production that encourages them to work and experiment with designs their patrons request. As well as receiving commissions from PNG women, both women receive important support from expatriate clients who encourage and support efforts for innovation and new styles – although these might be difficult to sell to Papua New Guineans. For example, Cathy Kata has started to include new material such as feathers in her bilum fashion, drawing on the custom of twisting feathers into bilums found in Simbu province. But in contemporary bilum-making, if an innovative form or design is successful in the market, it will be quickly imitated or adapted by other bilum-makers. In this sense, one can speak of a pattern fashion. Some patterns become quickly popular and clients will want to purchase bilums looped with a specific pattern. In designing bilumwear clothing, bilum-makers need to be aware of the “taste” of their clients and adapt popular bilum designs to clothing. But innovation is also important and, as bilumwear designers are aware, not all designs are suitable for bilum clothing. Innovation and adaptation are therefore part of contemporary bilumwear design and production.
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Tags: apprenticeship, bilum, bilumwear, body decoration, Eastern Highlands, family, fashion, identity, inheritance, initiation, living objects, music, natural materials, reclaimed materials, relationships, song, spirits, synthetic materials, technological change, urban synthesis, women