Bilum: the most significant word in the Tok Pisin language
Bilum. It is perhaps the most significant word in the Tok Pisin language and the most iconic concept in Papua New Guinean culture and artistry. In Tok Pisin, the word means “womb,” that place from which all life springs. But it also refers to bilum bags, the living, breathing artifacts of the country’s multifaceted population.Handed down throughout the centuries and ubiquitous across tribes and regions, the craft of bilum weaving is at the heart of Papua New Guinean traditions.When a man slings a handwoven bilum bag across his body, he carries with him not just the goods that fill the sack, but the history of the women in his family. The bag he wears may have been woven by his mother’s hands, using the knowledge that was passed down from his grandmother, and his great-grandmother before her.
Ceremonial Wear of Natural Fibers at the Goroka Show (2018)Asia Foundation
A woman who places her sleeping child into the sack, the baby’s skin pressing against the carefully threaded loops of the weave, not only conjures for them the safety of the womb but grounds them in the traditions of their ancestors and their tribes.
Tourists increasingly seek out these one-of-a-kind creations, but they’re also integral to the locals’ daily lives and tribal memories. Made exclusively by the nation’s women, bilum bags also empower the weavers economically, enabling them to support their families and escape dire circumstances such as domestic violence.
Bilum weaver from Bena Bena village (2018)Asia Foundation
Yet the future of the bilum trade is uncertain. Traditionally, weavers rely on local fibers and natural dyes such as turmeric to craft the bags. But the introduction of synthetic materials and artificial dyes have allowed for the mass production of bilum bags. While these lack the skill and story of traditionally-made bilum, they’re cheaper and faster to produce and more eye-catching for souvenir-seeking tourists.
Modernization also threatens the craft. As people move to urban centers and seek opportunities outside their native country, fewer learn to weave and fewer will be able to pass it on. But modernization could also be bilum’s saving grace. Young entrepreneurs recognize bilum’s value both culturally and economically, and they’re building online platforms to support local weavers by bringing their handcrafted bags to broader markets.
If these young people are successful, they will bring together the ancient and the innovative and create a model for countries around the globe that seek a path toward progress that doesn’t erase the past.
Teaser video for Bilum Papua New Guinea online exhibit (2018)Asia Foundation
Images + Sound:
Samuel Díaz Fernández
Special thank to Florence Kamel, Gilda Lasibori, Sharlene Gawi, and the women of Bena Bena Village
Executive Producer: John Karr
The Asia Foundation