Friday, June 18, 2010

Women at the loop of knowledge


“They are the ultimate bread winners. We know we will be going back to them at the end of the day.”

Thus, the storyboard’s remarks to a gathering of dignitaries consisting of academics, diplomats, women leaders and councillors, and most important, the mothers of Morata.

All this happened at the Parliament House at 12 noon on 31st March 2010, upon the occasion of Dame Carol Kidu’s launching of a book on bilums, called “Twisting Knowledge and Emotion: Modern Bilums of Papua New Guinea.”

So titled, the book intrigues as much as entices the curious observer into the arena of human creativity in the form of a loop, almost entirely controlled by women. From the loop begins the awesome task of weaving the fabrics of society together, which in turn promises sustainability, unity and strength.
Aside from the preceding metaphorical remark, the book, in essence, celebrates women’s sense of creativity through a format of art known as the bilum. And it is well that Dame Carol Kidu chose to launch the book at the Parliament House as that, in a way, was proclaiming the arrival and presence of more women not just as artists but also as leaders and participants in the government. All the more telling was the presence at this occasion of notable women figures such as Professor Betty Lovai (recipient recently of the US Secretary’s award for valour), Ms Florence Jaukae (the forerunner of the bilum as an industry), women councillors from the Motu Koitabu Assembly, the mothers of Morata as representatives of mothers throughout the country and Her Excellency, the Ambassador of Pakistan. The occasion at the Parliament House was therefore devoted to the women. It was their day.

 “Twisting Knowledge and Emotion” was compiled and edited by Dr. Nicholas Garnier. It is the result of a research and publication project which began around 2003 when Dr. Garnier joined the University of Papua New Guinea as a lecturer in French in the Modern Languages department. At that time he would ask his French students to collect as many names as possible of the bilum firstly in their own languages and then, through research, in all the 800 or so languages of Papua New Guinea. The result was overwhelming. We were actually sitting on a gold mine of enormous cultural wealth. This led to an exhibition which was staged at the Michael Somare Library, and it proved a great success. Women began flocking the library to witness what their handiwork of bilums finally led them to. Students, staff and members of UPNG community also contributed enormously to this exhibition, through poems and short prose pieces all speaking in praise of the bilum and the remarkable women and mothers who made the whole of this bilum enterprise happen.

        My Bilum

I love my bilum
Because it was given to me by my big sister
And I love my big sister too

My billum is purple
My favourite colour
I carry my bilum everywhere
To school
To church or just to spin around
To show the beautiful colours it has

My friends admire my bilum
And so I do
I love my bilum

        Iphigenia Soaba 














What was most rewarding to see was the stakeholders’ attention to the bilum as an art form. UPNG, as usual, stepped in as the main sponsor along with Alliance Francaise de Port Moresby, with more yet to come. 

Around October last year, immediately after the success of the exhibition “40 Years of PNG Literature” at the National Library, Dr. Garnier said: “Look, let’s publish a catalogue of bilums and take it out to the world.” Said his colleagues at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences: “Good, find the money and we’ll produce the book.” By December a major sponsor was found and the whole project went into press.

The storyboard would now like us to acknowledge that major sponsor. They are the Christensen Fund, a foundation based in America. They covered the print costs through a local printer called Tropic Print, and the result is what we see on gloss paper with all its brilliance in colour faithfully representing this great art form cultivated by the women of Papua New Guinea called the bilum! 5,000 copies were printed, 3,000 of which will be given to the Education Department for distribution to schools throughout the country. The remaining 2,000 will go to those wishing to promote the bilum as an art form, here and elsewhere.

Potential sponsors throughout the world often worry about where their money goes to in the third world countries. Perhaps their moment of hesitancy comes about because of the sort of people, individuals, organizations and institutions that they choose to strike deals and bargains with. With writers and artists, and academics and researchers, they need not worry as all that they spend is faithfully accounted for. They also worry about direct feedback from the recipients. However, representatives of Christensen Fund who were present at Dame Carol Kidu’s book launch at the Parliament House will now go home with a different story to tell. They have seen the response from the women of Papua Guinea directly, and that in itself was simply awesome. In his speech at this book launch, the Ambassador of France, HE Alain Waquet, said that “the present book represents a concrete example of a successful support,” adding that “rather than expression of intentions, the Alliance francaise has always acted concretely in favour of cultural actors in Papua New Guinea.”

“Twisting Knowledge and Emotion” contains 24 poems and short prose pieces speaking in praise of the bilum as an art form. These are supported by the editor’s treatise on the bilum, citing historical references of significance and how best this art form can be embraced by the outside world, particularly the Western one. There is much there that needs tapping into. The book also contains 3 to 400 coloured photographs of different patterns of the bilum, all ranging in themes from daily occurrences to the much more sombre and thoughtful. If we look at each pattern, each bilum, closely, it is true that although PNG is said to be 75 to 80 percent illiterate, we will have read a complete “book” of poems, short stories, legends and myths, even a text book in Visual Anthropology! The bilum serves as an alternative “book” as it were. Search for an important land mark, BSP, UPNG, a spider web, diamonds, coffee mugs, religious icons, sun glasses, fish bones, floor mats, bilum suits, mosquito coils, kundu drums, the Highlands Highway,  a love letter, seasonal greetings, the computer screen, even pokies and golf sticks and post office keys...they are all there.
All bilum photos courtesy of Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, University of Papua New Guinea.