Ok, I admit it. I’m a fraud. I’m not as well travelled as the previous blog entries on the Bilum might have suggested. Most of the information came, not from my own intrepid journeys into the interior of Papua New Guinea, but from a book called Androgenous Objects, by an author called Maureen Mackenzie, which I found in the university library.
So, why, you may ask, was I reading a book on Bilums (or is it Bila?) in the university library? Good question. I’m glad you asked.
Divine Word University is very keen that all staff should do some work that could be considered as ‘Community Service”. Well, my contribution to this has been to work in the local museum, known as the Haus Tambuna.
The museum is housed in an impressive wooden building that is meant to suggest a Haus Tamburan, a mysterious village Men’s House. Inside the museum there is a wealth of carved wooden figures, large statues representing spirits of various kinds, scary masks for use in village ceremonies or tribal fights, totem poles with weird inscriptions, in fact all kinds of things that would interest a visitor spending the day in Madang having been disgorged from the ample throat of a cruise ship.
There are sections devoted to the German colonialisation of PNG, the Japanese occupation in 1942 and some of the early anthropologists and explorers who started to open up this country to the outside world.
The problem is that the whole exhibition has been put together without taking into consideration the visitor who might want to visit. Many of the exhibits were not labelled at all and other had labels that were so old and faded that they were no longer legible.
And then there was the section on the Bilum, which consisted of a few pictures of bilums poached from Wikipedia and then page after page of instructions on how to make, or, more properly, how to loop a billum. Now, call me old fashioned but I think it is more than a little unlikely that any refugee from a cruise ship, or indeed any dust-encrusted back-packer, who happens to rock up in Sunny Madang, is going to stand in front of a display and learn how to loop a billum.
So I decided to re-do the bilum display. This involved a bit of research in the library and a great deal of fun taking pictures of different people’s bilums. “Excuse me. You don’t know me, but would you mind if I took a picture of your Bilum?” Much to my surprise, no-one slapped my face or called the police.
I then found myself with a sixty pictures of bilums, so the next problem was to find someone who could tell me where the various bilums came from. This proved remarkably easy. Every woman, and many of the men I spoke to could distinguish between a bilum from the Highlands or one from the islands. I was not short of advisors.
Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself having coffee with my good friend Father Garry, who will, in the next few weeks be the subject of a blog entry of his own. Father Garry has lived in PNG for over forty years and has the stories to prove it.
I was telling him about my billum project and he suddenly disappeared into another room and reappeared with a photo of a group of women wearing bilums, that put all of my pictures to shame.
Father Garry is almost Papua New Guinea’s institutional memory. What he doesn’t know about the last four decades in PNG is not worth knowing. The picture above was one of a series that were taken by a photograher called Camilla Darwin, (yes, a distant relative), in the 1980s.
Camilla Darwin, now Camilla Loveridge, is a photographer and visual artist, living in Fremantle, Western Australia. (If you have a minute, look her up on the internet. It’s worth it.) Anyway, with my display in mind, and encouraged by Father Garry, I wrote to Camilla Loveridge, explained what I was doing and asked if she had any more pictures that she could send me.
To her credit, and after a considerable time broggling through her records from thirty years ago, she sent me three more photos and gave me permission to show them.
All four photos now have pride of place in my display. If you ever find yourself in Madang, go and have a look.