I HAVE always felt strongly about the bilum - due in large part to its place in the life of Papua New Guineans.
For myself and many of my contemporaries, our mothers placed us in bilums as infants and then, as we came of age, we were gifted bilums by grandmothers, aunts, and cousins.
The blessed few among us learned the art of bilum weaving. Amongst my many bilums is one given to me by my paternal great aunt not long before she died.
I have carried this bilum with me around the world and it remains my most sacred possession. The symbolism of the bilum is the very foundation of our culture.
Last weekend, a friend sent me an image posted on an Instagram account featuring a thin Caucasian model wearing nothing but a long bilum and a bikini bottom in a rather provocative pose.
It was clear that the stylist had used the ‘handles’ of the bilum to cover the model’s breasts. Collective reaction to this photo was swift.
Amongst my circle of friends, profound offence was taken at the use of the bilum as a prop, a costume, and in such an overtly sexual pose.
I cringe to think what my female ancestors would have made of this clearly Caucasian woman posing in such a manner, with the bilum across her chest and hanging between her legs.
Putting aside my immediate and visceral reaction to that photograph, I wonder if the stylist, photographer and distributor of this image understood, or even cared about, the greater implications of such cultural appropriation.
In its most basic form, cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture and often extends to the use of cultural items outside of their original context.
Cultural appropriation is a longstanding phenomenon, but it is not widely understood in PNG. Academic discourse outside PNG abounds with discussion of the ethics of cultural appropriation as differentiated from more benign appreciation.
Recent topics have centered on the use of Native American cultural items in fashion or at a simpler more base level the highly offensive phenomenon of 'black face’
A lack of understanding of cultural appropriation, as it relates to items of cultural significance to Papua New Guinea, has no doubt accorded unparalleled access to our culture by those who are likely to pick the most palatable parts while discarding the rest.
I was disheartened to see the accolades expressed by Papua New Guineans for this photograph, with commentators on social media noting how wonderful it was “to see international models embracing our bilums”.
While many of our traditional practices and associated icons can only be found in museums, the bilum remains in our day to day culture, sometimes in traditional form, at other times in a more contemporary expression.
But the bilum stands as perhaps one of the greatest links to our collective history.
Admiration for this photograph implies that our own respect and appreciation of our culture and cultural items should be contingent on its acceptance by others.
I do not accept that. We as a people will have devalued ourselves significantly if we were to feel the need to actively seek and rely upon such approval.