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The inappropriate cultural appropriation of the PNG bilum

BilumwearELVINA OGIL | EMTV Online

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”. 

Highlands bilums, Ialibu 1980s (Camilla Darwin)The bilum is so intrinsically 'ours' – more so than many other icons of cultural significance to our people.

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.


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Garry Roche

As Raymond Sigimet has suggested, Elvina’s article is not in reference to the second photograph of the colourful bilums worn by three young ladies with their backs to the camera.

This photograph of the bilums was originally taken near Ialibu by Camilla Darwin back around 1986. Camilla Darwin was teaching Art in PNG (Rabaul and Hagen) at the time.

She is now Camilla Darwin Loveridge and is a recognised artist living in Fremantle, West Austalia. I think this photo brings out the beauty of the bilum without demeaning it or the culture in any way.

Daniel Kumbon

PNG culture is unique. people can come with their cameras and take pictures. Who says no?

Raymond Sigimet

With due respect to opinions, comments and views by fellow readers concerning the article by Elvina on how the bilum was used in a photo shoot. I believe Elvina's article is in reference to a different photo and not the one we see above.

Vikki John

Going topless was once considered a relief and not to wear a bra great relief.
We burnt our bras but do not reveal our breasts.
Interestingly, great women who still refuse to wear a bra are now exposed to the sickness of mainly white men.
Whilst my support continues for a great tradition for those wonderful sisters who continue their culture to not cover their breasts, the white preditor and their dirty magazines target them for their breasts.
So again, does it show the inclination of men, particularly white, that the only thing that counts is a women's breasts?

Michael Dom

Elvina, I like the picture of this sassy lady - French or otherwise. I'd buy those bilums just in case.

We can wear bilum any way we want to and the world is free to join in - I just hope that our ladies can get a little more business out of it (i.e. making the bilums not necessarily wearing them as in this case, unless they wanted to...and that would be a different think altogether.)

But on Daniel's point I have to say that our cultural bilas is not done to purposefully display our balls or breasts for people to take pictures for profit.

As Peter and I took the mickey out of the frogs.

Daniel Kumbon

Elvina, I share your concern but as you know highlands women weave the bilum in the same way as the highlands cap and highlands aprons worn by men.

You might know that some women in Enga dress as man and wear the male apron and highlands cap during singsings.

People who come to the annual Enga Cultural Show in August this year will see evidence of this.

And you know, tourists buy our bilums but we cannot really tell them how to use them, can we?

And what's the difference between a Enga woman wearing a man's apron and the picture above, which to me does not look provocative at all.

Her belly button is showing but showing belly buttons and going topless is part of our culture, isn't it?

Vikki John

I am not sure where the photo came from but in its discovery can Elvina clarify if it was a French girl in the photo?
If it does originate from France, then we must all recall the French nuclear tests that were done in the Pacific.
According to The Guardian newspaper on 4 July 2013
"From 1960 to 1996, France carried out 210 nuclear tests, 17 in the Algerian Sahara and 193 in French Polynesia in the South Pacific, symbolised by the images of a mushroom cloud over the Mururoa atoll. For decades, France argued that the controlled explosions were clean."
If the young girl is from France, perhaps the photo can be revealing a point of view from the youth of France who support PNG, its bilum and your national emblem.
Just a thought but the origin of the photo may help. Agree?

Peter Kranz

'Le Coq Sportif' features some strange looking cycling shorts. Koteka-ready methinks, judging from the photos.

Michael Dom

Peter, does that mean that for the French market we can sell them 'le petite le coq'?

Peter Kranz

Michael - 'le coq' might be a most appropriate symbol for a koteka, but then again I think you already knew that.

Peter Kranz

The French are hypocritically insistent in enforcing the appellation d'origine contrôlée over food and wine labels, such that Australian winemakers cannot call their fizzy wine 'champagne' and cheesemakers better be careful in calling a product 'Camembert'. The Big Cheese is alive and well (see Carry On: Don't Lose Your Head.)'origine_contr%C3%B4l%C3%A9e

Michael Dom

If people are making money out of our cultural handicrafts and icons, we should like it or lump it.

I have this image of myself wearing a gallic cockerel engraved penis gourd and charging the streets on Bastille Day, with shreds of the fluer de lys waving from my rear.

I like the bilum model idea but take offense at someone else profiting from handicrafts that were the original creation of Papua New Guinean women.

I don't know about sacred, but it feels like this item of PNG womens technology is something special and worth protecting somehow.

Call it old fashioned, but sometimes it's better not to bend over to capitalism, metaphorically speaking(?).

We're already giving in too much, aren't we?

Emmanuel Peni

Peter Kranz - Gender stereotyping is a big problem in many homes in PNG. The teachers do not help either. There is misunderstanding of sex and gender. Sex we see (body organ), gender we don't see but come up with contextual definitions around some vague characteristics (so much assumptions).

Yes this article lack a proper understanding of moving into modernity. People in PNG are moving. Their practices and beliefs are evolving. get on with it. Adapt, keep the good beliefs (Demas Saul sings - Pasin Barata) throw away the bad - especially the male chauvinism, misogyny and sexism.

Ron Wolters

Wake up. We're living in the 21st century! What's wrong with a beautiful person wearing a beautiful bilum.

People like you stop development of your country and hold back youngsters and women from developing and freeing themselves from the shackles of men and religious fanatics. Shame on you!

Lapieh Landu

I agree with Mr Kamasua, the world is changing, nothing is stagnant. The bilum plays quite a significant role in our culture in all aspects for both men and women .

When you look at it, we wore bilums around our chest and our bodies. I do not see anything wrong with this picture only that, if she had posed differently. Her stance may have been perceived to be inappropriate.

I attended the International Women's Day Breakfast where Sharlene Gawi, the head and founder of the PNG Bilum Export Promotion Association talked about enabling cooperatives formed by bilum makers to tap into International Markets with our Bilum Products, not necessarily the bilum bag, but also other products like hats, accessories, clothing, etc.

Meaning to say, yes, the bilum ( technique) is ' ours' traditionally in terms of cultural identity, but that does not restrict us from exploring other ways in which we can use this technique to empower our bilum making industry and also gain international exposure.

I have a love for this artistry. Undeniable love and interest as it is quite a delicate and intriguing technique that continues to improve in time. Also requires an immense amount of patience too. Which I lack unfortunately.

But yes, all important points raised here. Best to see both sides of it.

Joachim Lummani

That's capitalism interested in life as a commodity.

Chris Overland

I really like Michael Dom's excellent idea. It might help give French designers an insight into how Papua New Guineans' respond to a bilum being turned into a bikini.

However, the most likely response will be a Gallic shrug of indifference. Capitalism has a long history of cultural appropriation and absolutely nothing is sacred.

So, these days, I see young (and not so young) Caucasian men and women with multiple body piercings, tattoos and similar "body art" which clearly emulate traditional practices in other cultures. I doubt that they know or care about any actual or potential cultural sensitivities associated with this.

For them, it is just another form of bilas.

The only consolation I can offer Elvina Ogil is that any craze for bilum bikinis, if it happens at all, is bound to be very, very short.

After all, one thing we all know about the latest fashion craze is that it invariably is ephemeral and fleeting.

Meanwhile, the bilum will remain for those of us who know about it, both a practical item and an enduring symbol of traditional PNG society.

Michael Dom

Hey Peter, how would the French like it if we started wearing the Fleur de Lys as an arse-tanget and the gallic rooster carved on our penis gourds?

Cultural appropriation wouldn't be so amusing after that, I betcha!

Peter Kranz

We had some correspondence a few years back with the French company involved. Maybe it's time for some more emails.

Peter Kranz

Elvina - I support your comments on the misappropriation of the bilum by a French company, who even copyrighted the name.

On another matter, there is an interesting UNESCO report just released which says gender stereotyping is rife in school textbooks in developing countries. Is this true in PNG?

Maybe its time for some great PNG female writes to write new textbooks for PNG schools? Marlene is doing a good job.

Raymond Sigimet

The bilum is a part of our national identity and an item of cultural significance.

I agree with Elvina that the bilum is intrinsically 'ours'. I proudly carry a bilum, whether it be slung on the side or hung around the neck.

Bilums are presented as a show of appreciation, as a family gift or as a parting gift from people we know in PNG modern society.

The designs and patterns, materials used to weave, dye, colour, sizes and sling length, the right way to carry a bilum, geographical origin of the bilum are also culturally significant and are our source of identity (and pride).

The Madang bilum is not similar to the Highlands bilum, likewise for example in East Sepik the Wosera bilum is not similar to the Maprik bilum, and again both are not similar to the Yangoru bilum.

They are completely different with their own traditional designs and cultural qualities. Some bilums are also weaved only for men to carry and not women and vice versa.

In PNG schools, students are learning about national identity and symbols and the bilum is always used to express this.

There is nothing wrong with promoting the bilum internationally or seeing our friends from overseas carry a bilum around, it's all part of our national pride.

The only problem is when items that we see as part of our national identity and are culturally significant like the bilum is depicted or shown in a way that is not culturally appropriate for ordinary PNGeans.

We should not pretend that it is not wrong and does not devalue our PNG ways of doing or seeing things.

John K Kamasua


the only thing that is constant is change. Culture both material and belief systems undergo changes, as they come into contact with different influences.

Maybe if we look at it from a different perspective, it is not a bad thing at all for the bilum and and other accessories associated with it to be given greater exposure.

Like you, I have very fond memories of being carried around in a bilum as a toddler, and seeing my own siblings sleeping soundly in them.

However, I totally agree with you on regarding the bilum as a sacred possession. It has a special place in society for especially women, and should continue to do so for a long time.

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