The Apa Kenge National Bilum

I’m pleased to welcome Nicolas Garnier as a new contributor to Iconophilia. He is the author/editor of Twisting Knowledge and Emotion: Modern Bilums of Papua New Guinea, (Alliance Francaise de Port Moresby/University of Papua New Guinea, 2009). Dr Garnier is Senior Lecturer in Visual Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea. What follows is a further significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of collaborative art works and issues of authorship elsewhere on this site, and reveals a great deal about the social and political economy of such ventures.

In November 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a brief but symbolically important visit to Papua New Guinea. Her visit lasted hardly two hours during which her core activity was a visit to the National Parliament. On this occasion, the Speaker decided to hang in the Grand Hall a very large string bag that was offered by the University of Papua New Guinea on Mother’s Day in May 2010. The architecture and the art decoration of the Parliament House is socially and politically meaningful and has been the result of successive attempts to build a national identity thus creating a common platform from more than a thousand independent local political units speaking over 800 languages and who manifest some of the most socially and culturally contrasted features.

The creation of the bilum: The project originated at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. Following a discussion with Dame Carol Kidu, Minister for Community Development, I had realized that the Parliament, which was about to vote an important bill to give women easier access to politics, did not display any art work in relation to the world of women and their values. While we prepared the launch of a volume dedicated to string bags that included several important contributions of Papua New Guinea prominent academics, we thought we could also plan the creation of a very large bilum which could be displayed in the Grand Hall. Such a creation was intended to be a tribute to women’s contribution to the country. After discussions held within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mrs Ruth Dom and I were appointed to conduct the project. Under the recommendations of Mrs Dom we invited a little more than 20 women from the neighbouring regions to attend an information meeting in the presence of the husband of one of the invited ladies who appointed himself as representative for this newly formed group of women. During the meeting we presented the main lines of the project and we particularly emphasised that there would be little money available. We also highlighted the fact that despite the project being commissioned by the University we wanted to let the women be the authors of the project. We didn’t want to impose upon them any form of program. We had only three requirements. The first concerned the timeframe. We had only a little more than two months since the artwork was due to be presented in May on the occasion of Mother’s Day. The second was the size. We wanted an artefact which would be really large. The third constraint was financial: we had very limited funds and for many of the women we believed at first that this might be very discouraging.

The context of its creation: The monumental string bag was made in a settlement called Morata which is located at the north east border of the University land. For Ruth Dom and myself, it was an easy task to pay women daily visits. It was also easy for us to provide them with yarns whenever they required them. As suggested by Ruth Dom, it was also decided that food should be prepared or at least made available as often as we could arrange it. Several times, we bought rice bags and tinned food for the initially 20 and then 17 women who worked on the project. Providing food is a necessary requirement in most collective work. This marks an alliance and a reciprocal dedication between those who order the work and those who were appointed to do it. It often symbolises more than a relationship of trust and reciprocal recognition but a form of symbolic adoption. On this occasion the food providers, as “parents”, demonstrated that they intended to look after those who worked, their new “sons and daughters”. The final payment was to compensate for the labour provided and acknowledge the importance of the work. The final contribution was also intended to put an end to this temporary adoption and split again the group and send back everyone to their previous activities and previous relationships.

“The baby is too young yet, it is not ready…” The women soon started to organize themselves. The self-appointed male “women’s leader” was politely asked to step down. We all argued (the university and the women who decided to be part of the project) that a man who does not know how to make string bag can be of little help and moreover can be a kind of nuisance in the conduct of the project. We all argued that only bilum makers, Mrs Dom and I should be part of the project. Actually it didn’t really happen this way but while the making of the bag was progressing none of us noticed that some newcomers were building arguments to share the authorship of this incredible experience.

To ensure women had a shelter and a place where they could work without dispute, Mrs Dom generously proposed to host the project under her newly built house in Morata. In doing so, we reminded everyone that this project was a University project and that women should not fear any form of threat linked to where they are working. After a month or so, Tibe Philip, the newly appointed women’s representative asked us to advertise the name of the group as Apa Kenge. The term was made of two words borrowed from the two main languages used by the participants. Part of the women came from the Southern Highlands Province while others came from the region of Goroka. For the launching of the book at the Parliament we invited the 17 women. The bilum was brought to the Parliament, but carefully hidden in a box. It was important to show that the work was in progress but also as important not to reveal anything about it until its completion. Tibe Philip and the other women also feared that some witnesses could “steal” the idea and therefore diminish the impact and the importance of the ongoing work: “the baby is not ready yet, we cannot show it yet”.

The launching: The days preceding the deadline were frantic under the house of Mrs Dom. The excitement and pride grew day by day. The first half of the payment we gave them was spent in nice traditional gowns and for many women their first pair of shoes. In the Grand Hall, the TV and newspaper crews were interviewing the “big shots”: ministers and a few members of Parliament, and the Speaker of the Parliament Jeffery Nape. Quite a large number of the diplomatic body was also there with their spouses. It was also a great day for the University since it was their first contribution to the embellishment of the Parliament. The Speaker and the dignitaries stood on the steps of the monumental stairway. The women who first hid at the back arrived with the bilum following a choreography they had rehearsed a hundred times. The crowd was astonished. The Speaker had prepared a kind but polite discourse. He left his written paper after reading the first lines and improvised an enthusiastic speech in which he said that this bilum was the most beautiful thing he ever saw. It fully deserved a first place in the Grand Hall and was a very strong and convincing embodiment not only of women’s skills but of the nation as a whole. To show his appreciation he promised a gift of 20,000Kina to the clever women.

The end of the project: The gift of the National Speaker was a great relief, since Mrs Dom and I felt a little embarrassed to offer women a very little amount of money for such a tremendous work. And yet it was precisely at that time that dissention re-emerged. Ruth Dom and I were first approached to seek advice about this unexpected gift of money. But neighbours, plus the self-appointed male “women’s leader” claimed their share under several aggressive pretexts. About a year later, the women admitted that they felt disempowered by their very confrontational relationship with the new claimants. Within two days the amount of money had just vanished leaving many with anger and disappointment. The sudden fame and unexpectedly high amount of money offered to the group of bilum makers was probably the cause of this unfortunate ending of the project.

This monumental bilum is an example of a modern creation deeply rooted in tradition. It illustrates the capacity of public institutions (a University and the Parliament) to initiate and acknowledge the creativity of women who live in particularly harsh conditions. It also shows that the creation of a monumental bilum, otherwise a modest artefact, by a group of women living in a neglected settlement of the capital city, could generate national pride and be taken as an example to demonstrate the talents of PNG citizens to the rest of the world.

The Apa Kenge group was composed of: Ruth Kinsley (Southern Highlands), Saina Andrew (Chimbu), Helen Pima (Southern Highlands), Sera Hove (Eastern Highlands Province), Jenny Assi (Eastern Highlands Province), Jenny Hove (Eastern Highlands Province), Margret Hove (Eastern Highlands Province), Linet Hove (Eastern Highlands Province), Rose Inaru (Eastern Highlands Province), Elisabeth Bai (Chimbu), Cicillia Lucas (Chimbu), Livore Kevin (Eastern Highlands Province), Botani Boas (Eastern Highlands Province), Esta Philip (Eastern Highlands Province), Priscilla Andrew (Eastern Highlands Province), Tibe Philip (Milne Bay Province), Vavine Andrew (Gulf Province), Vite Abol (Eastern Highlands Province). Ruth Dom and Nicolas Garnier were coordinators of the project.