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Florence, the Bilum Mama.

Interview with Florence Jaukae Kamel

This interview has been edited for flow and clarity

OoT: We’re chatting with creative juggernaut and passionate bilum advocate, Florence Jaukae Kamel, director of Jaukae Bilum Products. Jaukae Bilum Products is a Goroka-based bilum weaving cooperative that empowers the disadvantaged women of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands through social enterprise. Florence, can you tell us a little bit about your bilum weaving co-op and the work that you do?

Florence weaving bilum.

Florence: I have a business, which is Jaukae Bilum Products and there are two groups of weavers that I look after. At my home, the Blue Corner Farm, a group of 40 weavers work out of the Blue House. I also work with a group of 20 weavers at the Goroka bilum market in the city. All of the weavers I work with are women.

OoT: Okay. Wow. So, it’s a big organisation?

Florence: It is. It is.

OoT: And how did you come to be involved in advocating for bilum weavers in this way?

Florence: It all started while I was a councillor for a rural ward in Goroka, Eastern Islands and I was trying to bring rural development under council leadership back into my village, and then my ward area. It eventually turned out that I wanted to work with the women as I believed in women. I knew that I could make a difference to their livelihood, so I just had to try and look for a project that could help women earn an income from home, around family obligations. Somehow, I thought of bilum, and in 2002 I started working with women, teaching them to weave and helping them to sell their bilums.

Bilum weavers at the Blue Corner Farm.

OoT:  It seems that bilum weaving has been central for you and some other cooperatives, too, to help empower women who might not have families or other support networks. Is that right?

Florence: Yes, it is. It is. We work with bilum weavers, many who are single mothers, or widows, or married women whose husbands are not working. Often, they have no formal education so they cannot find a job, and I help them to make bilums so they can look after their families. The women can earn their own money, so it gives them a real sense of independence, and helps them support their families and their communities.

OoT: Excellent! So, tell us about some of the designs from your region. Are there traditional bilum styles that your weavers usually weave, or does everyone create different designs?

Florence: We have traditional designs. We have modern designs. It’s basically whatever a weaver wants to weave. If a weaver is happy weaving a traditional design then they do that. If it’s a creative design or like a modern design or something like that, they weave whatever suits them. Weavers here in Goroka usually work in colourful acrylic fibres because we live in urban areas. That makes it a little bit complicated to go out into the bush and fetch fibre and materials, so the weavers buy the colours they want in the city.

OoT: And that’s what gives Goroka bilums such a distinct and vibrant flavour! I know some of the bilum cooperatives do use more natural fibres, but it sounds like using man-made fibres is a reflection of the area you’re living in.

Florence: Sometimes, you know, due to development in the towns and cities, the access to fibres in the forest has been destroyed because a town has to be developed. So, we would have to go out into very remote areas and collect natural fibres.

OoT:  That’s very sad to hear. But the weavers still work with some traditional bilum designs, don’t they? Are the designs handed down through families?

Florence: The traditional designs, they are confined to traditional beliefs and to villages and to certain families. So, when we’re using certain traditional designs, we need to get permission. For certain designs, like if a weaver is designing something from a certain village but they’re from a different village, that design belongs to the village, and they would have to ask for permission. If they don’t get permission, then the weaver can’t use that design.

OoT: And who would they ask for permission?

Florence: The villagers and their leaders.

OoT: Is that because there’s a connection between place and design? Does a particular area of land hold that design, or do the people of that land?

Florence: The particular ethnic group owns the design.

Bilums from the Eastern Highlands being used in a traditional Sing Sing.

OoT: That’s interesting. I noticed you do some really interesting things in your own weaving. I’ve seen you wearing woven dresses at events which are just gorgeous. How did you come to take this very traditional practice of bilum weaving and make it something contemporary and modern in that way?

Florence: The idea, basically, came after going through an encyclopedia. I was helping my children do their homework and I noticed a carpet snake. The colour and the design of the scales on the carpet snake inspired me to do something that could be worn. So, I thought, ‘Oh, that looks like a bilum design. How about me trying to make a bilum design out of that color, out of the design, the same as the carpet snake and make it something one can wear?’

OoT: Oh, I love that! And does the carpet snake have any particular significance for you? Is it a totem animal or something?

Florence: No. It’s just from the encyclopedia, but it’s similar to, not as in the actual design itself, but it has similarities with a bilum design that we have, so that was where I picked up the idea. I was inspired because the colours were black, milky white and brown, to the popular colours being used in our region at the time. So, it doesn’t have any specific significance to any of our beliefs or tradition or anything.

Florence and her bilum-wear creations at the performance, Twist and Loop created for the exhibition ‘No.1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966–2016’ at QGoMA.

OoT: That’s very cool. What’s the craziest bilum design you’ve ever seen?

Florence: Definitely the AK47.

OoT:  Really an AK47? Like the machine gun? That is pretty crazy!

Florence: It is very crazy!

OoT:  Did one of your weavers design that?

Florence: It was first designed by a Goroka bilum weaver. We never knew who started it, but most designs are created here in Goroka and then spread through the regions of Papua New Guinea. Goroka is the home of bilum.

OoT: Okay, wow. So, you’re like the hub of bilum creativity and everyone else feeds off you?

Florence: Yes, we are. We are.

OoT: Sounds like the place to be! Can you tell me a little bit more about the process of bilum weaving? You spoke about using acrylic fibres in Goroka, but what’s the process? Once you have the fibre, what’s the process after that?

Florence: We go and purchase the coloured fibre that we want from the local shop. Then we take it home and we start twisting it you know? Once it’s twisted, we start to weave the bilum. So, before we start the bilum, we identify what kind of colours we want to work with, what designs we want to create and what size. So, we already know all of that, and how those choices relate to the designs and patterns. So, once we have purchased the fibre, then we just start creating what we want to do.

OoT:  Do you have traditional colours that are used in your region?

Florence: We do have traditional colours. Traditionally, we used turmeric and the seed of a red plant we call Guhi. When you open the seed and touch it, it turns red. I don’t know the name of the plant in English, but I grow it in my garden.

So those are our traditional colours, we use mostly red and yellow. Then we have ginger, the turmeric and we have a black, which comes from a tree. There are other colours that are around too, but mostly in Goroka we use the turmeric and Guhi because they’re the easiest to access. The process is easier for these colours too. Some of the others need to be boiled and beaten to extract the colours.

OoT: Can you tell us a bit about your supply chain?

Florence: For production, we have a lot of local suppliers here in Goroka. The weavers weave and I sell their bilums straight to our buyers, like One of Twelve. I kind of broker the transaction between the weavers and the buyers. In some cases, there is a middle person involved, who travels around the regional villages buying bilums from different weavers and then brings them to me to sell. Sometimes, our weavers also work on commissions when our buyers have a specific request.

OoT: So, a lot of the time you are dealing directly with buyers like One of Twelve, international buyers and that sort of thing. And you’re the go-between between that buyer and the weaver?

Florence: That’s right.

OoT: So that ensures that a large percentage of the money goes to the weavers themselves, is that right?

Florence: Yes. Most of the money from the sale of a bilum goes directly to the weaver. I am paid a 20% administration fee.

The weaver sets the price of the bilum and if it’s their price, it’s their price. I don’t negotiate because I know the hardship that they have gone through to produce a bilum and what is like. The labour that is involved with sourcing, with twisting, with weaving and all this, so I know the difficulties that the weaver goes through because I’m a weaver myself.

OoT: So bilum weaving is very labour-intensive? How long does it usually take to make a bilum?

Florence: For a small one, a small one, it takes about one month.

OoT: That’s a long time!

Florence: It is. And the large ones probably take six to eight weeks, two months.

A weaver painstakingly weaving bilum.

OoT:  So, there’s a huge amount of effort that goes into creating just one bilum?

Florence: Yes. So that’s why I’m a little bit careful with their pricing because I don’t want to be seen as someone negotiating with a weaver to have a price lowered or disrespecting their labour. Whatever price the weaver comes up with, I respect because I know what it’s like for someone to weave bilum.

OoT: So, part of your job is to advocate those women and make sure they’re paid fairly for their work?

Florence: Yes, absolutely.

OoT: That is very important. And who taught you to weave bilum?

Florence: My mother.

OoT: Is bilum weaving usually taught mother to daughter?

Florence: Yeah. And I’ve taught my daughters.

OoT:  Did you? How old are your daughters?

Florence: Oh, my eldest daughter will be 30 years old now and my last daughter is 22 years old. I have five children, and I have eight grandchildren…nine grandchildren.

OoT:  Wow! You must be a very busy woman.

Florence: Yeah, I am a very busy woman. Building a family, earning a living, running around, getting lost, missing the transport.

OoT: And how old is the child when they usually learn how to weave bilum?

Florence: 5 or 6 years old.

OoT: So, it’s an important milestone in a child’s life, would you say?

Florence: Yes, it is. It’s an important cultural milestone. In Western society, they say it’s child labour, but in our society, it’s a cultural transference – teaching the skill, the traditional art.

OoT: Are there other things that you teach your child as you’re teaching them to weave bilum? Do you teach them other cultural information, like songs or stories?

Florence: Yes, there are dances, there are songs, there are legends. We teach them to make the traditional roundhouse, you know, the walls. In my area, that’s how we teach them to do fencing and to plant a garden of traditional food like sago and all those vegetables.

OoT: So really, it’s an important form of cultural initiation, bilum weaving?

Florence: Yes, it is.

OoT: That’s such a beautiful thing. Leading on from that, I wanted to talk about some of the traditional uses for bilums because people have been making them for thousands and thousands of years in PNG. What are some of the traditional uses for bilum bags?

Florence: Carrying food, carrying babies, firewood, food from the garden.

Bilums were traditionally used to carry babies, amongst other uses.

OoT: And were they used ceremonially, too?

Florence: In my area, we carry a bilum at the back during ceremony. We use that bilum to hold arrows for fighting. The arrows are packed in a bilum and hung across the back, so the warrior pulls it out from the back and shoots. And we use bilums for initiation ceremonies, where we keep traditional medicines inside.

OoT: So really, they’re used for all sorts of important things.

Florence: Yes, it is. The bilum is very important culturally.

OoT: Do only women carry bilums or can men carry them, too?

Florence: Men can carry bilums belongs, too. Anybody can carry bilums, but only women can weave bilums. The men carry the bilums with arrows for fighting. That is for men only.

The young boys have their bilums. The young girls have their bilums. The mothers have their own bilums. The babies have their bilums. Each household person has their own bilum.

OoT: And do you keep different bilums for sentimental reasons? Do you have your bilum from when you were a baby or when you were a little girl for example?

Florence: It depends on the kind of person. If someone keeps historical stuff then they keep it. For me, I keep bilums that were given to me by my mother, my late mother has passed on, but I still have her bilums. And I still have a bilum from about 30 years ago. The oldest bilum I own, and use is about 30 years old.

OoT: Well, I guess, in a way, they’re kind of like photographs. You hold onto them as memories of people or events.

Florence: Yeah, memories. They’re memories. Especially when the weaver who wove that bilum has already passed on.

OoT: Do you think of those bilums as having any spiritual association with the person who owned them in the past or are they just a memory?

Florence: Some do. Some do. Some don’t. It depends on the kind of the weaver. If the weaver is a traditional weaver, then there’s some traditional impartation that they leave on the bilum. So basically, we don’t use to use traditional weavers with our commercial markets.

The bilums that we sell, we don’t use… those are, basically, for commercial purposes. So, we don’t use sacred cultural designs for commercial purposes, unless it’s for bilum festival.

OoT: Can you tell us a bit about the annual bilum festival in Goroka? What is your role in the festival?

Florence: There are two things that I do. One is keeping a record of all the bilum designs and legends and stories that are attached to the bilums. I also use the bilum festival as a marketing platform for bilum weavers to sell their bilums to buyers.

OoT: How many bilum weavers are represented at the festival each year?

Florence: About 150 bilum weavers that come to sell their bilums each year. So, we sell a lot of bilums – about 2000 to 3000 bilums every year.

OoT: Incredible! Is that something that you were involved in setting up?

Florence: That’s my initiative. I’m the one that started the first bilum festival in Papua New Guinea.

OoT: Wow. That’s huge. How did you make that happen? How did you orchestrate all the people coming together in that way?

Florence: Basically, I just wanted the women to have market, and I wanted to keep a database of all the bilum designs for my own personal interest. So that’s basically what I did. I just made it happen.

OoT: So, do a lot of international buyers come along to that festival? How did you form those connections with the international market?

Florence: Yes, lots of international buyers! I use the hotel to host the bilum festival. That’s where tourists come in for the traditional cultural show, the Goroka show. So, I organize the bilum festival a day or two before the cultural show. So, when the tourists come in for the Goroka show, I get the weavers to sell their bilums. So, we host the event and the guests that are in Goroka, they come and see what we do at the market, and they buy the bilums there.

OoT: Very smart. I watched a video where you’re being interviewed and you talked about business being in the home, not just in big cities with big buildings. Was that kind of idea foundational to you setting up Jaukae Bilum Products, bringing economics into the home?

Florence:  Yes, because if I were to set an office up in town, I’d have to pay rentals or lease a property, which would cost me more money. And with bilums it just happened that I could work in the house.

OoT: Yeah, and I guess also as women, everyone has families to raise, food to cook, gardens to tend, all those other things. So, it makes sense to have the work at home.

Florence:  It’s easier to be at home, manage the business, manage my children and grandchildren, and manage my little life here and do business at the same time. So, I have my schedule of when to work, when to do my family runs and all this.

OoT: Yeah, we’re all working from home now because of COVID and it’s great because you’ve got so much more time to do all of the other things you need to do. Just lastly, I can just see a little bit of the skin pik (pig skin) tattoo on your shoulder peeking out. Do you mind telling me a little bit about that?

Florence’s skin pik (pig skin) tattoo.

Florence:  It’s a traditional design that signifies the value of women. It’s a traditional practice that we have when there’s a pig killing ceremony. When the pig meat is distributed, the meaty parts are distributed to people of higher status. And people of lower status, especially the women that do not have husbands, that are widows, or their husband have left them, or a sister who has never married, or a woman and who is married but living back in the village with her brothers, women who don’t have husbands. So those women, basically, are given the greasy part of the pig skin. When the meaty parts are removed from the pig, it leaves the skin, a little bit of skin and the greasy part that is there.

So, it’s cut up into small squares and it’s given to those women who are not recognized in a community like this – the poor women or the women of lower status. And it’s more like an insult, you can’t have the meaty part of the pig because you have no value in the village. So, I got the pig skin tattoo, the traditional tattoo, because it reminds me of the experiences of the bilum weavers that I work with.

And, you know, I try to make this business like a campaign against that kind of attitude of disrespecting women, and thinking they are good for nothing without a man. So, I am reminded every time I look at my tattoo that there are women out there that depend on me to help them. And these kinds of women are the women that do not have a husband, do not have a job, they depend on bilum weaving to survive. So that’s basically why I thought it would be good to have the tattoo on me.

OoT: So, at the heart of this bilum weaving cooperative is feminism, really. Women advocating for women who don’t have a voice for themselves, who are being mistreated. Would you say that’s fair?

Florence:  Absolutely.

OoT: Wow, that’s amazing. Do you think because women are able to become more independent and make an income through bilum weaving, the way they’re seen socially is changing? Are the weavers getting more respect because they’re more independent?

Florence:  I believe it is. I do a lot of advocating and publicity to raise awareness of what I am doing with regard with the bilum cooperative. I tell the people that women can sustain themselves apart from relying on men. You know, if you are to plant coffee, one of the major industries in our region, you must have land on which to plant the coffee. In our society, the highlands, men are land owners. So, for a woman, where can she own the land? How can she own the land? A woman cannot grow coffee on her own, but she can weave bilum.

OoT: Yes, and that’s something special because it’s something that’s handed down through the mother’s side, too. So maybe the men hold the land, but the women have this skill and this art and this culture that they hold that is also valuable in a different way.

Florence:  Yes.

OoT: Lastly, can you tell me about some of the positive impacts of bilum weaving to the lives of the weavers?

Florence:  Bilum weaving has made huge changes to the lives of the weavers. The women have enough money to pay for school fees, enough to buy good, enough to buy medicine. We are able to educate our children. We’re able to pay for our medical bills, treatment and medicine. And then we are able to buy new clothes, new utensils, build houses.

At the same time, it has made bilum weavers become business-minded, developing their own ideas into creating new businesses. They have developed a little piggery, a canteen, roadside markets. So, it has given weavers the confidence to set up other businesses back in the rural communities and villages. And their lifestyle has improved as a result.

OoT: Fantastic. So, it’s affecting the lives of so many people?

Florence:  Yes, the women themselves, their children, their families, and their communities.

OoT:  That’s incredible Florence. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, we really admire the work you’re doing!

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