It is high time I introduce Florence Jaukae Kamel to the One of Twelve community. I’ve just spent a week in Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) with this modest and incredible human being, who works tirelessly to promote bilums to the world. She took me into the depths of the Bena Bena jungle, to the village of Megabo, on a quest to see how natural fibre is harvested and transformed into string.
Florence arriving in Bena Bena
Florence is a committed bilum weaver who through her practice has carried the art form into fashion design. She’s travelled the world to talk about her work and the significance of bilums to her fellow weavers and their communities. She spent many years as a member of the local council and helped to set up the Goroka Bilum Market. She is a woman who takes her responsibilities seriously and recognises that she is in a position of privilege to advocate on behalf of bilum makers and reach out to global markets to enable trade.
Bilums are utilitarian bags that have been made in Papua New Guinea for 50,000 years. It’s a tradition that’s passed down from mother to daughter. Only woven by women, these bags are expressions of tradition and reflections of contemporary life for the women of PNG. Along with our line of scarves, we also offer a range of these exceptionally crafted bags from our nearest neighbour. We’re committed to selling and promoting them to provide income to their makers and exposure within Australia.
Florence Jaukae Kamel
Many women who weave bilum are illiterate and often live in volatile homes. Weaving and selling these bags is their only means to support their families, as their work prospects are limited. By providing them with a source of income, they can feed their children and pay for medicine and clothes, giving them economic independence.
“By supporting the women, you are supporting the whole community”
– Florence Jaukae Kamel
Deeply connected to her community of bilum weavers, Florence has a Skin Pik (pig skin) design tattooed down her arm. When she’s tired and feels overwhelmed by the task at hand, she looks at her tattoo to remember her promise to these women.
The Skin Pik began in Goroka and tells the story of the status of underprivileged women who are treated as second-class citizens. They’re the single mothers, the unmarried, the widows and those abandoned by their husbands. These women do much of the menial labour in the village, such as peeling potatoes and cleaning. When there is a celebration in the village, a pig is slaughtered and everybody feasts on the choicest cuts of meat, leaving only small fatty squares of skin for these women to eat. The square design of the Skin Pik is a tribute to their story.
Florence launched the annual Goroka Bilum Festival 10 years ago, to bring different weaving centres together and give them the exposure they need. She has negotiated support from the Pacific Trade Commission, which provides a forum for meeting other makers, guidance on pricing and marketing bilums, and general advice on the intricacies of conducting business in the area. The Goroka Bilum Festival has become a forum to celebrate the history of this ancient craft and an opportunity to see Florence’s bilum fashion on the catwalk.
We thought we should share this interview of Florence when she was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) for No.1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966–2016 We have just sent a selection of the bilums we purchased at the Bilum Festival to GOMA for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and we are slowly adding the rest to our website.