Interview with Lina Singu
This interview has been edited for flow and clarity
OoT: We’re chatting with, passionate social and cultural entrepreneur Lina Singu, director of Singu Arts. Based in the Middle Sepik region, Singu Arts’ bilum network snakes its way along the Sepik River connecting around 700 bilum weavers and injecting much needed income into remote communities. Lina, can you tell us a bit about the work that you do please?
Lina Singu at the market with her wares.
Lina Singu: My job started with my mother and my family here. I did arts when I was small, and I love making arts. I only went to school up to grade six and then I started making arts – different jewelry and bilums and all of that. I still make jewelers and bilums because I love it. My family also make bilums. I’m interested in arts because arts it’s my culture. So, for my family, my village people, we got the culture.
I started Singu Arts to help people in my village and my region make an income from their culture. So, I work with bilum weavers and carvers all along the Sepik River. I buy their bilums and artifacts and sell them to buyers on the maker’s behalf.
OoT: So, you really knew from a very young age, what you wanted to do for a living. You were passionate about arts from when you were a child.
Lina Singu: When I come out, I finish my only grade six. I married a Papua New Guinean man, he’s not from my area but from central. We had some problems, and I left the man and came home, and I had to support my kid somehow. So, making art, selling arts, that was the way I was able to support myself as a single mother.
OoT: So, it was a way for you to financially support your family after you left your husband. So, by making and selling arts, you can now support your family?
Lina Singu: Yes, because when I leave my husband, I continued making arts. I support my family with art. Tourists also love our arts. Lots of tourist visit the Sepik River, and my village, Mamari when they come to Papua New Guinea. They love to see our culture.
OoT: Your village is very remote, isn’t it?
Lina Singu: Yes. It’s a small village in the Middle Sepik. The closest big town is Wewak. I spend a lot of time travelling along the Sepik River visiting weavers and makers in all the little remote villages. Then, I travel out to festivals and bring the bilums and the artefacts, and I know that I will make money for these people.
OoT: That’s great! And who do you sell your wares to?
Lina Singu: There are plenty of buyers, but most of the time I work with international buyers. So, I work with buyers from Germany, New Caledonia, France, UK, and America.
So, I go to festivals and display my wares and say hi. I give out my brochure, and a lot of buyers love what I’m doing. They ask me to give them a bilum, then another. Sometimes they place big orders, so I go and work with the bilum weavers to make them.
OoT: So, you have some really big international buyers?
Lina Singu: Yes. But one thing is, you know, in our culture in Papua New Guinea, the men go first. They don’t respect the ladies. And so, most of the time, I’m behind the men. I’ve got good things, but they ask me to just put a few things in for the order so they can supply the rest. So, my job is slow, slow, slow, slow.
OoT: So, you’re restricted in your business because you’re a woman?
Lina Singu: Yes, I am. It’s difficult because the men are not respectful the lady, so I must work twice as hard. But I keep on going!
OoT: I can imagine that would make things very difficult. I was just wondering how many weavers Singu Arts works with?
Lina Singu: Yes, in my area, the Sepik River region, we’ve got lot of weavers. I connect with my village and another three or four different villages. There are about 400 weavers in my village.
OoT: 400? Wow, that’s a lot!
Lina Singu: Yes, that’s my village where I stay. I also work with other villages along the Sepik – Chimondo and Kambot. So, I go travelling and talk with the people. But the bilums are different, different types of bilums come from each of the different villages.
So, I have 400 weavers in my village, and the other villages vary a little. So, Singu Arts works with around 600-700 weavers.
OoT: Can you tell us a little bit about the Sepik River region?
Lina Singu: Okay, my village it’s part of Middle Sepik area. That’s where I stay. I work with a village in the Lower Sepik area, and two villages in the Middle Sepik area. The Upper Sepik is famous for the Crocodile Festival. They have a different culture and different styles of bilums. So, I’m planning to reach out to the Upper Sepik villages too. I have ladies come and ask me to link them in with my network. So, I’ll try to go and make awareness and see if I can help.
OoT: Most of the women I’ve spoken to involved in bilum weaving cooperatives have said that it’s a way to support women – single mothers, women who have been victims of domestic violence and other things to earn a living for themselves. Is that true of your region?
Lina Singu: Yes. Singu Arts supports the single mothers, I support them most. The mothers, they cannot come out to the big town. They live too far out, too remote. So, I go to them, I go and reach them.
OoT: It sounds like bilum weaving is a real way to support women and encourage women to support themselves in an oppressive society dominated by men. It seems like it’s one of the few opportunities for women to be independent and live their own lives.
Lina Singu: You know it’s a big social issue everywhere. That’s why we just go and hug and say, ‘you can make bilum and make money. You got the money; you can look after your needs.’
I go and meet our women, and show them the bilum patterns, teach them how to make bilum. I take two weeks to travel out, to meet my family and my village weavers. I try to help them out, I go to the women and say, ‘don’t give up, you make a bilum.’
OoT: It sounds like you’re passionate about supporting other women and helping them to make an income to support themselves.
Lina Singu: I am, I am. We also deal with wood carvings, so I help the men too. I connect them with buyers who want artifacts – bamboo flutes and carved masks. And I tell those men to look after their families.
Lina’s niece, Lorain Singu, teaching Alisha to weave. Photo by Carlos Atasoa.
OoT: So, you have a different role depending on the product, whether it’s bilums or carvings or jewelry. But they’re all ancient cultural traditions, right? People have been bilum weaving and making wood carvings in Papua New Guinea for thousands and thousands of years?
Lina Singu: Yes. The carvings, only the men only can make the carvings. The designs of the artifacts are all different because the makers have different culture. The bamboo flutes are traditionally used in ceremony – wedding ceremonies or inside the spirit house – to play special music for traditional dancing. The interesting thing about the artifacts is you can look at the design work out what culture and what villages the maker is from.
OoT: So, they have different styles that are related to different villages and only the people from that area can use that design?
Lina Singu: Yes. Like the Upper Sepik, they’ve got their own culture and language. In the Middle Sepik, we are Yapma, so our culture is different from the Lower Sepik or Upper Sepik.
In my culture, we have a special design, a two-way pattern called ‘minji’. When I go to a bilum festival I enter the Minji bag design. Like the annual bilum festival in Goroka in 2014, I entered the minji design, and I came first and second. So, my culture is my business.
OoT: You mentioned spirit houses before, can you tell us a little bit about them?
Lina Singu: So, when the missionaries came, they went to the spirit houses in all the areas, and they take all the artifacts – they have like a sorcery power – they took all the things out and they destroyed all the things. What is this and what is? They didn’t like the sorcery and the men in the spirit house. Then, they give a blessing and said, ‘okay, you can go and leave these things out and you can go straight.’ The men still use the spirit houses though, but women are not allowed inside – it would upset the spirits.
OoT: Fascinating! I want to talk with you a little bit about the process of bilum making. How long does it take to make a bilum?
Lina Singu: It depends on the type of bilum. A single bilum would take a weaver 1-2 full days to make. But the minji bag, the double bilum, is very difficult. That might take a weaver a full week. There are different depths, different patterns, so it varies a lot.
OoT: You’ve told us a little about your traditional minji design, I hear you also use a lot of traditional fibres and dyes in the Sepik region. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Lina Singu: Yes, we are very traditional here in the Sepik region. We collect natural fibres for weaving and use different plants for dying the bilums. I want to preserve my culture and tradition and pass that one to the younger generations too.
OoT: So, you’re keeping your traditional culture alive? That’s beautiful!
Lina Singu: Yes, it is good for us to keep our traditional ways. I keep teach people about my culture because I don’t want my culture to die away.
For us, culture is a big thing. People come from all around the world to learn about our culture and buy our bilums. They enjoy our culture. When they travel here, they go fishing, and bird watching. They watch our traditional dances and buy our handicrafts. Our culture is linked with birds, and animals and all parts of our Sepik River country.
OoT: Beautiful! So, all those things are interconnected? The land, the culture, the people, the language, and the art?
Lina Singu: Yes, that’s right!
Lorain Singu preparing fibre for weaving. Photo by Carlos Atasoa.
OoT: What specific plants do you use to make the bilums?
Lina Singu: We go into the jungle and collect Geumba fibre. It’s from a tree like a tulip. We collect the fibre then we put it out in the sun for a little while and then take the skin off. It gets oily, a white oil, so we can mix it with the dye. For the dyes, we use ginger, turmeric, and cumin. We take the leaves of different parts of the tree, and we beat them and mix them with water.
There is also another dye we make using soil, and another using mango. The mango gives a nice gold colour. The ginger and turmeric give darker shades of yellow and orange. All the colours of our region are very subtle because we use these natural dyes.
In the Lower Sepik, they use fibre from Pandanus leaves that people grow in their gardens. So, we use a lot of different, different trees to make the bilums.
OoT: So, do the weavers themselves go and collect those materials and pound them up and make the dyes? Do they do everything themselves or does someone else collect the materials?
Lina Singu: The family sometimes help. The weavers often make a garden so they can just go outside and cut the plants, put them in water and spread them out in the sun. They make like a kind of paper. The men used to go out and look for the fibres in the jungle, but most weavers have their own gardens now.
OoT: You mentioned you still weave bilums yourself. Who taught you to weave?
Lina Singu: My mum taught me when I was small. She taught me to make all kinds of things, from bilums to jewellery.
OoT: Can you tell us about some of the traditional uses for bilum bags?
Lina Singu: We personally use bilum bags for gardening and for hunting. In my culture, we have a special bilum bag that lives inside the clan’s spirt house.
Bilums are also used during wedding ceremonies. At the brides’ ceremony, when the lady goes to marry a man, her family takes her to the man’s house. Her brothers put some things inside a bilum and take it to her husband.
OoT: Like a dowry?
Lina Singu: Exactly.
OoT: What did they put inside the bilum?
Lina Singu: Money. They put money inside, or some special thing from the bride’s family. So, the bilum goes to the man’s family as an offering. It goes to the man’s father. The bride’s family puts a special decoration on the bilum representing the bride.
When they have children, they will show them the bilum and say, ‘this is your culture. This is the traditional bilum of your mother.’
OoT: So, it has the designs of the woman’s family clan or culture?
Lina Singu: That’s right. Bilums are used in so many ways in our culture. We have bilums for carrying babies, bilums for gardening, bilums for fishing, bilums to make fish traps. Each bilum has a different design.
Lorain Singu weaving an intricate bilum design. Photo by Carlos Atasoa.
OoT: Earlier you touched on the tradition of sorcery in your region. I was just wondering whether bilums were used for ceremony and magic?
Lina Singu: Yeah, of course. We have the special bilum in the spirit house and it is related to the spirits of the clan. Sorcery takes place inside the spirit house, but women aren’t allowed inside so I don’t know how they do this.
OoT: Fascinating. Do people still, do people practice good magic like as well, like to cure sickness and that sort of thing?
Lina Singu: Yes, there is a lot of sorcery and magic practiced along the Sepik. Magic for success in business, magic to cure the sick, and bad magic too.
OoT: Is there any magic for Covid?
Lina Singu: Yes, people come to the Sepik for Covid sorcery, they go to the spirit doctor. A lot of people still believe in sorcery. But I’m a Christian, I believe in God.
OoT: Wow! Very Interesting. Can you tell us a bit about the special bilum inside the spirit house?
Lina Singu: Yes, in my village, my family, my father’s clan, they have a story for the bilum. The chief of the clan is responsible for looking after the bilum inside the spirit house. The bilum is filled with the spirits of our dead ancestors. The chief will take the bilum with him when the clan goes fighting or hunting so our ancestors can help and protect us. He brings it out on special occasions, like when another clan is visiting, or during ceremony.
The bilum represents one clan. It helps the chief to look after our clan. That bilum got lot of story.
OoT: Is that one bilum the same bilum that’s been there for generations, or do they make a new one and replace it?
Lina Singu: It’s the same bilum. It’s been inside our spirit house for generations and generations.
OoT: How interesting! Just lastly Lina, what does making bilum mean for women in your region?
Lina Singu: Bilum is good! The demand for bilums brings money down to the local area, to support the women and their needs. The demand for bilums is high both in Papua New Guinea and internationally. Everybody is carrying bilums and that brings income into the Sepik River region where there are not many job opportunities for women. The women I work with can afford to support their families, but food, plant their gardens, and pay for school fees because of bilum. They are so happy!