String bag, bilum, natural fibres, made in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, c. 1950-1970
The bilum, throughout most of Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea, is a highly significant item of material culture, above all for the people living in the highland areas whose cultures have been described as "bilum-dependent".
These string bags are a vital social, economic, cultural and spiritual part of the lives of the people. Although largely associated with women, to the extent that a woman is hardly considered dressed if she does not have a bilum hanging down her back, they serve as important markers of transitional stages in the life cycle of men and women. A bilum is a practical tool, an item of wealth and exchange, a vehicle for creativity and expression, and important in clan and inter-clan relationships.
The primary function of the large looped string bag is as a container for transporting goods; the bilum is therefore most commonly associated with women for carrying not only household items but babies as well. In this latter function, the bilum becomes not only a cradle but a source of cultural importance as they become associated with ideas of growth, generational continuity and even land rights.
Bilums are made by women, and this particular example is made from the fibres of a local Ficus (fig) tree. The bag is large and would have been worn with the handle across the forehead and the bag, with its contents, draped over the wearer's back.
Bilums are used by both women and men to carry everything required for domestic purposes - a woman carries her baby and the firewood in a bilum, while a man carries his pig. Bilums also have ritual usages.
The design of a bilum is determined by the use to which it will be put, which in turn determines the type of mouth, size and shape. The design of this bilum is that of a large, domestic carrying bag. Every bilum is made from a continuous length of string so that the maker can determine what colours she blends together in what sequence.
A bilum is made by a woman using extremely strong two ply string, which is made from the fibres of a local Ficus (fig) tree. The string is handmade by rolling on the thigh in continuous lengths of about four to five meters. One bilum of this size could take up to 450 meters of string and 85 hours of work.
This bag has been made using a tight-looping technique for the mouth band and a loose, open loop for the body. The looping process is done over strips of pandanus which are subsequently removed. The looping gives the bag an extremely flexible form, allowing it to expand and shape itself to whatever it carries.
This type of large bilum, commonly worn with the handle over the top of the forehead and the bag draped down the back, was largely used for carrying food, firewood, utensils, personal belongings, babies, piglets, puppies, etc. It is infinitely expandable and adaptable.
Acquired by Claire Leimbach from the Dani tribe in the Baliem Valley in the highlands of Irian Jaya in 1971.