Sydney, 8 June, 2023: Body adornment, or BILAS in the local language of PNG, is a powerful and integral part of Papua New Guinea (PNG) culture. Now, Bilas: Body Adornment of Papua New Guinea, comes to the Australian Museum in a new multimedia exhibition opening on Friday 9 June 2023. BILAS celebrates the rich, cultural heritage of PNG communities and their unique connection to their homelands, by exploring the transformation of the human body into a living art form through self-decoration.
Drawing on the AM’s world-renowned Pacific collections and developed and curated by the AM’s Pasifika Team, in collaboration with local communities and experts from the region, Bilas features rare, never displayed cultural objects from the AM’s Pacific collection, dramatic photography by Puerto Rican photographer, Wylda Bayrón, natural history specimens and 33 pieces of newly acquired body adornment from three PNG cultural groups: Koki, in the Laiagam District Enga Province; Yalu, Kagua District in the Southern Highlands Province; and Meingik, in Koinambe, Jimi District in the Jiwaka Province.
The new headdresses, wigs, helmets and body masks were created and acquired exclusively for the AM Pacific collection through a grant from the AM Foundation. Among the new Melanesian works acquired for Bilas are the first examples of Maring / Kalam ‘Glong’ headdresses, Enga wigs (made of human hair) and Kagua district wicker helmets and body masks. It is the first time these adornments have been commissioned for an Australian institution.
With its juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary mediums, Bilas brings to vivid life the close relationships of PNG communities with their natural world and invites visitors to experience the colour and artistic dynamics of one of the world’s most diverse countries.
Dr Michael Mel, co-curator of Bilas, and a proud member of the Kilipika Village, Mt. Hagen, Western Highlands, said that PNG’s astonishing natural environment has provided abundant food, cultural and spiritual resources to First Nations communities for over a millennium.
“Bilas translates to body adornment in Tok Pisin – an official language used throughout PNG. In our culture, the body has long served as a ‘canvas’ for self-expression and to convey a multitude of messages to the outside world. Beyond being a vehicle for social communication and living art, there are also spiritual domains and meanings to the body adornment,” Mel said.
“Our connection with everything living is innate to us. It is through the domain of the natural world that the spirits and our ancestors supply us with cosmological and spiritual knowledge, prosperity, balance and materials to decorate our bodies and beyond. Adorning the body with a feather or skin from the natural world activates a metamorphosis within us, and thus we become a living embodiment of the living environment,” Mel explained.
Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay AO, said Bilas is a showcase for both the museum’s Pacific collections and the strength of its engagement with Pacific communities.
“The AM prioritises giving voice to First Nations stories by continuing to work in meaningful collaboration with Indigenous communities, preserving the objects and cultivating local skills and talents. By commissioning these new BILAS we recognise their deep, intrinsic relationship to the environment and seek to highlight not only their culture and traditions, but also how caring, resilient and strongly attuned they are to their natural and spiritual worlds,” McKay said.
“We hope to enrich our visitors’ appreciation of the diversity and wisdom of this vast region through storytelling, and we encourage everyone to reflect upon the power and gravitas inherent in the cultural objects and the way in which that power continues to resonate with the Pasifika community today,” McKay said.
“The AM has long aspired to have its Pacific collection on permanent display, and as part of our ongoing commitment to Pasifika First Nations communities, plans are now well underway for a major new permanent Pacific Gallery to open late 2023,” McKay added.
Head of the AM’s Pacific Collections, Melissa Malu, a Tongan and Fijian woman, said the AM’s Pacific collection is rated as one of the most significant in the world with over 60,000 objects from across the region with many of the priceless artefacts collected during the 18th and 19th centuries when Europeans and Indigenous communities first made contact.
“Objects within the collection still hold powerful symbolism – an important aspect of cultural heritage for these diverse communities. A key aspect of this exhibition is the scientific and spiritual restoration of objects in the exhibition. Traditional owners feel strong connections to these objects, and in preparing them for display, restoration is an act of cultural continuity that is documented and conveyed to our Pasifika community,” Malu said.
President of Sydney Wantok Association, Steven Gagau, from Viviran Village, Toma, East New Britain Province, played an integral part in the curation of Bilas.
“The PNG diaspora community acknowledges its heritage collections at the Australian Museum and through this exhibition, we are looking forward to showcasing these collections and the new objects created especially for Bilas by community groups from PNG,” Gagua said.
US-based Puerto Rican photographer Wylda Bayrón said her photographs are a result of a decades-long journey into the heart of a country whose communities welcomed her and shared their culture.
“The peoples of Papua New Guinea are the curators of these images, and it is their cultures, traditions and customs that are being shared. These photographs document what I could not have when I was growing up – a photographic history of identity,” Bayrón said.
Bilas is supported by BSP Financial Group as part of its support of PNG cultural activities, and through the generous funding from the Australian Museum Foundation.
The PNG Highland communities who provided BILAS are:
- Laipian Culture Group of Koki, Laiagam District in the Enga Province,
- Yambu Rimbu Culture of Yalu, Kagua District in the Southern Highlands Province,
- Maring Glong Culture of Meingik, Koinambe Jimi District in the Jiwaka Province.
About the Australian Museum
The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With 22 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.
Claire Vince, Media and Communications Adviser
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