Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


The island of New Guinea is fringed by many small islands to the east. The west portion of the island, called Papua or West Papua, is politically part of Indonesia. The narrow Torres Strait separates New Guinea from Australia to the south. Physical features have profoundly and diversely shaped the lives of people living there for over fifty thousand years. The natural world, supernatural world and the rituals surrounding life’s passages, inspired the creation of the Jolika Collection works we explore today. They are complex compositions layered with imagery and meaning. Designs and motifs are often specific to clans and communities and their meanings concealed by the maker or revealed to only the highest grade initiates. They can relate epic histories of a clan or ancestor, represent a spirit or ancestor during ceremonies and, in some cases, serve as a dwelling place for a spirit or ancestor. When worn, they can signify the status of a wearer. Extensive and historic trade networks involving cultural objects, including many forms fiberworks, are documented throughout the island and outer islands for tens of thousands of years.

Marcia and John Friede began collecting African and Oceanic art in the 1960’s. Over the years, they grew more passionate about New Guinea art and amassed a collection with thousands of works –now known as the Jolika Collection of New Guinea art- named in honor of their children, John, Lisa, and Karen. 400 works are currently on view in the Marcia and John Friede gallery at the deYoung museum in San Francisco, California. Our paper seeks to illuminate works in the Jolika collection that represent the scope of non-loom fiberwork in New Guinea. The works we present today come from just a few clans and villages of New Guinea. Often the work of a single anthropologist, archaeologist or art historian is our primary source of information about these works.

The string bag or bilum is one of the few objects in the study of New Guinea fiber work where there is a detailed regional study of the tradition, in large part due to Maureen Mackenzie’s seminal work, Androgynous Objects: String Bags and Gender in Central New Guinea. The string bag or bilum is one of the most universally worn and ubiquitous objects in New Guinea.