From a brief skimming of Wikipedia’s article on New Guinea, I learn: it is the 2nd largest island, marsupials, no pre-human indigenous placental animals, New Guinea Singing Dog was introduced with human colonization. Also, human presence on the island dates back at least 40,000 years to the oldest human migrations out of Africa. My finger fell on the Netherlands’ claim to the island, the Western coast, specifically an island separated from New Guinea by a narrow channel and called Frederick Hendrik Island (on my globe) but more recently known as Yos Sudarso Island. A search of the name, Frederik Hendrik Island, brings forth an article written by E.R. Inglis for The Geographical Journal, published Apr-Jun of 1950. Inglis speaks of traversing the island by foot as well as scanning it from the air during WWII. The feeling I get from my first virtual explorations of New Guinea: extreme isolation, sheltered tribes and a deep, intuitive connection between man and his environment. The island was called New Guinea because a Western explorer encountered native peoples with similarities to inhabitants of Guinea in Africa. Papua was used prior to contact with the West and the word’s etymology is somewhat murky, but the myths and suppositions surrounding the word’s roots are fascinating for a story-collector: papo (to unite) and ua (negation) come to mean, ‘land that is not united’ in the language Tidore. Alternatively, the word could mean “frizzly-haired” or “the land below” in other regional languages. With close to 1,000 different tribes populating the island and human history dating back some 40 to 60,000 years past, it is clearly a part of the world where form will most assuredly follow function. What sort of manipulation of fibers occurs in this deeply organic culture?
Historically, there is the manipulation of bark into a sort of rough textile known as Tapa cloth. This is the oldest form of cloth on the island and is decorated with pigments made from crushed plants and fruits. For a sense of the inherent patterning that is used as decoration in New Guinea, one should look to Tapa cloth for answers.
If one types “New Guinea Fashion” or “New Guinea Designers” into Google, one will find a confusing melange of images. For the most part, Western designers take claim of the top search responses with “inspired by New Guinea…” embedded somewhere in the text. But what of designers who come from the Island itself? As this blog is meant to be a starting point, I will not delve too deeply in the history of designers from New Guinea. Rather, I will present quick findings on a few women that interested me most. There is the textile designer Wendi Choulai, who leads with the chimerical motto of her clan, “We don’t dance for no meaning” and the Bilum weaver Cathy Kata who takes a traditional form of weaving and infuses it with modern applications as well as works with women in her community who for a variety of reasons lack basic resources yet are empowered through their work with Kata. Bilum or “loop weaving” has been extensively written about, for those interested in digging deeper.
Images sources – Top row: Irving Penn “Cat Woman” 1970, Tapa cloth butterfly, Tapa cloth, Illustration by Raoul Deleo, Cathy Kata clothing, costumes inspired by New Guinea, Tapa cloth, headdress, Wendi Choulai tattoo textile design, Asaro mudmen, Randy Harwood Photography, Bowerbird nest, Bilum from Mt. Hagen, Tapa cloth flowers, 4 meter-tall Mandas mask