Arts & Crafts in Papua New Guinea
Traditionally, art and culture are closely linked. Most tribal art takes the form of carvings, masks, costumes and adornments used in religious ceremonies, or more functional objects such as bowls, canoes, bilums, baskets or weapons. Lae, in Morobe Province, is renowned as a craft centre. The Melanesian Arts Centre carries contemporary and traditional artefacts and handcrafts, specialising in work from the Sepik, Ramu, Highlands and the Trobriand Islands. The Lioness Club of Lae (Morobe) hosts an annual arts and crafts exhibition highlighting the works of art by local artists as well as range of artefacts and handcrafts from all over the nation.
Most provinces produce different kinds of weaponry including bows and arrows. Shields have a decorative and spiritual role just as important as their defensive purposes. Musical instruments like kudus, flutes and mouth organs, are common in the Highlands, while the Trobriand Islanders are famous for their elaborate carvings, including stylised figures, carved ebony walking sticks and fish bowls inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In northern New Ireland, a feature of the Malangan culture are the figurines carved for village burial ceremonies, while in Gulf Province, carved spirit boards are believed to contain the spirits of great heroes and warriors.
The Sepik area (Mamose Region) is one of Papua New Guinea’s natural treasures in terms of art and craftsmanship. The Sepik tribes convert figures of spirits and dreams into carvings and other crafts. Storyboards are used to illustrate village history, their ornate relief carvings capturing tales of village life that were once painted on bark.
Some of the most creative examples of tribal art are the masks, which vary in style and design from region to region. Traditionally, these played a key role in religious ceremonies, but today they are mostly carved for decoration. In the Sepik area, masks are usually made from wood and decorated with shells, hair and pig tusks, and in Maprik district, yam masks are woven from fibre or rattan. The Chambri region in Sepik is renowned for its stylised masks, typified by their elongated faces and glossy black finish. Likewise, the Kaminabit and Tambanum people have a reputation for their distinctive mask designs. The National Mask Festival, held in Rabaul in July, offers a unique chance to see the many different styles of masks from around the country.
Ideal gifts for visitors are the colourful string bags, or bilums. Locals use them for everything from storing firewood to carry babies, but they also make a handy day bag for shorter trips. The bags are woven throughout the country, each design reflecting local influences. You’ll even find bilums made of cuscus fur in the Highlands. Bouganville in the North Solomons produces finely woven Buka baskets that are among the best in the Pacific. In coastal areas, visitors can buy shell jewellery, in particular at the towns of Mandang and Rabaul, while the Oro Province has some fine examples of hand-painted tapa cloth, beaten from tree bark. The province celebrates with a tapa festival at Popondetta in mid-October.