Florence Jaukae Kamel,Managing Director & Principal Artist, Jaukae Bilum Products Founder, Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative & Goroka Bilum Festival

Florence Jaukae Kamel
Managing Director & Principal Artist, Jaukae Bilum Products
Founder, Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative & Goroka Bilum Festival
Location: Goroka, Papua New Guinea

Florence Jaukae Kamel is the Managing Director of Jaukae Bilum Products and the founder of the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative and Goroka Bilum Festival in Papua New Guinea (PNG). An internationally renowned artist and designer, she has gained a reputation as the modern ‘face of bilum’. Florence is also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, a respected leader within PNG’s Eastern Highlands Province and mother to nine children.

For thousands of years, the art of weaving bilum – a bag made from dried fibre extracted from tree bark, animal fur, sisal or vine – has been passed down from one generation of Papua New Guinean women to the next. For these women bilum has always been part of their cultural heritage, creative identity and way of life.

For more than 12 years, Florence Jaukae Kamel has worked as an artist and designer, producing original works of bilum.

For Florence, the tradition she learnt from her grandmother has always been part of her identity as a Papua New Guinean woman. As an artist, her inspiration has come from nature and her interest in fashion.

“I like dressing up and wanted to wear something that was different to what I was seeing on the streets of Goroka,” Florence said.

Initially she started attracting attention for her unique designs inspired by the colours and patterns of the carpet snake and Christmas beetle. But what really put her on the map of the international art world was her bold foray into making fashion garments from bilum.

“Making bilum into something wearable was creatively exciting for me and I’m very proud to see the women of PNG wearing bilum outfits,” said Florence.

It also became a great opportunity for personal and economic success. Florence’s designs were soon commissioned for high-profile events including charity fashion parades for the Red Cross and Salvation Army and the uniforms for PNG’s team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

As her own business, Jaukae Bilum Products, flourished, Florence wanted to share that success with less fortunate women in her community, and in 2003 established the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative. Now supporting more than 50 female artisans, the Cooperative not only provides a source of income to supplement the seasonal cash crops many of the women rely on, but also much-needed medical and social support.

“Many of the women in our cooperative are HIV positive, homeless and/ or single mothers who really need support,” said Florence.

The mission of the cooperative aligned strongly with Florence’s work as a political and social activist campaigning for women’s rights. As one of the few women in PNG to be elected as a Local Level Government Councilor in 2002, Florence has worked hard to aid and assist mothers, and women in general, to earn an income for themselves.

“As a women’s leader in a male-dominated arena I have advocated strongly to reduce poverty, empower women, promote gender equity and stop violence against women. Through bilum I feel that I making a difference by helping women support themselves,” she said.

After appealing to the PNG Government for support in helping her find new markets for bilum – particularly in lucrative international markets – Florence conceived the idea for an international Bilum Festival.

With the aim to raise the profile amongst global audiences and generate sales for PNG’s bilum artists, the first inaugural Goroka Bilum Festival was held in 2009 in the week preceeding the Goroka Show to attract the attention of tourists attending one of the world’s largest tribal gatherings.

With the support of Pacific Islands Trade & Invest (PT&I), the event has grown from strength-to-strength and is internationally recognized as an important celebration of enduring indigenous artisanship.

“Our main problem has always been marketing our products,” said Florence.

Through the support of PT&I’s Creative Arts program, PNG’s bilum industry has transformed into economic success for Highland communities. PT&I Sydney saw the opportunity for bilum to be positioned in international markets as a high-end woven product and has worked tirelessly to provide financial, marketing and technical support, event management expertise and business linkages between artisans in PNG and international buyers.

“By investing resources in the creative arts sector, we are helping to place a commercial value on the traditional knowledge and cultural expressions of Pacific Islands communities such as PNG’s bilum weavers,” said Creative Arts Manager at PT&I’s Sydney Office, Ruth Choulai.

The provision of technical support, capacity building and training has also enabled the female artisans to embrace technology in a way that has reduced the time taken to produce each garment – and produce it to standards that appeal to export markets.

“Although there’s interest in our product at an international level, we still need to educate the market and get our product right so that it blends to their liking. By working with PT&I we have been promoted to markets in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the United States that we would never have otherwise been exposed to,” said Florence.

The works of Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative are now on the walls of leading international galleries including the Australian National Museum in Sydney and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane; and artists from the Cooperative have travelled as far as London and New York to mentor design students in their craft.

“As a woman of PNG I’m very proud of what we have achieved. It has proved to me that nothing is impossible,” Florence said.

Florence’s advice for women wanting to set up a business in the Pacific:

It’s important to recognise and remember that business always starts small and grows big – and there’s often struggle in that. My advice is to get involved in the right networks, listen and get advise from the right people – experts and people who have experience in what you are trying to do.

Follow Florence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FJKBILUMPNG/

Follow Goroka Bilum Festival on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BilumFestival

For further information about PT&I’s Creative Arts program:
Ruth Choulai
Creative Arts Manager
Pacific Islands Trade & Invest (Sydney)
Email: ruth.choulai@pacifictradeinvest.com
Phone: +61 2 9290 2133