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Bilas: the art of body decoration

The human form is a site for self-expression throughout the highlands. Body decoration, or bilas in Tok Pisin (New Guinea pidgin), is universally practised. Specific objects, colours, arrangements and rules underlie the way in which bilas is manifested within each culture. Bilas can express unity within a tribal group and respect for ancestral spirits, while the events of birth, marriage, warfare and death are all marked by explicit styles of decoration.

Bilas can take many forms. Highly-prized feather headdresses, the enhancement of skin with pig fat or tigaso tree oil, intricate face painting, human hair wigs, magnificent shell ornaments and ceremonial weaponry all distinguish the importance of specific occasions. These adornments are often shared amongst relatives or traded with tribal allies.

By transforming the body through bilas and performing dances and songs appropriate to the event, dancers hope to demonstrate the group’s health, strength, fertility and wealth in the present, and to attract future prosperity.

Focus works

Click the link to view the work in the collection, including an image and more information

Baruya people

Headdress mid 1900s

Issue for consideration

This headdress was made by the Baruya people of Marawaka in Eastern Highlands Province. Find other examples of bilas associated with the Baruya. Compare these to the bilas of other New Guinea highlanders. Are particular styles, materials or techniques associated with specific regions? Which technique do you think is the most ingenious?

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail

Huli people

Man’s necklace mid 1900s

Issue for consideration

Consider the use of balance and symmetry in this necklace. Discuss whether symmetry and balance plays an important role in the design and creation of body adornment in the highlands of New Guinea, using examples from this exhibition.

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail