AmongEquals is a social enterprise, aimed at empowering women bilum weavers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Founded by Sydney-based fashion and textile designer, Caroline Sherman, AmongEquals was launched in August 2016 with the aim to support women weavers in PNG and keep the traditional knowledge of this cultural icon alive.
Inextricably woven into the social and cultural fabric of PNG, bilum bags were traditionally made from dried fibre extracted from tree bark, animal fur, sisal or vine, and used to carry babies, food or tools.
Bilum has long been a cultural icon but in recent years, through incorporating materials such as wool and some synthetic materials into the weave, it has also been adapted for more modern applications including clothing and fashion accessories – opening the door to economic opportunity, empowerment and a sustainable source of income for women artisans in PNG communities.
The growing international profile of bilum has largely been attributed to the work of PT&I’s Creative Arts Programme and Managing Director of Jaukae Bilum Products and founder of the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative and Goroka Bilum Festival, Florence Jaukae Kamel,
PT&I and Florence have also played a pivotal role in the creation of AmongEquals.
The inspiration for AmongEquals came in 2014 when Caroline Sherman stumbled across the flagship event for PT&I’s Creative Arts programme, Maketi Ples.
Launched in 2011 and held over a two-week period at a commercial gallery in Sydney every year since, Maketi Ples has grown to become the biggest commercially-focused showcase of arts and crafts from the Pacific Islands in the region.
Beyond its commercial success, Maketi Ples presents a stable platform for the unique culture and creative sectors of the Pacific Islands to be profiled to a much wider urban audience. This has brought both recognition and economic benefits to individual artists and their communities around the region.
“Maketi Ples has helped raise the standard of the art produced by the communities thanks to the international exposure it generates,” said Florence Jaukae Kamel.
It has also facilitated the kind of connections that have led to ventures such as AmongEquals.
When Caroline first saw a bilum bag at Maketi Ples, she was inspired by what she described as “its beauty, colours and physical strength”. Wanting to understand the history and technique behind bilum Caroline sought PT&I’s help to visit bilum-weaving communities in PNG.
PT&I invited Caroline to attend the Goroka Bilum Festival where she met Florence and women artisans from the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative.
“Through my research and my journeys to Papua New Guinea I found a community of women – weaving, caring, storytelling and living – through the making of bilum bags,” Caroline said.
“This inspired me to work with these talented women of PNG and bring my skills and 20 years’ experience as a fashion and textile designer in London, New York and Sydney to create a bag of deep cultural significance with a contemporary twist” she said.
And so the vision for AmongEquals was born. But in many ways, it was a dream much easier said than done.
Over the next two years, Caroline worked with PT&I to overcome a number of hurdles – most notably the difficulty of working with producers in remote communities to ensure the integrity of her supply chain. As bilum is an indigenous art form, it was also vitally important that AmongEquals respected and protected the traditional knowledge held sacred by bilum weavers in PNG.
PT&I provided invaluable support to Caroline by introducing her to producer communities in PNG; educating her about bilum terminology and technical limitations, instructing her on cultural sensitivities and nuances, and providing technology recommendations to assist with language and communication barriers.
After being guided by PT&I through the early stages of establishing her supply chain for AmongEquals, Caroline now works directly with artisan communities in PNG including the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative, Hagen Handicrafts Group and Giluwe Artisans.
Working with these artisans, AmongEquals seeks to combine the skills handed down through generations of Papua New Guinean women with contemporary aesthetics to create high-end bags sold through exclusive fashion boutiques in Sydney, London and New York.
As a social enterprise, AmongEquals aims to enhance what their artisans do best while helping to improve the economic and social situation of the women they are working with.
“The worlds of these women are complex, often violent and insecure. Through an ongoing relationship with these communities my aim is to provide them with sustainable incomes and to help ensure bilum remains a viable art form for future generations,” said Caroline.
AmongEquals currently supports approximately 50 Bilum artists in three artisan communities in Goroka, Hagen and Ialibu.
"The money from Among Equals to the Goroka Bilum weavers has enabled the women to pay for all the little girls to attend school. Their support has meant that we can pay for our healthcare, our traditional obligations and the things we need for our home. It has made a huge difference to us," said Florence Jaukae Kamel.