The purari delta

  • String bag

    String bag

    Papua New Guinea, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

  • Fish trap decorated with foil and plastic wrappers

    Fish trap decorated with foil and plastic wrappers

    Papua New Guinea, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

For the communities of the Purari Delta on the south coast of Papua New Guinea, basketry is a fundamental, but changing, part of life. Made exclusively by women, baskets known as akeke composed of young leaves from sago palms, and baskets known as aku made from tree bark, are used for food processing and storage as well as to hold items of personal value. Coloured with both local and store-bought dyes, the designs of these baskets link their users to their ancestors who take the form of various animals and plants inhabiting the surrounding forest and waterways. Today these baskets are all that remain of an integrated ritual art tradition largely abandoned with the adoption of Christianity in the 1950s.

Women draw upon the same repertoire of plaiting techniques and materials to make local fishing equipment. The largest of these is a fishing weir called uru, which consists of numerous narrow strips of sago palm bark woven together to form a screen. Staked into the creek bed during high tide, as the tide recedes uru trap fish, prawns, and turtles, which the women catch using iviri (dip nets) and orea (conical nets).

As communities are increasingly pulled into the global cash economy these technologies are slowly disappearing. Commercially marketed bags are replacing akeke and aku, while nylon nets are taking the place of uru. With the disappearance of these basketry forms repertoires of knowledge about the environment, designs and the ancestral relationships they materialize are being eroded, as are the social relations that the making and using of these forms engender. Recognizing these practices through exhibitions such as this one may encourage communities to continue producing these objects for use and out of cultural pride.

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