The Art and Craft of Papua New Guinea

The prominence and practice of traditional crafts is slowing becoming a rarity in Papua New Guinea – but it’s being thrown an unlikely lifeline - tourism.

It was well over 70 years ago when craft became less of a necessity, and more of a hobby in the west. But for villagers in PNG, ancient crafts such as basket weaving still remain an integral part of everyday life.        
PNG really only started to see any sort of tourism as late as the 70s – and visitors often say it’s like the island that the 21st century forgot.

But that’s changing. As modern convenience seeps into every faucet of island life, the sight of green leaf baskets balancing precariously on heads of local women, full of beetle nut, coconuts or garden vegetables or even with a small child propped inside, is becoming less common.

“Unfortunately the use of coconut leaf baskets for these daily tasks are being phased out,” said Dinesh, who works at Tawali Resort, our lodgings during our stay at the magical Milne Bay in the island’s south.   “Not rapidly, but it’s disappearing. It’s easier to grab a plastic bag,”

But thanks to divers and naturalists who put PNG’s world class diving spots and pristine environment high on their bucket lists, tourism is growing at an exponential rate – and it’s heartening to know that this is what may give local crafts a renaissance.

“Tourism is helping to keep it alive,” said Dinesh, “because like you, tourists come here and are interested in it, so local villagers come and show them.”

This also applies to their ages old craft of carving, which many resorts and hotels now display in their foyers, traditional cooking, 'sing sing' demonstrations and dug out canoes.  Villagers carve trinkets like necklaces, masks, and small statues out of bone and wood for tourists looking for a souvenir.

“The more tourists who want to come and experience the village culture, the more chance these skills have of staying around,” says Danesh.  

One afternoon, a local villager with the patience of a saint showed me how to weave a basket. 

While it took me over an hour an three palm fronds to master the technique, it only took Ruby 10 minutes to expertly transform the fronds into a basket. But then again, she had probably been weaving ever since she first learned it off her mother when she was a young child.

Once you get into a rhythm, it’s an addictive craft, and one that is easy enough to try for yourself. Once you get confident, this craft opens itself up to a range of materials – ribbons, fabric, other plant material… 

Check out some of these how-to snaps

How to make a coconut leaf basket

  1. To make a basket, you’ll need to find a coconut palm around a metre in length.
  2. Starting at one end, gather three fronds. Weave the middle under and over and under the next two fronds. Start with frond number two and continue down the frond until you reach the end.
  3. When you have weaved through the fronds on both sides, you need to braid the bottom of these fronds to make the bottom of the bag. Then, the middle of the frond is carved through the middle, which makes the opening of the bag.

If you are after more detailed instructions on basket weaving, this video should help

Happy weaving!


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