Serue beaded dance aprons of West Papua.

A superb mainly blue and red serue offered for sale at Michael Evans Fine Art, 


These dance aprons from the Geelvink Bay and Yapen Island on the northern tip of New Guinea have always fascinated me. They are one of the very few large glass bead objects (roughly 24 inches / 60 cm in width and depth) that are manufactured in New Guinea, and they are worn by both men and women on ceremonial occasions.

A classic serue design for sale at Tribal Art Finder,

The aprons, called serue are traditionally made by women of the family of the bride or groom for presentation to the other family as part of the formal exchange of valuables that accompanies a traditional marriage, after which they would become family heirlooms.

The geometric patterns and fringe of torn fabric strips are very distinctive, yet very different from traditional patterns found on woodcarving and bark cloth paintings from West Papua (once called Dutch New Guinea). Fortunately, I came across a recent article by Dirk Smidt, retired ex-curator of curator of both the PNG National Museum and the famous Leiden ethnographic museum in the Netherlands, which explains the origins of these fascination aprons.(Dirk Smidt: “Some ethnographic reflections on the origins of the art of Northwest Papua” in Framing the Art of North West New Guinea, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2011.)

Another outstanding design on offer at Michael Evans Fine Art,

Dirk points to the century’s long history of contact between Papua New Guinea and the Moluccas, particularly the islands of Ternate and Tidore, which ruled by independent sultans and held power over
North West New Guinea, demanding annual tributes that were paid in slaves, bird of paradise feathers, dry sea slugs (trepang) and other trade valuables. Both the Indonesians and the West Papuans were great boat builders and sailors and there was plenty of contact. (One of the new techniques learned form the Indonesians was the building of planked boats to replace dug out canoes.

An intricate 1950s apron illustrated in "Art of North West New Guinea edited by Suzanne Greub.

In fact, the Raja Empat island group, between the Moluccas and the north coast of New Guinea, became known as a haven for pirates, from which local bands (including ethnic New Guinea sailors) could raid and trade for slaves, who were usually prisoners of war, as well as  trade goods and gold (often paid as ransoms for wealthy captives).

The aprons, which are always finished with  a heavy fringe of torn strips of  trade cloth are always beautifully beaded and come in an amazing variety of sizes, colours and patterns which would  have meaning for their makers. Dirk Smidt compares these patterns to local tattoo patterns which have a powerful protective function. There are many geometric shapes and intricate repeat patterns similar to the  kaif patterns that are  carved into West Timorese lime containers to record a family tree.

A serue from my personal collection.

At the same time, they give the women who make them an opportunity for creativity and self expression – they are truly beautiful  personal statements!

Important notice: Many of my readers may find English easy to read,  but difficult to write. Please feel free to  post comments in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian  or Spanish if it makes it easier for you. I can read German, Dutch and French and have friends who can help translate the rest.

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