Shelling out

Making of a money wheel

Paradise - - Contents -

Ear­lier this year, a Me­lane­sian mas­ter­piece was un­veiled at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia (NGA) in Can­berra. It is a tu­tana shell money wheel from the To­lai peo­ple of East New Bri­tain Province.

This tu­tana was cre­ated when Richard Aldridge, an ex­pert in tribal art, di­rected and pro­duced a doc­u­men­tary, Tu­tana – Creation of a To­lai Money Wheel. The doc­u­men­tary was made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with To­lai chief, Vin ‘ Tata’ Lote.

Aldridge says: “When you can see an art­work with a short film, doc­u­ment­ing its creation and pur­pose, that art­work has the abil­ity to lead to a greater un­der­stand­ing be­tween cul­tures”.

A tu­tana, in To­lai cul­ture, is a money wheel that con­tains a thou­sand params of shell money (one param is a unit of cur­rency and is an armspan in length – in nau­ti­cal terms, a fathom). A tu­tana con­tains 200,000 shells and nowhere else in the world is such a large sculp­ture made from shell money.

The To­lai are one of the only cul­tures in the world that con­tinue to value their shell money. To­lai with­out money can still buy rice at the lo­cal shop for two params.

The prepara­tory mea­sures to en­able the artist, Va­niara, to pro­duce his creation, took Aldridge and cam­era­man Thomas Bet­son on a jour­ney to the bush to watch the lo­cals col­lect ferns and climb trees to cut the cane from the tree tops, and to the mud­flats where girls col­lected tabu shells. They vis­ited the women as they sat around the fire shav­ing the cane to just the right thick­ness, and watched as they threaded the shells with skill and ac­cu­racy.

In the doc­u­men­tary, To­lai chief Daniel Titi says that any man who owns a tu­tana has en­hanced sta­tus within To­lai so­ci­ety.

Shell money is vi­tal to the To­lai cul­ture for many rea­sons, but most im­por­tantly it is needed for a unique To­lai fu­neral cus­tom. With per­mis­sion or­gan­ised by Lote, the doc­u­men­tary in­cludes footage from a tra­di­tional fu­neral cer­e­mony in a tum­buwan en­clo­sure. Aldridge says a high­light of the doc­u­men­tary is this dawn Ki­navai cer­e­mony. It is held an­nu­ally by the To­lai to hon­our their an­ces­tors. He went on to say: “Af­ter the Ki­navai the crowd gath­ers so that the tum­buwan own­ers can be paid. We brought out the tu­tana and stripped the outer lay­ers so that it could be dis­trib­uted to them as thanks for their sup­port dur­ing the making of the film”. Af­ter­wards, Va­niara re­stored the tu­tana to its orig­i­nal size for dis­play at the NGA.

The tu­tana is an ap­peal­ing ob­ject that is all the more re­mark­able for be­ing cre­ated mas­terly from so many tiny shells to be­come a great sculp­tural form.

Crispin Howarth, the cu­ra­tor at the NGA, says: “The Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia has been com­mit­ted to pre­sent­ing the im­pres­sive arts of Pa­pua New Guinea for many years.

“The tu­tana is an ap­peal­ing ob­ject that is all the more re­mark­able for be­ing cre­ated mas­terly from so many tiny shells to be­come a great sculp­tural form. Many vis­i­tors to the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia may be sur­prised to learn that, in this age of global tech­nol­ogy, money rings are part of an ac­tive econ­omy.” The doc­u­men­tary, Tu­tana – Creation of a To­lai Money Wheel, can be seen at youtube.com/ watch?v=neUCYIa­jyKA.

Me­lane­sian mas­ter­piece ... Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia cu­ra­tor Crispin Howarth with the money wheel.

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