Making of a money wheel
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.