The Art of Kula

The Art of Kula

The Art of Kula

The Art of Kula

Synopsis

Nearly a century ago, it was predicted that Kula, the exchange of shell valuables in the Massim region of Papua New Guinea, would disappear. Not only has this prophecy failed to come true, but today Kula is expanding beyond these island communities to the mainland and Australia.This book unveils the many deep motivations and meanings that lie behind the pursuit of Kula. Focusing upon the visually stimulating carved and painted prow boards that decorate canoes used by the Kula voyagers, Campbell argues that these designs comprise layers of encoded meaning. The unique colour associations and other formal elements speak to Vakutans about key emotional issues within their everyday and spiritual lives. How is mens participation in the Kula linked to their desire to achieve immortality? How do the messages conveyed by the canoe boards converge with those presented in Kula myths and rituals? In what ways do these systems of meaning reveal a male ideology that competes with the prevailing female ideology? Providing an alternative way of understanding the significance of Kula in the Trobriand Islands, The Art of Kula makes an influential new contribution to the ethnography of Papua New Guinea.

Excerpt

On the island of Kiriwina one tropical Monday morning in October 1976, while I was recording a meeting with the people of Olivilevi who had agreed to let me settle with them to conduct fieldwork, there came a knock at my door. I had temporary lodging at the Uniting Church Mission at Oiyabia while I searched for a permanent field site on Kiriwina. the wonderful month that I spent at Oiyabia enabled me to concentrate on my acquisition of language, with a constant stream of curious Kiriwinans, mostly children, coming to inspect this white stranger, or ‘dimdim’. My visitors were admirably patient as I collected words for everything that I could point to. From this base, located between Kavataria and the government station at Losuia, I was able to travel to different parts of Kiriwina in search of a suitable village. As my research interest centred on the carvings that made these people particularly well known to outsiders, my search was focused on those villages renowned for their carving output. I had already visited several and had been largely unsuccessful: either the villages lacked working master carvers or they were disinclined to accept the pesterings of some ‘dimdim’. Olivilevi was an exception. Not only were master carvers still working for local consumption and the tourist trade, but they also seemed excited about the prospect of my settling with them for the next eighteen months. I was adopted into a family and told that they would start building a house for me immediately. We agreed on a site, and an appropriate remuneration for the work, and I was sent away to await news that my house had been built and I could move in. the knock on the door changed everything.

Four young men dressed in their finest, with bodies oiled and delicately sprinkled with the yellow pollen of hibiscus, faced me. They said they had come with a message from Olivilevi. I was told that if I wanted to live there I was required to pay the village headman on a daily basis what was then an exorbitant amount of money for a student on a research scholarship. Once over the initial surprise in this change of circumstances, I tried to make sense of it. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that these demands were no less than a refusal to host my work. I became quite depressed about any prospect of working in the Trobriand Islands, and seriously considered packing up and heading back to Australia. I wrote to Anthony Forge, my supervisor, with news of the situation, adding that I would try the island further south as a last effort to establish a research site in the Trobriands. Feeling defeated, I recalled the numerous friendly warnings against . . .

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