Placemats (8), cowrie shells / coconut palm spines / cotton, maker unknown, Fanning Island, Kiribati, c. 2000
These placemats form part of a collection of objects from Fanning Island, Kiribati donated to the Museum by Mr and Mrs Lou and Elgin Brown, who lived and worked on the island from 1960-1963. In 1960, Lou Brown, who was then employed with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (Australia), was seconded to Cable and Wireless London (C&W) to serve on the submarine cable station on Fanning Island, one of three islands making up the group of Line Islands in Kiribati. Although the cable station was owned by C&W Ltd, staff were recruited from both London and Sydney for an average length of 2.5 years.
The materials and designs incorporated in these placemats, which date to c. 2000, demonstrate the continuity maintained in the island art of Kiribati. The use of cowrie shells and coconut palms with concentric circles and geometric designs are reminiscent of craft products dating back to the earliest of times and even bear some references to the 1960s fans from Kiribati also held in the Museum's collection. Kiribati is an island nation in the central Pacific comprising Banaba Island (also known as Ocean Island), the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. It was part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony until 1979, at which time it became independent.
The objects acquired in this collection reflect Australia's role in assisting its island neighbours while Kiribati was still under British occupation. Mr Brown, accompanied by his wife, left Sydney on board the Union Steam Ship's vessel 'Waitamo', an ex Park Class Liberty ship for the month long journey to Fanning Island via Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, and settled in a fully furnished house provided by the company. Mr Brown's role at the cable station was as a watch keeper. Along with him, there were three other watch keepers, a manager, branch engineer (cable), deputy engineer, mechanical engineer, doctor and technician (communications).
Personal communication with Mr and Mrs Lou and Elgin Brown (2009)
Assistant Curator, Design History & Society
These placemats were made in Fanning Island, Kiribati circa 2000. The placemats were produced from coconut palm spines shaped into circles and hand stitched together. They would have been produced from the inside out, with the decoratively shaped coconut palm spines and cowrie shells hand stitched afterwards.