On Saturday 24th August, the Powerhouse Museum ‘popped-up’ with a small object display and promotional stall at the Haldon Street Festival in Lakemba. Attended by more than 20,000 people, predominantly from the local Canterbury Council area, the festival was a fantastic opportunity for the Museum to bring some of its collection to the people – in particular, objects which not only help to promote a major upcoming exhibition opening at the Museum in 2014, but which have a special relevance and connection to some of the audiences we’re visiting.
The two objects selected for display at this particular Pop-UP was the wasekaseka split sperm whale’s tooth necklace from Fiji dating to the mid-19th century and a contemporary neckpiece titled ‘Red Drop’ by Norwegian designer, Liv Blavarp. Both pieces are planned for display in a major temporary jewellery exhibition opening at the Museum in 2014, with the working title Treasured! Jewellery in Australia from antiquity to now. This exhibition will feature more than 850 items of jewellery and body ornament (approximately 60% loans, 40% Powerhouse objects) collected, made and/or worn in Australia. These items span Australian Indigenous, Pacific, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.
As there is a large community of Pacific Islanders residing in the western Sydney area, and I have personally been working to develop the Pacific section of the jewellery exhibition over the past 12 months, I was keen to see the wasekaseka on show at the festival. Wasekaseka is the Fijian name given to necklaces made of sperm whale’s teeth which have been split lengthwise and polished (the stubbier teeth necklaces, before they’re split, are known as vuasagale or tabua). Wasekasekas are among the best known examples of Fijian body ornament which were typically made by Tongan and Samoan craftsmen who lived there. The teeth were sewn onto sennit cords made of plant or coconut fibre and were worn closely around the neck. As whale’s teeth were extremely scarce, especially before the advent of European commercial whaling (given that they could only be obtained when a whale was washed up on shore), they became the prerogative of chiefs and men of other high ranking status.
We juxtaposed the wasekaseka with a contemporary neckpiece which, despite being made more than 160 years later, by a woman, for a woman and on the other side of the world, still bears some remarkable similarities. Norwegian designer Liv Blavarp’s ‘Red Drop’ neckpiece demonstrates the way an “…ordinary and non-precious material like wood can be transformed into something unexpected and special”(1). The very sculptural form, which in many ways bears a visual reference to the elongated, protruding forms of the whale’s teeth, organically shapes itself to the wearer’s body to seemingly appear “live and functioning”(2). Blavarp is, in fact, known to incorporate whale’s teeth in some of her earlier works. She likes to experiment with materials and form; challenging the way people think of the notion of jewellery and, indeed, how it can be worn.
As a curator, it is always interesting and rewarding to observe the way people interact with, and respond to, objects. While some people just like being in the presence of beautiful, and not so beautiful, things, others feel compelled to open up by sharing their personal stories and knowledge. The wasekaseka, for example, attracted many young men of Pacific Islander heritage. From a young Samoan boy proudly reading out the object label and in his words “teaching his sister” about the role of Samoans in making these necklaces to a Maori teenager showing us the whale ivory pendant he was given for his 18th birthday, it was touching to see the way museum objects can play an important role in creating a sense of pride and belonging. Another group of young men, in their early 20s, gathered around the showcase, preferring to converse amongst themselves. A little spot of eavesdropping, however, revealed they were talking about wasekasekas they had seen before and one which had been passed down through their family.
The Museum plans to ‘pop-up’ in an unexpected and surprising place again soon, so look out for us! In the meantime, however, we are very interested to hear your suggestions as to where you’d like to see us appearing next. Perhaps it’s a festival, school, nursing home, hospital, detention centre or library? Feel free leave your comment here or email me directly, firstname.lastname@example.org.