Author Archives: Melanie Pitkin

Pacific objects in focus #4: ‘Wasekaseka’ whale’s tooth neckpiece

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Wasekaseka, sperm whale teeth / plant fibre, Fiji, mid-19th century. E1567-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Wasekaseka, sperm whale teeth / plant fibre, Fiji, mid-19th century. E1567-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

If I had to single out one of my favourite pieces of Pacific ornament being showcased in A fine possession: jewellery and identity, it would have to be the wasekaseka neckpiece. Comprising twenty-six sperm whale’s teeth split lengthways, the wasekaseka is among Fiji’s best known types of jewellery that were typically made by Tongan and Samoan craftsmen who lived there. They were sewn onto sennit cords made of plant or coconut fibre and were worn closely around the neck.

Until the introduction of commercial whaling by Europeans in the early-mid 19th century, whale’s teeth were extremely scarce and therefore became the prerogative of chiefs and men of other high ranking status. The craftsmen would have to wait until a whale had beached on shore before they could source the ivory and fashion it into a wearable piece of adornment. Apart from the wasekaseka, other popular jewellery and ornamental items made from whale ivory included the tabua or tambua (a whole polished whale’s tooth commonly worn as a neck pendant), vuasagale (necklaces comprising the stubbier, smaller teeth of the sperm whale before they had been split) and scrimshaw.

Detail of wasekaseka, sperm whale teeth / plant fibre, Fiji, mid-19th century. E1567-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Detail of wasekaseka, sperm whale teeth / plant fibre, Fiji, mid-19th century. E1567-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Whale’s teeth were bestowed on high-status individuals as gifts, for political support or as a gesture of solidarity and were valued as symbols of wealth and power. The teeth were also sometimes used as a means of exchange for logs and canoes, particularly between the Tongans and Fijians.

Early Museum object label, E1567-2. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Early Museum object label, E1567-2. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Accompanying this particular wasekaseka is one of the Museum’s early exhibition labels, which probably dates to around the late 19th century (when the Museum was called ‘The Technological Museum’ and was housed over the road from where we are now, next to the Sydney Technical College on Harris Street, Ultimo). Curiously, however, the label describes this object as a ‘banyini’ – a term I haven’t encountered before, but which was also used in our early records to describe other whale ivory pieces in the collection. So, if you can shed any light on the use of this term, I’d be more than interested to hear!

This wasekseka will be on display in the ‘Wealth and status’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity at the Powerhouse Museum until September 2015.

Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society

 

 

Pacific objects in focus #3: New Zealand hei-tiki

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Hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade) / paua shell / gum, New Zealand, c.1810. A5324. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade) / paua shell / gum, New Zealand, c.1810. A5324. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The hei-tiki is the most famous of all Maori jewellery items. Humanoid in shape, they are typically characterised by a tilting head, huge, gaping open mouth, large, bulbous eyes, splayed hips with arms akimbo and a pronounced and often dilated vulval area (Starzeka 1996: p.43)*. It has been speculated whether or not this expression is illustrative of a woman giving birth (more specifically, the birthing goddess Hine-te-Iwaiwa), but the figures are also often shown to be quite sexless; leading others to suggest the hei-tiki may, in fact, be an appearance of ‘Tiki, the First Man’ in Maori mythology.
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Pacific objects in focus #2: Admiralty Islands ceremonial regalia

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Ceremonial regalia and shell money (nine pieces), designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Ceremonial regalia and shell money (nine pieces), designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

This ceremonial regalia from the Admiralty Islands (early 20th century) is one of the Museum’s most prized Pacific pieces. While individual components of the regalia (like the armbands or apron) can often be found in public and private collections, a near or complete set, like this, is very rare. It is also in remarkably good condition and demonstrates the exquisite quality and workmanship that went into Admiralty Islands weaving and beading.

The regalia consists of nine pieces, including: (-1) a fringed and beaded rectangular apron with traces of colourful parrot feathers along the top; (-2) a narrow beaded waist band worked in red, white, blue and black glass beads; (-3 and -4) a pair of wide, rectangular ‘mats’ (worn as leg bands) worked in red, white, blue and black glass beads fastened with plaited vegetable fibre ties; (-5 and -6) a pair of arm bands, one of which has two surviving fibre ties and; (-7 to -9) three cuffs of different sizes worked in red, white and blue glass beads and backed onto rigid, circular bark strips. It’s likely that the largest cuff is a later addition and is not, in fact, contemporary with the set.

Detail of apron showing remains of colourful parrot feathers, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Detail of apron showing remains of colourful parrot feathers, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

One of the most intriguing questions raised by this ceremonial regalia is – how was it worn? No images or written records survive as primary evidence, which means that any inferences we make are drawn from oral traditions recorded in secondary sources and from looking at other comparable types of Melanesian dress.

Based on Sylvia Ohnemus’s comprehensive publication “An Ethnology of the Admiralty Islanders – The Alfred Bühler Collection, Museum der Kulturen, Basel”, along with a combination of other sources, we can surmise that the apron was probably worn full frontal, possibly with a grass skirt underneath or with a second longer apron positioned at the back, which was held into place by a waistband. Hans Nevermann in his publication “Admiralty Islands”, suggests the smaller beaded bands with tassels were worn just above the elbow, while the matching pair of cuffs were worn on the forearms.  A headband, typically adorned with dog’s teeth, might have also accessorised the outfit – although we do not have one in this assemblage.

Detail of apron showing beaded shell money, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Detail of apron showing beaded shell money, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The type of ceremony this regalia would have been worn at is a marriage, dance/festival or initiation ceremony; the type requiring an impressive display of wealth. Thought to have been predominantly worn by men, women may have also worn the outfit as part of their wedding dowry.

The display of shell money, as well as dog teeth, in costume and dress was restricted to ceremonies. Shell money comprises the upper section of small conus shells sourced from either Ponam or Sori (islands off the north coast of Manus) and was traded throughout the rest of the Admiralties. They were drilled in the centre and woven onto a pandanus or bark backing.

Detail of armband showing the geometric motifs, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Detail of armband showing the geometric motifs, designed and made in Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, 1900-1925. 94/21/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Each of the pieces forming this ceremonial regalia are decorated with geometric motifs formed through threading and knotting white shell discs and red, white and blue beads onto vegetable fibre yarns. The glass beads were probably imported.

The Museum fortuitously acquired this particular regalia assemblage at a Sotheby’s auction in 1993 (ex collection Peter Hallinan). Before this, it was in the collection of Daniel Leighton Patterson, who was sent with the Expropriation Board of Australia to New Guinea to take over from the German administration following the annexation of the territory by Australia.

The regalia will be on display in the ‘Ornamented Men’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity opening at the Powerhouse Museum from September 2014.

Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society

Jewellery and adornment from the Pacific, part 1: Fijian pig’s tusk

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Boar's tusk, Fiji, c.1890, 92/177-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Pig’s tusk, Fiji, c.1890, 92/177-1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Since the late 19th century, the Museum has collected a select and representative range of Pacific material culture – namely, body ornament, clubs, implements of daily use, textiles and dress – from the island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. In the early days, the majority of these objects were collected via missionaries, while more recently they have been purchased at auction or generously gifted to the Museum from private collectors.

In the development of the exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity, I have had the privilege and pleasure to re-awaken the stories of many of the Pacific objects in our collection. In this series of posts, I wish to highlight a number of these – especially those being displayed in the exhibition – starting with one of our striking Fijian pig’s tusks.

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Powerhouse Museum Pop-UP @ Haldon Street Festival, Lakemba

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Curator, Glynis Jones, in the Museum's Pop-UP stall in Lakemba

Curator, Glynis Jones, in the Museum’s Pop-UP stall in Lakemba

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.  Continue reading

Refugee Week 2013 – What’s the big deal?

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Welcome to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre © Elias Attia, 2013.

Welcome to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre © Elias Attia, 2013.

Refugee Week (Sunday 16 June – Saturday 22nd June, 2013) is “Australia’s peak annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” (Refugee Week official website). In this blog post, we have invited Elias Attia to share with us his personal experiences working with refugee communities, specifically through his involvement with a charity organisation, SalamCare, which is closely affiliated with the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in western Sydney.

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Archaeology Week – Excavating an ancient Egyptian cemetery: pondering the ethics of working with human remains

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Excavating the Wadi Mouth site at the South Tombs Cemetery © Melanie Pitkin.

Excavating the Wadi Mouth site at the South Tombs Cemetery © Melanie Pitkin.

I’ve recently returned from the 2013 Spring Season excavations at the South Tombs Cemetery in Tell el-Amarna, Middle Egypt. Tell el-Amarna, or more simply Amarna, is the ancient Egyptian city built by the ‘heretic’ King Akhenaten, husband of Queen Nefertiti, in c. 1350 BC. Occupied for less than 20 years, Amarna is where Akhenaten broke with 2000 years of tradition to “pursue his vision of a society dedicated to the cult of only one god, the power of the sun – the Aten” (Amarna Project). Continue reading

How to make a stained glass window, Handel-style

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Studio of Philip Handel

Studio of Philip Handel, 2012. Photography © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

Picture a large stained glass window inside a cathedral. You see a variety of colours – perhaps a contrast of red and blue, long slivers of yellow, or a striking sea of white. A pattern emerges, changing your interpretation of the window. At first you notice a figure in the centre of the window, which you perceive to be the image of Christ. Then more figures emerge, so you begin to piece together a narrative, reading the window as you would a novel. Now you are lost in the story, in the intricacies of light and colour, in private thought and reverie.

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Ramadan, Eid prayers and the Museum

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Eid prayers at Lakemba Mosque, 2011. Photography © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

Eid prayers at Lakemba Mosque, 2011. Photography © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

From the end of this week until August 19 is Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. During this time, Muslims fast everyday from dawn to sunset with the purpose of cleansing their mind and body, practicing self-discipline and re-focusing their worshop on god. At the end of Ramadan, a large celebration takes place called Eid ul-Fitr, or simply Eid. Family and friends dress up in their most beautiful clothes to celebrate in prayer and good company. As reflected in the Faith, fashion, fusion exhibition, designers release new collections specifically for this occasion. “Ramadan is our busiest month”, says Hanadi Chehab and Howayda Moussa of Integrity Boutique. “People buy a new outfit for everyday of Eid [it goes for 3 days]…and we start designing for it months in advance”.

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