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Session Detail (parallel)

Panel 9: Place(s)for innovation? Enduring and changing materials in the Pacific

Coordinator(s)

Stéphanie Leclerc-Caffarel, Marie Durand, Aurélie Méric

Session presentation

Eschewing nature-culture dualism, researchers interested in material culture now focus primarily on modalities of perception that inform people’s understanding of materiality in tandem with dynamic interactions between human beings and their environment (Ingold 2000, Miller 2005, Lemonnier 2012). In this context, scholars have begun to reexamine materials as crucial elements to evaluate how human beings co-construct themselves and their immediate surroundings (Were 2013). Some even stress a change of paradigm from the study of objects and things to the investigation of the very matters they are made of in order to unveil the ways in which people and their environment are related through technical processes (Coupaye 2013; Brown 2004).

This panel examines how Pacific people negotiate forces of change, by attributing special proprieties and meanings to new materials, or, reversely, by reiterating traditional approaches of matter, all together (re)creating persons and places. We invite contributions based on historical research, ethnographic cases or empirical experiences and practices, engaged with the question of changing materials as well as associated techniques, gestures and meaning through time.


Paper submissions are closed



Accepted papers


Panel Introduction



Marie Durand (Musée du quai Branly)

Aurélie Méric (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Stéphanie Leclerc-Caffarel (Smithsonian Institution)


Eschewing nature-culture dualism, researchers interested in material culture now focus primarily on modalities of perception that inform people’s understanding of materiality in tandem with dynamic interactions between human beings and their environment (Ingold 2000, Miller 2005, Lemonnier 2012). In this context, scholars have begun to reexamine materials as crucial elements to evaluate how human beings co-construct themselves and their immediate surroundings (Were 2013). Some even stress a change of paradigm from the study of objects and things to the investigation of the very matters they are made of in order to unveil the ways in which people and their environment are related through technical processes (Coupaye 2013; Brown 2004).

This panel examines how Pacific people negotiate forces of change, by attributing special proprieties and meanings to new materials, or, reversely, by reiterating traditional approaches of matter, all together (re)creating persons and places. We invite contributions based on historical research, ethnographic cases or empirical experiences and practices, engaged with the question of changing materials as well as associated techniques, gestures and meaning through time

Shells of stone and ivory: changing materials and enduring potency in Aotearoa and Fiji



Stéphanie Leclerc-Caffarel (Smithsonian Institution)

Lisa Renard (Université de Strasbourg)


Throughout Polynesia people of rank have worn mussel and oyster shell breastplates as attributes of their status. The physical properties (colors, light reflection) and symbolic origin (material from the sea) of polished shells have been described as a reminder of the divine nature of chiefs, alluding to Polynesian mythologies. In the Fiji-Tonga area, however, as well as in Aotearoa/New Zealand, these breastplates went through a singular evolution. More durable materials such as whale ivory or greenstone began to be used in addition to or instead of marine shells. Yet, most of the time, chest ornaments retained formal features of the oyster, and in the case of Fiji also its name. This paper questions changes in the materiality of Fijian and Māori breastplates, with respect to the physical qualities of various materials as well as to the technical and symbolic consequences of such transformations. Furthermore, attention will be paid to possible historical connections between these two regions of the South Pacific, as illustrated by material artifacts.

Identification of a remnant of the “Wallis maro ‘ura”: first remarks on its technical, aesthetic and material aspects.



Guillaume Aleveque (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)


Maro ‘ura (red feathered girdles) were the more precious and rarest objects in the Society islands during the 18th century and are usually regarded as the highest symbol of sovereignty. Yet, as all maro ‘ura have disappeared during the first decades of the 19th century, studies have been restricted to historical sources.
Based on the identification of a remnant of maro ‘ura in the Quai Branly collection, this paper aims to investigate the technical, aesthetic and material choices involved from its creation to its current state. This maro ‘ura has a specific feature: the red flag raised by Capt Wallis in 1767 to take possession of Tahiti has been sewed on it. Therefore it was often seen as a symbolic materialization of the relation between Tahitian chiefs and England. Studying this maro ‘ura as a concrete things and no longer only through writings will help us reassess its status during the first encounters.

Canoes and Koas - An Ecological Perspective on Material Connections to Land, Sea, and Community



Maggie Wander (University of California Santa Cruz)


In this study of Hawaiian canoes, I trace the genealogy of the koa tree, a species endemic to Hawai’i, as a framework for thinking about human-nonhuman relationships in this time of ecological change. By examining the process of canoe construction as recorded by historians such as David Malo and James Hornell, I trace the process by which canoes were traditionally constructed. From the initial felling of the koa to the final decoration of the hull, I demonstrate how ecological systems are embodied by the Hawaiian canoe. This ecological perspective allows us to understand how Hawaiian canoe builders negotiated the impact of settler colonial structures of power that served to destroy most koa forests and displace indigenous communities. Furthermore, I argue the revival of traditional canoe construction can inform how human societies continue to be intimately enmeshed in their surrounding environments.

Matters and experiments. Contemporary modalities for the acquisition of technical competences. The case of Austronesian tattoo techniques.



Sebastien Galliot (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)


Once spread throughout the Austronesian linguistic area, the hand-tapping technique of tattooing was progressively abandoned during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before being gradually re-discovered during the 1980’s in the wake of the cultural renewal movements. Initiated later than the revival of seafaring and dances, hand tapping tattoo techniques were first sought among renowned members of the Samoan community (tufuga ta pe’a or tattoo specialists) before being transmitted more widely. Pacific tattoo revivals were also promoted from outside the Pacific rim by a body of professional tattooists and occurred precisely when Western tattooing was gaining cultural legitimacy. This gave rise to a professional environment structured by the specificity of matters, gestures and the agent-patient relationship as well as by new configurations and policies at work. This situation represents a singular case of emergence of a material culture, i.e. the constitution of a social group through engagement with matters and materials. Based on a multi-sited ethnography, this communication will address the socio-technical transactions within a transnational network of practitioners engaged in the transmission and preservation of hand tapping tattoo techniques. It will stress the paradox of loosing-while-safeguarding by examining the consequences of experiments in matters that have been undertaken by tattoo practitioners at different level of the learning process.

Valuing concrete: building materials, innovation and rootedness on Mere Lava, Vanuatu



Marie Durand (Musée du quai Branly)


During funerals on the island of Mere Lava in the northern province of Vanuatu, Melanesia, people publicly discuss the history and achievements of the deceased person: his notable actions, the houses he has built and the objects he has made for it are staged as crucial memorable accomplishments that will anchor him into the history of the place. The technical skills and abilities he demonstrated in making things are importantly valorized. Among these, his achievements in making new things, using innovative materials and creating new forms are highly regarded.
Through the analysis of processing of, and attitude to, new materials such as concrete in building, I will explore how the dynamic relationships of people to local and/or purchased and imported materials reflects their valuing of both innovation (expressed by ‘being at the basis’, ‘kisian nu-kuteugi) and rootedness (‘being of the place’, kisian ta le-veré) and therefore ultimately relate to the negotiations of their trajectories in a more and more heterogeneous world.

Made to measure: materials innovation and crafting revival in a Melanesian society.



Graeme Were (University of Queensland)


This paper will elaborate on the ‘vibrant’ nature of materials used in the built environment and the ways in which materials make themselves known (DeLanda 2006). Focusing on plant materials used in men’s house (haus boi) construction in New Ireland (Papua New Guinea), I investigate how material vibrancy is located in architectural design projects employing the selective use of ‘old’ plant materials – in contrast to ready-made, imported materials – the effects of which mediate and amplify new spheres of male power in the region. I will describe how the incorporation of select materials ‘of the past’ into the built environment – public spaces used for the performance of ancestral ceremonies – are brought into relation with other materials and so used as a vehicle to make tangible connections to the ancestral domain as well as centres of government that reside on a translocal scale. Material innovation, I argue, can therefore be understood as transformative, not just in terms of creating form and function, but also as ‘enabling’, enacting new forms of sociality and linking to new sources of power.

How to kill with a letter: Transformation and continuity of cordyline fruticose in a Sepik society



Tomi Bartole (Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts)


‘Tether’ imagery has been widely documented across Papua New Guinea, but less attention has been given to its transformations. The Awim people of the East Sepik Province, amongst whom I conducted my fieldwork, used to make use of the cordyline fruticose as a communicational device referred to as ‘the ancestral letter’. In the past the letter was ‘written’ by way of making knots, which contained the words and was then ‘read’ by another person to the addressee by touching each knot and thus revealing the talk kept inside. Today, however, the only ones using the letter are sanguma and poison man. The letter is no longer used as a letter in Awim, but has become an analytical device through which Awim people elicit: the difference between killing technique and killing modality; mortality itself as there is no natural death; the relation between the in/visible and the haptic; and the materiality upon which both sanguma’s and poison man’s efficacies rest and with it the possibility to counter-act them. The letter’s transformation from communicational to analytical device rises questions relative to processes of continuity contained within the letter, such as, what kind of letter might become a killing tool?

A material made for innovation: playing cards in the Western Pacific



Anthony J. Pickles (Cambridge University)


Crystallising into their present form in Enlightenment France, a deck of playing cards is made up of interwoven symbolic relationships made material. Bought as a single object, cards are divided and reconfigured by one or more agents so as to achieve prescribed outcomes. The games people play stress particular ways of configuring the available symbols above a plenitude of other possibilities. It is cards’ vast referential potential coupled with their symbolic under-determination that facilitates this wealth of creativity, ensuring the endurance of playing cards as a commodity, and the rapid consumption of individual decks. At the same time they encompass symbolic innovation within a creative web that is deliberately limited in scope.
Circa 1900 cards started to surface on the shores of the Western Pacific, often at the same time as gambling; what these notably inventive, famously divergent peoples made of this symbolic confetti is the subject of this paper. What were the initial usages? The local variations? The gender dynamics? The appropriate forms of gameplay and magic? What made only certain packs desirable? How have cards informed their close correlate, money? Combining historical research and ethnographic experience in highland Papua New Guinea, I describe the investment of meaning in this new material and the way cards have themselves helped to define the contours of invention in the contemporary Pacific.

Old-style people, old-style pratices ? Making offerings in a balinese village.



Aurélie Méric (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)


Balinese offerings are often considered as ephemeral artistic expressions being used for religious purposes. It is commonly agreed that variations in the making of offerings could be signs of innovations or indications of a personal creativity, in a time of great changes and increased modernity.
In the village of Tenganan situated in the east of Bali, in contrast to this assertion, what prevails is the stability of thoses offering pratices. It manifests through the use of materials coming exlusively from the territory owned by the village community as I experienced it while studying a collection of offerings containers collected in this village in the 1960’s and now kept in a museum’s collections and later during my fieldwork.
This paper will explore how emphasis is put on materials as medium of a value of ancestrality and a shared substance between the people of the village community and their territory. It is understood through the making of offerings, seen as a continuous process linking people - from the youngest to the oldest - to their soil, from the transformation of materials to the act of scattering offerings throughout the territory.
In this case, forces of change are experienced through practices linked to continuity which is not considered as a turning down but rather as a solid integration of a community on its territory, as a token of a dynamic balance for the people of the village and even their neighbours.