Humble, but Important Things: Transforming Basketry Technology, Narratives and Gender Relations in the Purari Delta

 

Dr Josh Bell (Smithsonian Institute, Washington)

Humble, but Important Things: Transforming Basketry Technology, Narratives and Gender Relations in the Purari Delta

Traditional examinations of the art of the Papuan Gulf have been seduced by the large-scale barkcloth masks, and intricate woodcarvings, and largely neglected the more humble plaited art forms. Taking these diverse forms – baskets, fish traps and ritual effigies – in the Purari Delta as its starting point, within this paper I explore how plaiting of sago, orchid, and pandanus fibres, as well as cane, was a fundamental technique of the region. Combining embodied skills with ritual and environmental knowledge the making and use of these objects extended beyond the resulting material forms, and patterns, helping to situate persons within a constellation of relations through which human and ancestral connections were materialised and understood. These forms were part of complementary sets of gender specific knowledge by which communities were sustained, renewed and by which relations flourished. However, with the cessation of the regional ritual system male made basketry forms have disappeared, while female made forms have been increasingly marginalized ore replaced with new imported materials. While the incorporation of new technologies and materials are part of the creativity by which the Purari engage their world, the disappearance of these forms and their patterns is not without its effects. After charging out the traditional system in which basketry informed the ways in which males and females plaited and wove their worlds, I turn to the resulting transformations as some of these forms have been abandoned, and the materials for others have been replaced.  These transformations have had subtle and profound effects on gender relations, subjectivities and knowledge systems.

 

 





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