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Kitawa: A Linguistic and Aesthetic Analysis of Visual Art in Melanesia.

This book is referred to in Scoditti's Fragmenta Ethnographica (1980) as 'Ethnographicus Kitavensis: Iconology and Semantics'. Nine years on the work has been published with a simpler title; it is certainly a more important book than its highly speculative companion Fragmenta.

E.H. Gombrich in the Foreword likens Scoditti to a latterday Sieur de Chantelou, who noted down the opinions and reflections of Bernini. Scoditti set out to take down the Kitavan master carvers' view of the world, their aesthetics. The aesthetic conversations and accompanying lexicons take up 172 pages. Oddly, Scoditti fails to give us any text of his conversations with Towitara, his key informant, a master-carver and famous for his great knowledge throughout the kula area. Surely it would have been better to include large extracts of his conversations with Towitara -- four hours every day for over five months on prowboard aesthetics -- rather than reproducing, at great length, his conversations with relative novices. The author is also very keen to promote his own aesthetic theory, mostly derived from Louis Hjelmslev and Jan Mukarovsky, and it weighs heavily on the analysis of Kitavan aesthetics. While Scoditti appears to be primarily concerned with interpreting their aesthetics, what we get -- because of the imposed aesthetic theory -- is only a secondary concern for Kitivan aesthetic categories and meanings. And some of the blame for the flaws in this study lies with the author's academic supervisors at London. The book is heavy going and could have been shorter and more readable.

Nonetheless, there is much that is admirable about this work. An immense amount of work has gone into the data collecting and this is the book's lasting significance. There is general information on Kitava and kula not to be found elsewhere; and Chapter 3, on initiation, apprenticeship, taboos, and the work and differences between carvers, is well done. It is puzzling to me that the author does not fully utilize what has already been taken down on Trobriand art. He makes no direct reference to John Kasaipwalova or Ulli Beier on aesthetics, or to Chief Narubatal, Nancy Munn, and Shirley Campbell on canoe prowboard designs. However, he does refer to Seligman's work on D'Entrecasteaux prowboard designs.

Edmund Leach had suggested to Scoditti that he analyse the coloured symbols on the war shield used by the Trobrianders' bravest warriors and this would have been very interesting. Scoditti refers to Fellows' article 'Trobriand Emblazoned Shield' - the indigenous account of the designs, taken down in about 1897. However, as in Fragmenta, the author places Leach's entirely conjectual interpretation of the shield design on an equal footing with Fellows' indigenous account. This does not augur well for any other interpretation the author might offer us. In fact, I have suggested in two articles not referred to by Scoditti (in Anthropos 81: 46-63 and Man 23: 59-75) that the war shield design is a key symbol of traditional Trobriand culture (My interpretations are speculative, but they are based solely on the indigenous interpretation of the design.)

In short, Scoditti appears more interested in foisting an aesthetic theory onto the Kitavans rather than in simply focussing on their aesthetics. And undoubtedly his most important work in this matter -- his conversations with Towitara, his chief informant -- are vital, but almost absent from this account. So possibly the author's best work on Trobriand aesthetics has yet to be published; it is not here, though the book is dedicated to the deceased Towitara -- the inspiration behind it.

PATRICK GLASS University of Sydney
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Author:Glass, Patrick
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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