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Mediations of cloth: tapa and personhood among the Maisin in PNG.


'Maisin is tapa!' These few words that were often used while I did my fieldwork among the Maisin people living in Papua New Guinea (PNG), (1) not only indicate the importance of tapa in Maisin culture, but they also point to how Maisin identify themselves, and how others identify Maisin, with this cloth (Fig. 1).

Tapa, which is made and painted by women, features in Maisin economic, political, social, and spiritual life as an object of wealth that is both 'alienable' and 'inalienable' (Weiner 1992). The commercialisation of tapa was initiated by early missionaries, who collected and sold tapa to fellow confederates, anthropologists, and to museums in Australia and the UK. (2) More recently, sold at national and international markets as an object of indigenous art, tapa contributes significantly to Maisin livelihood. This alienable tapa-cloth is also used in barter and ceremonial exchanges. At the same time, tapa, decorated with clan designs, features as inalienable clan property. It may not be given away outside the clan, or sold. This inalienable cloth is often used as a festive and ceremonial dress, playing an important role in church festivals (Hermkens 2007a) and life-cycle rituals, such as marriages and mourning rituals. In this respect, tapa constitutes beliefs and values about gender relations and identity, mediating relations between the individual and the social, and between the living, the ancestors, God, and the Church.

At the same time that Maisin identify themselves with tapa, others also tend to view Maisin through their barkcloth. Since the 1980s, Maisin people have been able to promote themselves via the display and exhibition of barkcloth at international art festivals and museums abroad. In the mid-1990s, Maisin came to the attention of environmental activists when villagers launched a public campaign to prevent the national government from permitting commercial logging on their ancestral lands. In their struggle, Maisin received support from Greenpeace, who actively used Maisin barkcloth in promoting the fight against logging under the campaign heading: 'Painting a sustainable future. Maisin art and rainforest conservation'. In this context, the Maisin were presented as a tribal people whose ancestral barkcloth-art could save the rainforest and simultaneously bring development to their lives (see also Barker 2008). This foreign involvement increased the commodity value of tapa and resulted in a boost of sales in the mid-1990s until 2000 when Greenpeace and other environmental groups had left (Barker 2008:63). This and previous boosts in tapa sales impacted on the commercial value of tapa and led to an increase in and even standardisation of production (with men and women working together to produce large amounts of tapa, and the size of the cloth determining its monetary value). Due to its regional and national exposure, Maisin tapa is also becoming an important cultural marker for non-Maisin. Today, Maisin women are the main producers of tapa in the region and beyond, and many neighbouring and more distant cultural groups who have stopped manufacturing barkcloth, or who have no tradition of wearing barkcloth, wear Maisin tapa as a 'traditional' garment during festivities and cultural performances. Moreover, young Papua New Guinean designers are transforming Maisin tapa into fashionable dresses and even into high-heeled women's shoes. Maisin tapa is therefore crossing its local 'boundaries': in addition to its role in constituting local identities, it is acquiring new value as a neo-traditional symbol of regional and national identity. In fact, like the examples given by John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff in their book Ethnicity, Inc. (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), Maisin and PNG ethnic identifications become materialised and at the same time commoditised through tapa.

The intimate relationship between tapa and identity comes as no surprise. Clothing is very much intertwined with relations and intersubjective articulations of gender and identity (Barnes and Eicher 1992a, 1992b), giving material form to social categories and hierarchies (Keane 2006:198). While clothing is so malleable that it can be shaped to construct appearance and transform identity, one's lived experience with cloth and clothing is also dependent upon how others evaluate the performance of the clothed body (Hansen Tranberg 2004:373). In fact, clothing infuses the human body with meaning and determines its behaviour, often beyond personal preference. Clothing choices may be controlled by others, for instance, or, as Bolton (2003:122) argues for Vanuatu, by 'systems of rights and privileges and by ritual proscriptions of various kinds'. Moreover, clothing may not only change our skin and transform our physiology; it may actually define it by controlling our body movements. In these cases, the body is shaped by cultural order, interweaving cloth, cosmology and physiology in what David Morgan (2010a, 2010b) designates 'an embodied experience of belief'.

Clothing, such as tapa, represents one of the most visual and dominant materialised gender codes in our world (Barnes and Eicher 1992a, 1992b; Hendrickson 1996; Weiner and Schneider 1989; Schneider 1987, 2006), demonstrating how closely material forms and cultural norms affect the person and personal identity. Among Maisin, tapa is related to norms and values about female sexuality, about how women should behave, and how they should physically move. It is linked with the life-stage and identity of the girl or woman who is wearing a particular loincloth (Hermkens 2010). Ornaments such as earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and women's facial tattoos, similarly reflect a woman's clan identity and life-stage. (3)

Among Maisin, gender and clan identity are socialised through material practices that lead towards the establishment of a person's mon-seraman (his or her knowledge and abilities), which refers to what we call social personhood or person. When a child is born, its kaniniwa (spirit) is not yet attached, and it has no mon-seraman either. While growing up, the child's spirit becomes attached, and its mon-seraman is developed. Both kaniniwa and mon-seraman mark a person's social identity, which is gradually constructed through relationships with others. The child's social being or seraman has to grow through care and the feeding of the child by its parents (Barker 1985:175-76). But during the course of a child or a person's life, other people are significant in establishing its social identity as well. Maternal uncles, namesakes (nombi) from whom the child obtained its name, father's kin, and other relatives all contribute to the child's constitution. These relationships are brought to the fore during performances such as initiations and other formal and informal exchanges. These performances not only visualise specific relationships; they also continue to define the individual in relation to both people and things, including tapa. According to Strathern (1990:221), things actually circulate within relationships in order to make relations in which things can circulate. This implies that both people and things simultaneously create and are created through the relationships within which they are situated. This is also the case with tapa and the women who make it.

The establishment of the social person among Maisin is similar to what Iteanu (1995:139) describes for the Orokaiva people, living north of Collingwood Bay. Here, social relationships are, as with the Maisin, marked during rituals, which construct an individual's social person. In Orokaiva this part of an individual is referred to as hamo. In addition to mon-seraman, Maisin also acknowledge the existence of an inner being or self, called tina terere (literally: stomach inside). For most people, tina terere comes closest to the Western concept of an individual's soul. It denotes one's deepest internal being, while one's internal desires or longings are referred to as marawa(wawe) terere (literally: longings inside).

As these terms suggest, Maisin have not just one mode of personhood, either relational or individual. In this paper, I will elaborate on the dynamic, historical entanglement of people and barkcloth, revealing shifting modes of personhood and agency, which are 'more complex than those revealed by terms such as "individual" or "dividual" ' (Wardlow 2006:8). Even so, people do manage to maintain a coherent unit of identity, which raises the question, how is such stable perception and articulation of 'identity' achieved where multiple forms and conceptualisations of personhood--both individual and relational--exist.

I argue that for Maisin, barkcloth is the substance through which people define themselves and others. Tapa effectively shapes both gendered forms of individual and relational selves, thereby visualising and performing illusions of a coherent unity of identity. Highlighting the significance of 'body techniques' (Mauss 1979) and Tim Ingold's (2013:108) notion of 'correspondence' in the making of things, the material and sentient process of socialisation and subject construction is elucidated (see also Hermkens 2013; Naji 2009). This reveals that things and people are part of each other's substance, with the individual and dividual person co-present in each of them. Instead of seeing things and people as separate entities, the anthropology of making and using tapa shows the mutual engagement and growth of both object and subject.


Among the Maisin, all women, even those coming from other areas and married into Maisin, are expected to learn how to beat, design, and paint barkcloth. They are responsible for making barkcloth into meaningful things, in particular the female and male garments, or loincloths, embobi and koefi. Embobi, the female garment, is rectangular in shape and wrapped around the hips with a girdle, covering the thighs and the knees. The male garment, koefi, is a long narrow piece of barkcloth worn between the legs and wrapped around the hips, one end covering the genitals and the other hanging over the buttocks. Among the Maisin, these loincloths are decorated with black outlined designs, which are subsequently filled with red pigment. The result is a vivid display of meandering black-framed red lines on the white barkcloth (Fig. 1).

As in other areas of Oceania, barkcloth is made from the inner bark of the domesticated, non-indigenous paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera), locally called wuwusi, although in the past barkcloth was also made from a wild ficus tree species. In general, women start with the arduous beating of the bark as soon as it has been removed from the tree trunk. (4) Unlike in Polynesia, where women will often pound the cloth together (Kaeppler 1980, 1995; Kooijman 1988), Maisin women do this by themselves. Sitting with their legs folded underneath them, they will single-handedly beat and pound the scraped bark for hours until the coarse bark is transformed into a smooth and flattened piece of cloth. Women's location and body posture are very much determined by the heavy wooden log (fo) on which they beat the bark and behind which they are seated. The fo is not easily moved and as such often has a specific place either underneath the house on the slightly raised platform, or underneath the garden house, far away from the village, where the beating of tapa is not restricted by taboos. (5) It is considered improper behaviour for women to sit cross-legged and, because they cannot keep their legs stretched out behind the log, as is the norm, women have to fold their legs underneath them, effectively bounded and restrained in a prolonged sitting position by the log for hours. This technique of beating tapa resonates with Maisin 'gendered body techniques' (Mauss 1979:97-123), whereby girls are socialised to keep their upper bodies straight and legs closed, contained by the loincloth they wear. It also shows how the 'personages' (Mauss 1996:12), or gendered roles women are expected to perform, are continuously inscribed and embodied in women's bodies through the reiteration of non-discursive practices such as beating, but also designing tapa.

Most women create a mental picture and subsequently draw it with four fingers on the barkcloth surface, although women also draw designs in the sand, testing them without spoiling valuable cloth. The four fingers stand for the four black lines that meander and curve parallel to each other, creating three 'veins' of which the central are left white and the outer two are filled up with red pigment. This does not imply that drawing is a projection of thought. Both the mental and actual drawing of designs are processes of thinking that not just interact, but correspond with the tapa surface. According to Ingold (2013:105), correspondence implies a back and forth movement that creates something else. Movement is movement in time, with no starting or end point, and is sentient, feeling. The rather coarse fibrous texture of the barkcloth influences how the lines can be applied, resisting some movements and facilitating others. The whole practice of making and drawing tapa is thus a process in which the women artists and barkcloth are co-participants (see also Ingold 2013:21). Women's specific body techniques are continuously developed and reinforced while being in correspondence with the barkcloth material. In the process of drawing, this correspondence is mediated through the black pigment and the instruments used to apply it.

The black designs are drawn with mi, a black pigment made from river clay (yabu mi) and leaves from a creeper, called wayango. Sometimes burned coconut husk or the ink of an octopus is added. These ingredients are mixed with fresh water and can be kept for quite a long while, the odour of decaying organic material becoming stronger each day. The thick and uneven textured mi is applied with a little stick called nasa that is broken off from the dry filament of the white palm, and sharpened to obtain a better drawing point. In general, each woman has her own bowl of mi and nasa sticks that vary in thickness so as to be able to make both thin and broader lines. Women draw the black lines by either supporting their drawing hand with one finger, or, as the most experienced women do, keeping the hand from resting on the cloth, only letting the nasa touch it, creating flowing, uninterrupted black lines. This latter method involves techniques that are embodied through years of experience and correspondence with the rough tapa surface.

In short, the making of tapa and the drawing of barkcloth designs require endurance, patience, strength, creativity, and technique (a steady hand). Maisin refer to these skills as mon-seraman, (6) thereby addressing both the mental (mon) and physical or technical (seraman) capacities of making good barkcloth. Maisin women's body techniques in making tapa are thus explicitly linked to the establishment of the social person whose mon-seraman is sustained and developed through processes of socialisation and exchanges. Hence, by making tapa, women perform the social relations that constitute them, as well as their gendered socialised identities, at the same time re-embodying gendered scripts about how women should hold their bodies and how they should perform their tasks. Thus, making and drawing tapa are like the construction of a social person, a process of growth which, in the case of tapa, results from the correspondence between women, their minds, bodies and senses, and organic, animate materials, all in the context of Maisin sociality.

Tapa designs

Maisin women make three types of designs: clan, general, and Church designs. Each patrilineal clan has its own tapa designs. Maisin believe that when emerging from a hole in the ground in the Musa area, each clan ancestor brought his clan emblems, kawo. Clan emblems can vary from types of magic, social conduct, and fire, to drums, dancing gear, and tapa designs (evovi). The tapa clan designs are named and often figurative, depicting mountains, animals, or specific artefacts that relate to the clan ancestor's travels and his claims on land, animals, and artefacts. As such, clan tapa contains information about ancestral journeys, land claims, and relationships between specific clans.

While men control the narratives dealing with the journeys associated with particular landmarks as well as designs, the knowledge concerning the manufacturing of clan designs is in the hands of women who transfer this knowledge and craft from mother to daughter and from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. In designing a clan's identity, women are crucial. They control the knowledge of the designs and their manufacture through which the clan itself is reproduced. Gendered forms of knowledge, power, affiliation, differentiation, and identity are not only intertwined and expressed through particular types of tapa, they are also manipulated through tapa. The prohibition on wearing another person's clan design exemplifies this, as this would simultaneously denote a claim on land.

Although various generations of women apply and have applied the evovi, the designs are fairly rigid and have hardly changed since the last century (Hermkens 2013:94). However, there are also some created more recently. Women who have a strong vision, or a recurring dream of a particular design may submit their design to the clan elders. If the clan elders approve of the design and its meaning, it may be accepted as evovi. So women can be more than just the transmitters of clan knowledge and identity as embedded within evovi, they can create it as well.

In addition to the rather static clan designs, Maisin women deploy two styles of 'general' designs, which are referred to as a moi kayan (just a design). These are the so-called 'panel' designs and 'flowing' (gangi-gangi) designs. The former consists of one design that is repeated four times on embobi (Fig. 1) and in general six times on koefi. The cloth is folded in respectively four or six parts and the same design is drawn on each of the panels separately, often without looking to the previous drawn panel. This style of designing is always applied with clan designs. In contrast, gangi-gangi designs, which means twisted or meandering in the Maisin language, 'flow' freely over the cloth and are not bounded by borders or panels. Though symmetrical panel designs seem to be preferred, much depends on the size of the barkcloth. In fact, gangi-gangi designs appear to be a more recent development enabling artists to decorate pieces of barkcloth that are too small to accommodate a panel design. This development is linked with the commercialisation of barkcloth, which makes it worthwhile to decorate even the smallest pieces of barkcloth.

The third type of design that is applied on barkcloth is linked to Christianity. Since the arrival of the Anglican missionaries in Collingwood Bay in 1890, Anglican worship and emblems have been appropriated and incorporated into Maisin ways of life (see Barker 1985, 2008). Christianity was in many areas put into practice by clothing local bodies. Often viewed as indecent and associated with indigenous ritual practices, traditional clothing was in many colonial and missionary enterprises replaced by Western-style dress. The colonial agents thereby believed civil, moral, and spiritual transformation to be accomplished (Bolton 2003:127; Colchester 2003a: 1-5, 2003b; Eves 1996:86; Kuchler and Were 2005). However, although some Anglican missionaries preferred Western dress, in general those stationed in Collingwood Bay seemed not much concerned with dressing local bodies. Instead, they were much more interested in collecting tapa cloth. Almost all missionaries stationed in Collingwood Bay collected artefacts like barkcloth, and some of them even decorated their houses and tables with pieces of decorated tapa. This collecting can be viewed as part of the larger missionary project of materialising the mission (Hermkens 2014).

Making the cloth alive

When the design is complete, the tapa is hung to dry in the sun. Subsequently, it is put between the pandanus mat on which women (and men) sleep. By sleeping on the mat, the wrinkles in the barkcloth are removed and as such 'ironed', but this process also keeps the barkcloth smooth. So Maisin women are not only connected with barkcloth through the processes of beating the cloth, women's bodies actually straighten and soften the barkcloth by sleeping on it. Clearly expressing the physical merging of body and cloth, as one woman expressed it: by sleeping on it, we imbue the barkcloth with 'a little part of ourselves' (Choulai and Lewis-Harris 1999:213).

Likewise, when adding the red pigment, women imbue the tapa cloth and the designs with a part of themselves. The red pigment (dun) is made out of three components: the bark of a Parasponia species tree, locally called saman (bark); the leaves of a Fians Subcuneata, named dunfaraand fresh water. In contrast to the black paint, the ingredients for the red paint have to be boiled. When painting the barkcloth with the red substance, the pot is kept on the fire as to make sure the pigment is warm when applied on the cloth, which is done with the dried fruit of the pandanus (imongiti). In contrast to the black dye, the red paint cannot be kept. Women often share their dun with female relatives or friends, and it is a common sight to see several women gathered around a heated pot of dun (Fig. 2).

In most Oceanic cultures, the manufacturing of pigment is 'a magico-symbolic process' (Teilhet 1983:49; see also Forshee 2001). Among the Maisin, this was equally the case, as in the past the manufacturing of the red pigment, as well as the painting with dun, was bounded by rules and taboos. The red dye was mixed and boiled inside the house in a separate clay pot, which was not to be used for cooking food. Small children and men were not allowed to look at it or come near. Also, they were not allowed to make any noise. The view was that men's external bodily substances would 'spoil' the paint by making it 'less red' or 'dry up', and thus contaminate the dye because their substances are "matter out of place' (Douglas 2004:50). While working with the dye secluded from the rest of society, women were not allowed to eat and drink, or to have sexual intercourse (Barker 2008:114). They also had to speak quietly, and out of respect and fear of spoiling the paint, they would refer to the dye as tambuta or taabuta, meaning 'red blood'. (7) Because the ingredients of the dye have to be boiled and the resulting dim has to be applied when it is still warm, the association with living blood becomes apparent.

Various symbolic connections between the red dye and women suggest that the pigment was regarded as female blood. The association between dun or taabuta and female blood becomes clear when we consider the use of a particular type of cloth in female initiation rituals, which were last performed in the 1990s. In these rituals, young girls received a facial tattoo after which they were clothed in a loincloth soaked in red dye, leaving only a white fringe on the bottom. They were then shown to the public. Both facial tattoos and red loincloth marked the girls' transition from young and non-sexually active adolescents (momorobi or ififi) to sexually active and marriageable girls (momorobi susuki). According to Barker and Tietjen (1990:224), the red cloth referred to 'the blood let during the initiation', and to the advent of the girl's (menstrual) blood, and, as such, to the girl's fertility and maturity. The connection between red dye and female blood, or rather, women's reproductive capacities, also becomes apparent in the belief that a foetus is created out of a mixture of female blood (taa) and male substances: semen (voto). Both are essential for the conception of a child. So, while the ancestral clan designs depicted on tapa cloth can be seen as representing the male part in the conception of clan tapa, the red dye refers to the female blood that is necessary to complete it, and make the design (and cloth) alive. Through the designing and painting process, a woman thus gives birth to an entity of cloth, thereby reproducing the patrilineal clan and its ancestral origins. This symbolic production of new life connects the ability to design and paint tapa with the character of womanhood. Only strong women were believed to be able to handle the paint, referring to initiated, and thus mature and sexually active women.


The previous paragraphs showed us both the collaborative and symbolic relationship between women and barkcloth, and in particular how the making of tapa is intertwined with women's bodies, their mental and physical strength, their reproductive capacities, and their social identity in general. The specific gendered time and space involved in making tapa and learning about tapa, the arduous beating and pounding of tapa, and women's posture while making, drawing, and painting tapa--sitting for hours unsupported with the legs stretched out--are all strongly connected with notions about how Maisin women should physically behave, and their responsibilities. Making tapa thus defines especially the female body, both spatially and physically. As such, the production of tapa can be viewed as a performative act in which identity, and in particular gender identity, is constructed. While Judith Butler (1999) sees performativity as a series of reiterative acts, the making of tapa shows the pervasive materiality, sentience, and cosmology of performativity. The making of tapa not only produces an object that is connected with women's social being, their bodies and their minds (mon), the act also produces Maisin women, who in turn produce and re-enact Maisin culture through the making of tapa. This performativity is embodied, with both cloth and women becoming, and being part of each other's substance.

This entanglement and correspondence are not just physical and material. Considering the intimate relationship between women's reproductive capacities and the red pigment, along with their responsibility of drawing the ancestral patrilineal clan designs, tapa recapitulates people's ontogenesis, the way they are conceived. This is confirmed in myths that mention tapa, revealing how tapa completes (mythical) persons by gendering them, transforming two siblings into a sexually active young man and young woman, who are then able to reproduce themselves. Thus, both the making and wearing of tapa have specific cosmological associations and are related to notions about reproduction, childbirth, and creation, which are important in defining womanhood (see also Schneider 1987:413), patrilineal clan identity, the ancestors, and land claims. Clan tapa, in particular, defines the essentials of patrilineal identity, with its creation and continuation depending upon women; Maisin women are thus responsible for the important symbols of their community. This is striking as this responsibility is often seen as the prerogative of men (Teilhet 1983:47).

Since the gradual commercialisation of tapa from the late 1930s, the development of more significant markets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a resurgence of markets with the arrival of Greenpeace in the 1990s (Barker 2008:63, 192), several changes have occurred in the symbolic meaning of tapa, its production, designs, and format. First of all, the intimate relation between women and the red pigment dun has become weaker and the associated taboos less stringent. One of John Barker's female interlocutors thinks women stopped secluding themselves while using dim sometime around the end of World War II (Barker 2008:115). It is unclear why, but the fact that most men had been away from the villages to work as carriers for the allied forces, and the influx of Western-style clothing that replaced the daily use of koefi and embobi, might be significant. More recent commercialisation efforts brought about changes in production, with men increasingly participating in the tapa-making process and people trying to intensify the production process in general. New tapa designs have been developed, with women and men copying designs from magazines, and new products such as tapa bags and tapa hats being made by both men and women (Barker 2008:192). However, although today a few men draw black designs, the majority still avoid processes involving dun. (8) Moreover, only women have the prerogative of drawing and painting clan designs. As such, the symbolic significance of women reproducing the patrilineal clan by drawing and painting clan designs on barkcloth continues.

Unlike women, Maisin men do not produce things like tapa that embody and express the complementarity between men and women in constituting, personifying, and expressing the patrilineal clan. In fact, what (formal) Maisin exchanges seem to express is men exchanging women's labour in the ongoing cycle of initiating or opening and balancing (marawawe) relationships between groups of people (for example, between the wife-giver's and wife-taker's clans) and redefining relationships between the living and the deceased (Hermkens n.d., 2013). At the same time, these exchanges, along with the undressing and dressing up of the body performed during life-cycle rituals mark the establishment, and during death, the end of an individual's mon-seraman. For example, during mourning rituals, the body of the widow (or widower) is ritually undressed, neglected (hair is not combed and trimmed), isolated from the rest of society, and put under physical strain as the widow has to provide all kinds of work for her in-laws. These actions strip the body from its previous (married) identity, while the subsequent clothing and decoration of the body give it a new social identity. At the same time, this individual transition is part of the life cycle of society itself, in which social relations and relations between the living and the dead established due to birth and marriage need to be resolved and rebalanced again due to death (Hermkens 2013:151-86). In this ritual process, the prestation and wearing of tapa cloth (along with gifts of food and wealth) intensify sociality, and, in the end, redefine it to a state of marawa-wawe (balance, social equilibrium).

As stated earlier, the interplay between Maisin exchanges and the constitution of monseraman seem to be similar to Orokaiva ceremonial exchanges that construct an individual's hamo (Iteanu 1995:139). However, while among the Orokaiva, land, pigs, taro plants, and ornaments are essential components and partners in ritual exchanges (Schwimmer 1973:5, 85-186), among the Maisin, it is women's labour, as materialised in objects such as pandanus mats, clay pots, and tapa, that is an essential component in exchange, along with pigs, taro, and other kinds of food (Hermkens n.d.). This significant role of women's labour or women's objects as mediators in exchange is more reminiscent of Trobriand mortuary exchanges (.sagali) where women's banana leave bundles (doba) reflect the continuing ideological concerns of matriliny and human reproduction in Trobriand society, ensuring intergenerational social stability (Lepani 2012; Weiner 1976). Among Maisin, women's objects like tapa, and women's labour in general, seem to reflect human reproduction in relation to the patrilineal clans, as well as important patrilineal kin and affinal relations.

The performances and exchanges of cloth during ceremonies such as mourning rituals exemplify how clothing and the removal of clothing change the body, integrate and re-socialise it into various social settings, and mediate relations among social actors and among the living and the dead. This interplay between cosmology, identity, and cloth has also been noted for other parts of Oceania (for example Colchester 2003a:9, 2003b; Teilhet 1983; Young and Addo 2007:19). These examples show that cloth is more than a mere symbol that touches the outer skin. The making of and performance with tapa engender people--both in terms of creation and identity--and also embody them. This embodiment is not fixed or closed. Instead, there is an ongoing response between tapa and Maisin people and their identities, revealing 'the strong overlap between personhood and thinghood' (Ingold 2013:94).

The simultaneous engendering of tapa and people (Hermkens 2013) does not imply that the gender identity of both object and subject is fixed. Maureen MacKenzie (1991:158), in her book on stringbags (bilum) and gender in PNG, argues that bilums are androgynous as they are a product of 'multiple authorship', attributable to neither sex alone. In a similar way, one could frame Maisin clan tapa as a combination of male and female forms of knowledge and substances that are gendered into male (koefi) or female (embobi) cloths that correspond with different body techniques. For example, whereas men can walk in shorts with bare chests or swim nude, women always have to hold their skirt close to their body, even if they are among other women. Whether they are bathing, canoeing, working in the garden, making tapa, or sitting, their (tapa) skirts will always cover their private parts and legs. When getting up, they have to make sure their legs and especially their thighs are not visible. When leaving a group of people, they cannot tower over men and walk over their legs. This is considered disrespectful, but also dangerous, as touching a man with one's embobi (whether made of tapa or cotton cloth) might make him weak and even sick. In the past, it was believed that a man would not be able to outrun enemy spears after having been in contact with women's skirts. So, like male substances that spoil the red dye, female substances are regarded as 'matter out of place' (Douglas 2004). These need to be controlled and contained by tapa cloth, while at the same time, these substances saturate the cloth, as it were, with female sexuality.

The significance of tapa is, however, not that it is gendered, but that it engenders people's identity through its manufacture and use in a profoundly tangible and spiritually physical sense--of substance and ancestral presence. It is in particular performativity--the performance of making tapa, the performances of the clothed body, as well as the performance of exchanges, rituals, and feasts--that activate and expand changes in sight, physiology, and status, resulting in new or enhanced forms of presence and identity.


The distinction between people and things is often based on the Western notion that things exist outside the realm of human life, which is, according to Latour (1993:142), false. Likewise, Strathern (1990, 1999) claims that, in PNG, things do not exist outside people's lives. Distinctions exist between persons, but not so much between persons and things (Strathern 1999:181; see also Jolly, this volume). Strathern's line of argument is that objects such as tapa 'do not reify society or culture, they reify capacities contained in person/relations' (Strathern 1999:14). These social relations are made manifest through action, such as rituals and exchanges (Strathern 1999:16). Ingold's phenomenological approach equally shows us how a person impresses herself or himself onto an artefact so that it is effectively part of her/himself.

Maisin women transform themselves (their labour, body, and minds) into tapa cloth, which sustains, represents, and becomes patrilineal clan identity in various transactions and settings. This suggests that (some) things can be considered as personified objects. These objects define personhood because they are separate from the self, as in the case of the desirable hunted heads (and names) among the Marind (Breton 2002:124), or, as described here, because they are inseparable and intertwined with particular human bodies and the relationships that sustain them. Like persons, Maisin tapa is composed of gendered and ancestral substances and when applied or removed from the body, the tapa effectively conveys or embodies and re-embodies new social identities. In Mark Mosko's (2010) model of partible personhood, which he deems characteristic of Melanesia, persons detach an appropriate part of themselves when they engage in exchange (giving items of food, wealth, knowledge, etc. that are part of the giver) so that these will be effective in drawing forth a desired (sisters in marriage, a valuable, labour etc.) part of another person (Mosko 2010:218-19). However, rather than seeing exchanges and rituals with tapa cloth as detachments of persons or part of persons, I concur with James Weiner that these are 'processes in the embodiment and reembodiment of persons and other social actors' and the relationships which objects like tapa mediate (Weiner 1995:xviii). Identity or personhood in these contexts is not just relational and dividual (or partible), but foremost a process of becoming embodied, of becoming a person, which is always in flux and never complete.

Thus, Maisin people are tapa and tapa is people, but the inalienable gift has become a marketable commodity and now tapa is worth money, too. This would suggest a crisis in contemporary Maisin personhood, as the inalienable personified tapa has become a profitable alienable commodity that seems to have no correspondence with the woman who made it and her patrilineal identity and kin that sustained her. However, Maisin, like other people in Oceania portrayed in this volume, employ various strategies to deal with this (mainly anthropological) conundrum. First of all, by refusing to sell the copyright of their tapa designs to outsiders (like the outdoor company Patagonia), Maisin still feel they 'own' these designs and their cultural connotations, despite the fact that individual pieces of tapa are sold. At the same time, like many of the cases described in this volume, Maisin people re-establish local dividuality and diminish the emergence of profit-orientated individuals by bestowing tapa with (almost mythical) agency and power. In fact, while Kopytoff (1986:65, 75-6) argues that the process of commodification turns objects into 'slaves', Maisin people believe that although the tapa trees and the designs are theirs, 'tapa as a commodity' is outside their control.

As one young Maisin man argued, 'tapa itself communicates with potential buyers'. By saying this, he advanced his hope that tapa would create its own market, by enslaving or seducing others to buy. This is symptomatic of the way Maisin in general deal with the commercialisation of tapa; they wait until people come forward to buy it. Maisin believe buyers (and/or anthropologists) come because they are attracted to the tapa by the tapa itself, not because of merchandise strategies, which are, at the moment, non-existent among Maisin. This resonates with local beliefs in (love) magic (see also Lepani, this volume), which enables persons who use it to draw success and attention towards themselves. The recurring failure in getting tapa marketed in Port Moresby or abroad, and in cases where tapa is sold, the consistent failures of especially local men to bring back tapa revenues to the villages (see also Barker and Hermkens nd), are all part of the general conviction that although tapa continues to seduce Maisin to dream of wealth, they are unable to tap into tapa's promised prosperity. This loss of wealth is a recurrent theme all over Melanesia, where wealth objects are often lost and need to be re-sought (Weiner 1995; see also Rousseau, this volume). Following Alfred Gell (1998), one can conclude that objects like tapa are not only personified objects in that they share similar substances with people, but that they can 'act' like people, and sometimes, as exemplified by the objects described by Weiner (1995), elude people's control. Having their own agenda, Weiner's mythical string bag, drum, flute, and bullroarer refuse to complete the missing parts of persons, which they are destined to do, or they incorporate the whole person instead of being reincorporated themselves into persons (Weiner 1995:xv). As a commodity, Maisin tapa similarly eludes people's control and instead of bringing them the desired thing in return (in this case, individual or clan prosperity), it continuously reinforces their ethnic identity, effectively incorporating the whole Maisin tribe.

Returning to the statement: 'Maisin is tapa!', this performative speech act depends on a densely woven web of social relations and things that themselves render it intelligible and believable. The clause 'Maisin is tapa' gains significance through the social and cultural contexts of making, sensing, embodying, performing, and using and selling cloth. However, at the same time that cloth and people are part of each other's substance, there is also an element of individual authorship and group identity, expressed and re-produced in the recognisable form of the designs. The individual and dividual person is therefore co-present in tapa, and in people. In other words indeed. Maisin, in all their singularity and diversity, is tapa.

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5070


The field and archival research (2001-2002, 2004) on which this paper is based was part of a research project financed by a Science of Global Development (WOTRO) grant from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) at the Institute for Gender Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The paper was written with financial support from the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship awarded to Professor Margaret Jolly for the project Engendering Persons, Transforming Things: Christianities, Commodities and Individualism in Oceania (FL100100196), 2010-2015. I thank the reviewers and my fellow co-editors for their constructive comments.


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Anna-Karina Hermkens

Australian National University


(1.) Maisin people reside between the well-known Massim people of Milne Bay and Trobriand Islands, and the Orokaiva people of Oro Province (see Williams 1930). The 36 Maisin clans live in 10 villages scattered along the coast of Collingwood Bay in PNG's Oro Province. Especially in the southern Maisin villages, one can find Massim women married into Maisin clans. The Trobriand Islands can be seen from the shore on clear days. Fieldwork took place from 2001 to 2002, and in 2004.

(2.) Unlike other congregations in PNG, the Anglican missionaries stationed in Collingwood Bay did not much interfere with local dressing habits, and some actually lamented the replacement of tapa loincloth by Western-style clothing. Margaret Jolly shows how such transformations in indigenous cloth were frequently linked to missionary practices, with 'novel textile traditions being appropriated in waves of Christian conversion, variously replicating, replacing, supplementing and synthesising with indigenous cloth' (Jolly 2008:1).

(3.) These are comparable with connections between tapa and women's identity and life stage present in Lake Sentani and the Humboldt Bay in West Papua, Indonesia (Hermkens 2007b).

(4.) If the bark is left too long, it will dry out and consequently has to be soaked several hours before beating it.

(5.) Only members of high-ranking (Kawo) clans can beat during the night, while in case of deaths the beating of tapa in the village is prohibited.

(6.) Mon-seraman is mainly used to describe or denote a person's social and technical abilities, but the term also refers to the different amount of knowledge possessed by elder and younger people and the difference in knowledge possessed by men and women.

(7.) Taa means blood, and burn is another word for mu, which means red or ripe. Today, the manufacturing of the red dye may be performed in public and children are allowed to sit with their mothers when applying it on the tapa cloth. But while some men have started to design tapa, making and applying the dye are still a woman's task.

(8.) In addition, most men avoid doing the hard work of beating the bark into tapa cloth.

Anna-Karina Hermkens is a cultural anthropologist working at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, Canberra. She has been doing research in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands, focusing on material culture, gender issues, and the interplay between religion, conflict, and peace-building. She is co-editor of Moved by Mary: The Power of Pilgrimage in the Modern World (Ashgate, 2009) and author of Engendering Objects. Dynamics of Barkcloth and Gender among the Maisin of Papua New Guinea (Sidestone Press, 2013).
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