The Power of Art Exchange and the Art of Power Exchange in KULA
Phillip O’Sullivan Art History Pacific Art 2010

As a European New Zealander one first hears of the Kula gift exchange system described almost pejoratively as ‘shell money’. Early impressions are often known to be invalid, so one wonders, - sometimes for a long time. Pictures from the London school of Economics expedition of 1930 deploy the view that occasionally cropped up in the business and financial literature that I read, of a type of shell based ‘currency’- traded in an inter-island 'economy', this would be the magazines business emphasis uppermost. Other business magazines like Time magazine or websites like Bloomberg.com could not be expected to go into much artistic or anthropological depth. This gave the intriguing impression there must be more to it than an early impression suggests. Plainly, there was a ‘primitive’ raw notion of economics, different from all commonly known political economies, somehow alive elsewhere in the modern world. So it was to be for me for 30 years or more, until this writing. This essay explores the richer aspects of the Kula system as an artistically wrought, shell gift and prestige exchange way of life, very much alive, and pro-actively responding to the post-modern world of today.
A Britannica article of 1974 also thirty years ago, still reproduced unchanged in 2007 for further evidence of this view above conveys the idea of a
fixed set of partners working within the constraints of permanent Kula protocols. This is far from the case. A closer examination of the Bronislaw Malinowski material from his 1922 book ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’ reveals otherwise. Entry into the Kula exchange protocols is more than relatively open and several other barter-like wasi and casual exchange systems co-exist alongside with it. Kula also extends far further afield geographically today, than in 1922- or 1974, for that matter.
Kula has contemporary parallels with our money market exchange operations and modern financial systems, as well as parallels with the modern art market. One can talk up the art markets and influence investment decisions by words, prestige or artful presentation, timing or acts. So, again can things be talked-up in Kula, in fact that communal dialogue is a large part of it. As always in life, so as in Kula, the way you do something is just as important, or more important than
that you do it. This is the kind of deeper life message that Kula mastery teaches. Discussion, even boasting, is part of Kula, as it is in any part of the art world. It is not just about valuable artworks (collectively known as vaygu’a), tribal creation, or advancing oneself through crude numeric gift giving: its cultural wealth is an expression of true chiefly concern for the overall wellbeing of the Massim group, clan or tribe. The Massim are the largest tribal group in lower Papua New Guinea and in the Trobriand Islands group.
Advance in the modern tribal art world too is related to ones regularly turning up at openings, buying art, bidding for art or creating it. Status reserves a place for those able to do all this with grace toward all. Kula reflects the complexities inherent in all gift and social exchange situations. Being so different and apparently isolated and self contained, in itself, yet many parallel cultural networks appear to be embodied within it. Thus the fascination, those engaged in massively larger systems, find in examining an equally complex, yet apparently self-contained exchange world. All of life seems to finds its metaphor in the rich, elaborate, many-layered Kula system. Kula even has a quasi- religious dimension in the myths it tells, the stories also and in the use of magic forces or telepathy within Kula to call forth desired objects or
vaygu’a.
Telepathy is a kind of focussed envisioning known to work in contemporary settings by goal focussed business people. Winning ‘the mental game’ or the using of mind power or focussed thoughts is a frequently recommended technique in positive thinking business literature today. Kula then in these regards could be said to be an early form of MLM (Multi-level-marketing) training or even as a historically early pasifika MBA course. Aspects of early Kula, some artefacts within it, are said to be 500 years old. Business is certainly an integral part today of Kula Activities
Kula certainly encourages a type of Trobriand leadership training, as its strictures, risks and efforts are quite demanding. To be a fully tutored Kula master requires years of teaching and initiation through all its manifold levels until, in turn, a fully tutored master has developed and initiated others also through all levels. One is first taught all as a pupil. For mastery of Kula one must also fully teach all levels to others. Both roles need be completed. This leadership training in Kula is intense in negotiating skills, spells, and power with men and others. These talents are necessary for selecting useful Kula partners. Outwardly Kula exchanges elaborate artworks known as
vaygu’a. These are of two types, soulava or bagi, which are large necklace ornaments strung on pink spondylus shell strings. These necklaces travel clockwise around the Trobriand Kula ring of Islands in the Solomon Sea. The other kind is known as mwali, which are one-piece armbands, made of large shells (Conus millepunctatus) (Malinowski 1922:86). The mwali travel the other direction, anti-clockwise around the Kula ring. Both these items are decorated with other bindings and objects, mainly smaller shells, coloured discs and the like. Each one is unique. The mwali are strung on a rope for handling. When worn on the arms the decorative elements of mwali swing clear behind the upper arm between the elbow and shoulder like small stumpy ‘upper-arm-wings’. They are generally considered too valuable for everyday use or adornment and are almost exclusively reserved for Kula exchanges.

 

The ‘shell money’ then is of two types circulating in two different directions. The original Kula circulates within the Trobriand Islands and hardly at all beyond. The Trobriand Islands are politically part of Papua New Guinea today. New Guinea itself geographically (Including West Irian) is huge- it is around six times the land area of New Zealand. That is the UK, Japan, Ireland, NZ and Norway combined together would approximate its overall size. New Guinea is also geographically remarkable for being the only Tropical Pacific Island possessing mountains so high and cool as to have permanent snow.
Lower East New Guinea is the base for the Massim tribal clans. Massim constitute the majority of the Trobriand Island clans. The main islands in the Milne Bay area of the Solomon Sea are Goodenough, Fergusson and Normanby Islands (D’Entre Casteaux group) in the West Trobriand Islands, Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands in the North and Misima, Sudest and Rossel Islands of the Louisade Archipelago in the East, with several smaller islands like Tubetube in the south close to the Eastern tip of Papua New Guinea. It in these little islands, my Uncle Tom, after Catholic Missionary work in Papua’s Wewak, where he advised and trained in timber milling operations, secured several timber management contracts. Trading in these Islands for prestigious Kula objects and
vaygu’a are journeys lasting up to a year, sometimes more, depending on the weather, and successful progress in obtaining the bagi or mwali sought.

Kiriwina was home to chief Nulabatau who feature prominently in the definitive film on Kula Kula Ring of Power a VHS video from the 1970s. The Kula journeys are undertaken in rope caulked and bound wooden canoes in coloured designs of red, black or white. White is from lime, black from the bladders of squid and red from betel nut juice. The main decoration features a frontal splashboard, often of sexually explicit design, such that scrotum, phallic and vulva designs, hypnotising with contrasting closely repeated graphics and lines, to shock and awe the beach hosts into giving up the best bagi and mwali to their suddenly arrived guests. (illustration 1)These designs assert forcefully the masculinity of the chief and associated canoe crew and are artistically essential for Kula success. Trobriand Island designs generally, on shields for instance, have an explicit phallic/vulva emphasis. (Illustration 2) The tapioca dance is another art form with a heavy Trobriand Island sexual explicitness. The voyage canoes have a distinct Kula name and are housed in a special Kula canoe house on its home island. All of the bravery, stories, adventures, behaviour and demeanour are part of a successful Kula expedition. The negotiations, talk and almost haggling are necessary to claim the best valuables for ones own canoe, as is the earliest possible arrival on the island where desired mwali or bagi are kept. Not that these objects are kept or owned forever in the western sense. They must be handed on; Kula is about exchanging the best items for the best reasons and context, to the best person for the best ongoing prestige of the vaygu’a. It is all about the velocity of provenance acquisition. The fastest acquisition of the best voyager stories, adventure and haggling tales and associated events adds to the overall perception in Kula of an items value. Much as a contemporary artist has greater prestige when an artwork is selected by the best dealer, best curator and for the best collection for the best value and ends up in the most prestigious auctions at the highest prices. The Kula masters have the best canoe crew and the most knowledgeable talk to go with the best mswali magic in acquiring the greater number and quality of Kula vaygu’a.
Inspired by the spiralling arms of shells the Kula stems from a spiralling philosophy. The centre is the gum (pronounced ‘goom’) (Malnic:15) from which spiralling arms fling out to encompass ocean and sky. These are the larger realities for Trobriand islanders. Kula is a challenge to these larger entities enabling the successful Kula voyager to increase his status in the Kula ring of power. Kula thus stretches beyond ocean and sky to encompass imponderable realities like Telepathy, magic: and embody them in objects won as part of that success. Thus the objects become themselves imbued with the powers and stories taken to win them. Unlike the provenance notion in the West however- which is an idea ‘of attribution’ but a concept in the Kula of external events happening around, with or for objects and subsequently becoming inherent in them. Risk is a main factor adding value, both to contemporary art, business markets and in Kula. Yet the risk attaches in different ways. The best partners in any of these fields are the ones prepared to take risks. A point made in Kula Ring of Power by John Rudd. Risks, however, are informed by knowledge of Kula protocols, and must lead to consistent success.
It is that Kula, as a gift exchange system, having adapted to the modern world, a fact as we see in the video
Kula Ring of Power, becomes applicable both as metaphor of the operation of art or trade exchange systems and as a ‘modern’ living economic, cultural and artistic valuing system itself. It is not just some small-scale ‘miniature’ system amenable to ‘study’, it is a player itself: proving the depth of thinking available within it. That it is a Pacific autonomous invention, is a viable and adaptable set of protocols, and does not exhaust itself by examination. Even the analytical ability of one such as Malinowski, who made his reputation – in Kula?- by studying it, suggests there is much more in the whole concept of Pacific exchange systems- not just to ‘study’ them but to live them: with life, truly- as one art school here says- ‘as a work of art’, in its entirety.

The main desire is for Trobriand products such as pigs, yams, betel nut, coffee deals, timber rights, necklaces, armbands, cloth, tobacco and so on. Kula has extended its modern exchange circle as far away as Sydney Australia and in Port Moresby where some pink shell necklace strings are sometimes assembled in manual factory situations. (Malnic 1998) Provenance is a major feature of the art value of the objects in Kula. Canoes have names and histories, as do bagi and mwali. Bronislaw Malinowski makes the point in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) that the famous 'crown jewels' are unwearable, heavy, small and ugly and not very impressive - yet carry much association with history, fame, personality and notoriety, and it is these latter qualities that advance the perceived value apparently inhering in them. Malinowski even calls the crown jewels 'tawdry' to emphasis his point. In a similar way artwork in the Trobriand Islands Kula exchange are ordinary workings of spondylus shell, twine, coloured bindings, attachments, other shells, manual skill and artifice for extraordinary results, beauty, power or craft. Yet acquire most extra value by reputation, attribution, stories, histories, names and the personalities and magic from the people who have fashioned and desired them. All the pieces are difficult to craft, fashion and assemble so Karl Marx’s theory of labour value somewhat applies directly to start the evaluative process in Kula: the difficult-to-craft ones beginning with that to evaluate. They can take months or years to create. Amoung larger Western populations other aspects of provenance quickly add exponential additions of perceived social and cultural value. In Kula magic, history, age and beauty of construction add cultural art value to the more desirable vaygu’a. There are many such evaluative similarities. Kula items are valuable in themselves, yet are also trophies of dangerous voyages undertaken, of lives lived to the fullness of risky endeavours and the power of inherent magic’s; the magic spell of art creation and the religious art-spells of objective desire.

 

 

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(illustration 1)

Canoe Prow and Splashboard. Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Length 23” Musee de L’homme, Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

(Illustration 2) Shield. Massim, Trobriand Islands, Milne Bay Province. Height 28” British Museum London


References

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: Dutton, 1961.
Kula. Chicago: The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Micropedia Vol V, 1974.

Kula Ring of Power. VHS Sydney: Wild Releasing, 1970.

Theroux, Paul. The Happy Isles of Oceania. London: Penguin, 1992.

Belshaw, Cyril S. Traditional Exchange and Modern Markets. New York: Prentice-Hall International, 1965.

D’Alleva. Art of the Pacific. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998.

Thomas, Nicholas. Oceanic Art. London:Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Buhler, Alfred. Barrow, Terry. Mountford, Charles. Oceania and Australia. London: Methuen, 1965.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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