This book is not about the art of kula, the collecting and exchanging of shell jewellery, it is about the art of masawa , the single-outrigger canoes used exclusively for shell-trading voyages; even more specifically, it is about the art of carving and painting the twin wooden panels adorning the prow and poop of the masawa canoes used on Vakuta island, a stone's throw from Kiriwina, in the Trobriand Islands, made famous by Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnological studies in the early 1920s. As such, it is a fascinating account that makes you want to reach for chisel and mallet and try your hand at reproducing some of the designs; or grab pencil and paper to sketch your own in the native style. For the carving and painting of those panels is explained in such detail as to constitute a tutorial that would delight any modern forger of primitive art. As this occupies more than one-third of the book, and is abundantly illustrated, you are likely to become immersed in the intricacies and the aesthetics of the Vakutan master carvers' craft, quite forgetting about kula .
Curiosity might eventually prod you into starting from page one to learn more about the object of this trade and the primum mobile of this art form. By page 50 you realise that you have in your hands the equivalent of a book on the art of stamp collecting, with everything about stamp albums, the ethics and social life of stamp collectors and their families, the metaphysics of stamp collecting, but nothing about the stamps themselves. Well, almost nothing. There is one small black-and-white photograph of a Vakutan man bedecked in an armband and a sickle-shaped necklace, another one of barely distinguishable armbands displayed on a mat, a third, in colour, of scores of armbands strung along the hull of a masawa in the distance. That is all. If armbands are so plentiful, would it be too much to ask for a close-up of one? What about necklaces? None. Frustrating.
In good time you reach the penultimate chapter where you learn that "the newly created canoe rests on the beach, a transitional space between land and sea". Shirley Campbell sees a deep significance there: "Land is predominantly associated with women and their regenerative agency, the sea." Elsewhere, she makes much of the fact that trees are static, rooted in the ground, whereas canoes, made of trees, are mobile, sailing the sea.
Early in the introduction she acknowledges the influence of Roland Barthes, and this is indeed the sort of analysis to be expected from that school of thought. A cynic would ask where, pray, should one keep a canoe between trips? On a mountain top? What should it be carved from if not a tree? A static rock or a mobile crocodile?
The final chapter opens with the convoluted "insight" of one of Campbell's informants into why the front ends of canoes are like men and the back ends like women. She candidly notes that "these characterisations were given by only one Vakutan man". Yet, it does not occur to her that she may have been taken in by a tall-tale artist, and the fellow's insight becomes a catalyst for her to elaborate semiotico-psychoanalytical mountains out of factual molehills, such as canoes being made of trees and parked on beaches.
As a description of the craft of the Vakutan carvers, based on fieldwork already almost 30 years old (1976-77), this book is deeply interesting and, I should think, important. The rest should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Better make that an ounce.
Jacques B. M. Guy holds a PhD in Austronesian linguistics from the Australian National University.
The Art of Kula
Author - Shirley F. Campbell
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 241
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 85973 513 4 and 518 5