Plates: Gender, Person and Modernity in the Lower Sepik
(University of Minnesota)
Paper short abstract:
Both Gell and Strathern have helped us to theorize the dividual or distributed person in Papua New Guinea and Pacific cultures. But neither of their frameworks incorporates history. This paper works on this gap in their useful project in a Lower Sepik case study that focuses on dishware.
Paper long abstract:
Both Gell and Strathern have helped us immeasurably to theorize the dividual or distributed person in the material cultures of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. But neither of their conceptual frameworks incorporates history. Neither incorporates the contrapuntal problematics of the violence and racism but also the Western forms of biosocial identity offered by modernity's colonial and postcolonial avatars. This paper seeks to work on this gap in their useful project in a Lower Sepik case study whose focus shall be on dishes. In the pre-modern past, Murik girls received wooden plates from their classificatory fathers' sisters when they were initiated into the Female Cult. These plates were adorned with totemic imagery with which their ritual identities were associated. Motifs such as the moon, the stars, turtles and spiders, among many others, appear on the underside of the plates. These plates were then used in daily and ritual meals of seafoods and sago pudding or pancakes that women prepared and served to kin in domestic and cult houses respectively. Today, Murik women go on with their daily cooking chores for the same two social venues, domestic and ritual. Murik cuisine has altered but little except to the extent that rice is now frequently substituted for sago puddings. Their enchanted dishware has been replaced by store-bought bowls and plates made of porcelain, plastic and metal and it may be supposed that this substitution has had consequence on the material shape of their modern femininity.
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.