Woven textiles and gendered identities within a cosmopolitan Micronesia (1820s-1920s)
Helen Alderson (University of Cambridge)
Paper short abstract:
From the 1820s, women in Kosrae and Pohnpei, Micronesia, met globalising forces. Women's artisan identities ranged from traditional knowledge holders to innovative capitalists. This paper considers Gell and Strathern's ideas on agency, art, and gender alongside this turbulent historical moment.
Paper long abstract:
At the start of the 19th century, various Micronesian societies used textiles to demarcate people's occupations, statuses and genders. On the islands Kosrae and Pohnpei, women wove such textiles using backstrap looms. Through their weaving, women also materialised their own artisan identities, which are this paper's foci. From the 1820s onwards, Pohnpeian and Kosraean women interacted with myriad foreigners. Often, outsiders were captivated by the women's textiles, and collected keepsakes. Consequently, Kosraean and Pohnpeian textiles are now curated in museums worldwide. In this paper, I present a design analysis of over 400 of these textiles in order to examine how Pohnpeian and Kosraean women maintained and developed their artisan identities in an increasingly cosmopolitan and globalising world (1820s-1920s). I illustrate that women maintained their collective identities as traditional knowledge holders, by tracing the conservative styles of conventional textiles. However, I also demonstrate how women developed new identities as individualistic capitalist traders, by examining the designs that women used to create innovative textiles for the curio market. Gell's "Art and Agency" and Strathern's "The Gender of the Gift" have been pivotal to the theoretical underpinnings of this study. In particular, the paper considers how women navigated communal, dividual and individual artisan identities during social upheaval. It also considers how women used geometric designs to display complex and contradictory relationships in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.