The other day, a curator from Papua New Guinea was telling me about a particular custom of hospitality she grew up with called ‘hamal’. In certain circumstances, if a visitor expresses a liking for something that you possess, you are then obliged to give it to them. Clearly, this is a custom suited more to villages than cities. It’s hard to imagine it happening in an urban context, or is it?
At the end of the Signs of Change exhibition, three lucky winners will have their names drawn to receive a brooch by Melbourne jeweller Vicki Mason. The brooches are modelled on the wattle, rose and oregano plants, beautifully rendered in powder-coated brass (sourced from a scrap yard) and recycled flexible plastics sourced as remnants from the stationary industry. These plants are common features of suburban gardens in Australia, but Mason argues that they represent a common bounty, which she links to the elusive prospect of Australia becoming a republic. As she says:
If Australia is one day to become a republic then a new style of gardening to accompany a new style of governing seems possible. The work for this exhibition has the symbolic potential to promote the social value of gardens as reflecting notions of community, that is the essence of republicanism.
So if you receive this brooch, you also take on a republican vision. But there’s a catch. If someone praises the brooch while you are wearing it, you are obliged to give it to them – as long as they will agree to the same conditions as you. Easy come, easy go. Members of this chain are encouraged to leave comments on a website to record the transaction and reflect on its meaning.
The exhibition still has a couple of weeks to run. Tune in to her website at http://broachingchangeproject.wordpress.com/ to monitor progress. Who knows, you might end up as one of the links in the chain.
Mason’s work is a bold attempt to engage with the relational dimension of jewellery as a precious object that can link people together. Her work resonates back to situation in PNG. The anthropologist Malinowski describes a parallel arrangement called the kula, where villages organise their world around exchange of shell necklaces:
Perhaps as we read the account of these remote customs there may emerge a feeling of solidarity with the endeavours and ambitions of these natives. Perhaps man’s mentality will be revealed to us, and brought near, along some lines which we never have followed before. Perhaps through realising human nature in a shape very distance and foreign to us, we shall have some light shed on our own.
Perhaps the past has a future too.
Bronislaw Malinowski Argonauts of The Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes Of Melanesian New Guinea London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987 (orig. 1922), p. 25