Tutana-ot (nassa shell wealth ring)
For generations the Tolai people of East New Britain have employed a local monetary system based on the 'tabu' – the shells of a small mollusc – sourced from the Nakanai people on the north coast of New Britain. The whorls of the Nassarius shell are cut away from the lip and then strung on a length of rattan cane to become 'tabu', or 'palaveve' as they are known in villages inland from the coast. Various lengths of cane strung with shells have different values, with the standard unit of measurement being the fathom ('pokono'), the length of two outstretched arms. Wealth among the Tolai is assessed by the amount of 'tabu' accumulated. 'Tabu' are used to acquire goods and exchange valuables during major ceremonies, such as a marriage or funeral.
Large numbers of threaded shells are kept in skeins and are bound into large round coils. In earlier times, only men were permitted to create these large wealth objects. Shell coils containing up to one thousand 'pokono', are known as 'loloi'. However, exceptionally large coils containing one thousand 'pokono' or more are known as 'tutana-ot' or simply 'tutana' in coastal villages, and 'martukum' in inland villages. 'Tutana-ot' are presented at important ritual exchanges and adorn the 'leo', a scaffolding erected specifically for the event. At the conclusion of a mortuary ceremony, lengths of 'tabu' may be unwound from the ring, cut into sections and distributed to the deceased's children and relatives.
As Dr Jacob Simet, former director of Papua New Guinea's National Cultural Commission, wrote in 1991, the expression of cultural values of property ownership, kinship and identity 'can only be made through the ritual presentation of "tabu"'. Furthermore, some shell coils, known as 'tabu na waki' ('tabu' of creation), are very old and have been passed down from one generation to another without distribution .
This 'tutana-ot' was created by the members of the Ephraim ToUraboro family at Tamanairik Village, including female members of the family, as today there are no restrictions on women taking part in the making of 'tutana-ot'. It was originally created for the daughter of Margaret Pitok To-Uraboro and her husband James Kulom, as part of her forthcoming marriage ceremony. James Kulom writes, 'It is important that our grown children have a 'loloi' when they leave us. This is like their important possession. Whatever they use it for in future is their business, but the children know the use'.
 Jacob Simet, 'Tabu: analysis of a Tolai ritual object', PhD, ANU, 1991, p x.
Place where the work was made
nassa shell (Nassarius), cane fibre, bark fibre, nylon fishing line
110.0 cm diam.
Purchased with funds provided by the Mollie and Jim Gowing Bequest Fund 2017
Not on display