Hot property: the historical agency of things
Location J
Date and Time 9th December, 2008 at 13:30


Jeffrey Sissons (Victoria University, Wellington)
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Short Abstract

Presenters in this panel are invited to consider ways in which material culture has participated in social transformation, particularly radical transformation in colonial and post-colonial contexts.

Long Abstract

Presenters in this panel are invited to consider ways in which material culture has participated in social transformation, particularly radical transformation. Focussing on colonial and post-colonial contexts, participants are invited to consider ways in which social change has been (or is being) initiated, organised and pursued in, through and around forms of material culture. Influenced by Gell's phenomenological approach, especially in Art and Agency, recent anthropological work has taken seriously the notion that objects might have agency in an abstract sense. However, participants in this panel are encouraged to consider instead the historical agency of things - the ways in which things have re-materialised social relations and fields. Colonial re-materializations of society have entailed: the participation of clothing, houses and churches in Christianization; the participation of muskets, alcohol and commodities in transformations of hierarchy and gender; the participation of art objects in post-colonial indigeneity. Material culture has assumed historical agency not only in relation to the social conditions of its production, consumption and distribution but also through its destruction. Papers on colonial iconoclasm - the creative destruction of material culture - are therefore also encouraged.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


He tikanga hurihuri: Maori communities and their churches 1830-1860

Author: Ngarino Ellis (University of Auckland)

Short Abstract

This paper examines the evolution of chapels and later churches in Maori communities from the 1830s. Focusing on the Ngati Porou tribal region, this talk will examine the way in which tradition was negotiated by communities in the creation of new architectural structures.


Whilst Christianity was led officially by English missionaries, on the ground it was the Native Teachers, in conjunction with local leaders, who promoted the faith and its reception. In addition, in some areas it was evangelists from the local community were critical in the dissemination of Christianity. The creation of chapels and churches was a visible statement of their power and the ways in which they were able to negotiate between different leaders in the community.

Within Ngati Porou, it was Taumata a Kura and Rukuata who effectively spread the Word along the East Coast, but specifically in the Waiapu region. Between them they encouraged the building and decoration of a chapel in every community, appropriating the chapels they had seen in the Bay of Islands for their own religious and cultural needs.

This paper examines this phenomena, and its legacy, St Marys Church, built in 1926 in Tikitiki.

Samoan houses and their agency

Author: Micah Van der Ryn (University of Auckland)

Short Abstract

This paper illuminates how agency is constructed in Samoan guesthouses, how these buildings signify Samoan descent groups and their dynamics, how architectural features participate in social interaction, and the active role this material culture is playing within contemporary processes of Samoan cultural continuity and change.


This paper views Samoan cultural continuity and change during the colonial and post-colonial period through the lens of Samoan guesthouses (faletele or faletalimalo). These structures are “hot property” signifying Samoan chieftain titles, their associated descent groups, socio-political relationships, and Samoan values of community, hospitality and openness. The paper examines how these structures become vested with agency to achieve social goals, both during their construction, and later in their use. The perpetuation of Samoan descent groups through the succession of matai titles is matched materially by the reconstruction of guesthouses. However, as Samoan society has become increasingly transnationalized, guesthouse design and materials have also been affected. This paper uses examples from case studies to highlight these connections. Guesthouses are further seen as an important nexus where Samoan architectural traditions are innovatively continued and adapted, and where Samoans learn, experience and reflect upon their own traditions and cultural distinctiveness.

Three Iconoclastic Episodes:Rematerialising Eastern Polynesia

Author: Jeffrey Sissons (Victoria University, Wellington)

Short Abstract

This paper explores the ways in which the destruction of material culture that coincided with the introduction of Christianity into Eastern Polynesia participated in a reorganisation of society.


The key question addressed in this paper is: how are we to understand the massive destruction of religious images that preceded the introduction of Christianity into eastern Polynesia? This Polynesian Iconoclasm began in Tahiti in 1815 where the Chief, Pomare, initiated the public destruction of all marae and 'idols', replacing these with 67 churches within a year. The majority of the islands of what is now French Polynesia (but with the notable exception of the Marquesas) followed suit soon after. When Hawaiian leaders learned of these events they were encouraged to initiate the destruction, in 1819, of their images and heiau (temples) - this before any missionary had set foot in Hawai'i. Iconoclasms followed in the Cook Islands (1821-1827) and Mangareva (1835). Taken together these destructive episodes during the twenty-year period between 1815 and 1835 radically transformed eastern Polynesia. This paper will explore, in a preliminary way, the nature of this transformation.

Tivaivai and the Rematerialising of 'Value': Colonialism, Social Change and The Contemporary Ceremonial Economy

Author: Jane Horan (University of Auckland)

Short Abstract

Colonisation in the Cook Islands in the late 1800s effectively rematerialised - literally and figuratively - the system of value. Quilts known as tivaivai became the textile of ceremony, and were wholly made from Western techniques and technologies. The complexities of this change have significant resonance in the contemporary environment.


When the Cook Islands were colonised in the late 1800s, so too was the textile system which was based on woven mats and tapa cloth as the elite textiles of ceremony and the gift. This change is seemingly indicative of the 'extent' of colonisation that took place in the Cooks. After the arrival of the Europeans, this hierarchy of textiles was replaced with one relying solely on Western techniques and technologies to produce the fabric unquilted quilts known as tivaivai. Effectively, colonisation in the Cooks re-materialised - literally and figuratively - the system of value. The challenge is how to analytically frame this, because how this change is viewed/analysed is critical to understanding what is happening in the contemporary environment. The inherent 'Cook Islandness' of the tivaivai made and used by women in South Auckland currently belies the Western derived progeniture of the would-be quilts and has a great deal more to do with dynamic innovation rather than colonial subjugation. This paper looks at the framing of social change via the power of the materiality focus and the agency of tivaivai. It addresses the literature on social change and references the extent of the ceremonial economy that tivaivai operates in between South Auckland, the Cooks and other nexus of Cook Islander populations around the Pacific, and the particular version of Cook Islander prosperity that this economy affords for the participants.

Concrete effects: the expected and unexpected agency of religious architecture

Author: Sally McAra (University of Auckland)

Short Abstract

This paper analyses a large Buddhist stupa currently under construction in Australia as a "contact zone" (Pratt 1992), a site of transcultural contact and transformation. I consider the ways in which this object has the potential to re-materialise certain social relations in the region.


This paper investigates how a particular item of monumental material culture exerts spiritual and social agency in a cross-cultural setting. My subject is a 43.2-metre high Tibetan Buddhist stupa (a monumental reliquary that in this case also serves as a temple) being built near Bendigo in southern Australia. Considering the stupa site as a kind of transcultural "contact zone" (Pratt 1992), I analyse some of the social processes and dynamics involved in the planning and early construction phase. While the stupa's makers aspire to effect radical spiritual transformation upon "all sentient beings," the literally concrete structure also has unanticipated consequences in the mundane world. Exploring the limitations of theories about of the social agency of things (e.g., Gell 1998) with regard to cross-cultural situations, I argue that while this concrete religious monument could effect changes in Australian multiculturalism, its presence could also reinforce power relations that need challenging (cf Hage 1998).

Baptism of Fire

Author: Kristina Everett (Macquarie University)

Short Abstract

This paper describes the tactical use of 'things' (de Certeau) when they are employed in the 'new' religious practices of a group of urban Aboriginal people.


Christianity and its material symbols and manifestations including churches and cemeteries have been subjected to radical transformations through the resistant and accommodating practices of those to which it was originally 'applied' as many authors including Comaroff and Comaroff (1991) in Africa, Hill (1988) in South America and Bird Rose (1994) in Australia report. It has, in short, been an important agent in transforming colonised subjects and has been itself transformed through the agency of its 'converts'.

This paper concerns the transmutation of Catholicism through the action of urban Australian Indigenous Catholics, but the action I describe involves particular uses and meanings ascribed to objects. I describe the practices of people who perform baptisms in the confines of a Catholic church which incorporate rituals connected to an Aboriginal cult. The church provides a space for urban Aboriginal people to make things mean something different to how they are understood by the wider Australian society. A key feature of the ceremony for example, is a site smoking in which a reclaimed 1960s aluminium barbeque is used to contain the fire which provides the smoke which cleanses the church of its evil spirits.

My paper describes the 'new' religious practices of a group of people who claim to 'be' Catholics whilst simultaneously claiming to 'have' Dreaming.

Artefacts, Artefacts, collectors and the definition of a 'region' in the tropics of North Queensland

Authors: Maureen Fuary (James Cook University)
Rosita Henry (James Cook University)

Short Abstract

This paper outlines some of the ways the collection and loss of artefacts from North Queensland has contributed to successive regionalisations of the area's indigenous cultures.


This paper outlines some of the ways early artefact collecting contributed to the definition of the region around Cairns now known and marketed as the 'World Heritage Wet Tropics'. Reviewing the collecting activities of Hermann Klaatsch, Walter Roth and Norman Tindale the paper outlines how various factors, including their interpretive frameworks and market demands, contributed to the kinds of 'representative' collections they made. The paper shows how variations in our three collectors' definitions of the typicality and uniqueness of their collections involved changing understandings of the wider 'region'. We argue that these understandings of region, and the now widely dispersed artefacts, maintain a lively, albeit transformed, presence in current debates about Aboriginal regional culture, linking assertions of rights to lost and stolen cultural property with notions of large scale environmental management within the 'Wet Tropics'.

Pastel memories: the Carrolup collection and contemporary Nyungar identity in South-West Western Australia

Author: John Stanton (University of Western Australia)

Short Abstract

Contemporary expressions of Nyungar (South-West Australian) identity focus o the production of landscape art inspired by museum collections.


The existence of a historical museum collection from the late 1940s of Aboriginal children's pastel drawings has influenced since their re-exhibition in 2005 the production of Nyungar art in the South-West of Western Australia. This is a region not previously known for its art production. Why have these creative expressions emerged, and how have they been influenced by the role of the participants? These range from internationally based collector, a New York university art gallery bequest, across the world to a university anthropology museum in Perth, a South-West Aboriginal art gallery and, most recently, an Aboriginal art exhibition reflecting on the Carrolup school and its significance to Nyungar people today? Given that much of today's cross-cultural expression of Aboriginality is through art, the Carolup school has created an environment within which contemporary manifestations of South-West indigeneity can be focussed.