Alice Hunai / Vanuatu/Australia b.1951 / Bwana (Money mat) 2000 / Woven pandanus / 320 x 115cm (with fringe) / Commissioned 2001 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Alice Hunai


Not Currently on Display

Bwana (Money mat) by Alice Hunai is a 3.2-metre-long, finely woven pandanus mat. The name refers to the mat’s traditional role as valuable currency in Vanuatu — mats are often used as offerings in marriage or trade. Families in Vanuatu store these mats in custom-made pandanus bags over their kitchen fireplace; the smoke keeps them dry in humid conditions and seasons them so they last for many years. They are removed briefly to be used for ritual, but they may also be used as offerings in disputes and matters requiring resolution.

The work is based on traditional designs from Pentecost Island but Hunai’s weaving technique brings an individual touch. Each weaver brings something personal to their work and Hunai has perfected her own very fine approach to the weave. She has also adopted particular traditional patterns which have developed into a more personal symbolic language. This work features a diamond-shaped symbol of the fish, devised by the artist, to represent cycles of life and peace.

Alice Hunai was born in Lavushi (Pentecost Island, Vanuatu) in 1951 but she now lives in north Queensland. From a very young age, she was taught to weave by her mother and grandmother.

Hunai makes baskets, hats and other small objects for sale at various markets. Her large-scale mats take between three and six months to complete and require large volumes of material that is prepared and sent to the artist by her mother in Vanuatu, as the local variety of pandanus in Townsville is too dry for Hunai’s extremely fine technique.

Discussion Questions

1. Think of the different mats you have seen in different contexts; for example, in your house, in a hardware store, or in a gallery or museum. How do these compare to Bwana (Money mat) 2000?

2. Discuss items used as forms of currency today and in the past. In what ways could this work be regarded as valuable? Consider the labour involved in making, the relationship with the environment, or the significance of pattern in terms of clans and/or status.

3. Consider the size of this artwork and imagine how it would be displayed in your home.

Classroom Activities

1. Hunai’s weaving technique is extremely fine and intricate. How does the delicacy of her technique influence how viewers might interpret her work?

2. Research the process of harvesting, preparing and weaving pandanus fibres.