Nidok (initiation) ceremony participants with Diwarra (shell money) and Rumu (ceremonial spears), East New Britain, July 2018 / Photograph: Gideon Kakabin

Gunantuna (Tolai People)
Diwarra (shell money) 2018

On Display: QAG, Gallery 4, Foyer

Comprising nassa shells strung onto elegant pieces of cane, known as fathoms, Diwarra is legal tender throughout East New Britain. It is also used for ceremonial transactions, such as bride price, wealth payments in death rites, and society initiation fees.

These pieces of cane are also formed into wheels, which are sealed with leaves to keep them dry and to declare their role as a bank. The highest in value are the majestic wheels known as Tutana, which are displayed as symbols of wealth and status. In contrast to Western economic systems, Diwarra embodies an important indigenous relationship-based economic system — the accumulation of wealth is both based on and reflects social connections and merit.

Migrating over centuries from nearby New Ireland, the Gunantuna (Tolai people) now live on the volcanic Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain island in Papua New Guinea. Best known for their male-only secret societies, the Gunantuna have a unique dual currency system that combines Papua New Guinea’s national tender (kina and toea) with shell money, known as Tabu or Diwarra.

Gideon Kakabin (1956–2018) was an elder of the Gunantuna (Tolai people). Initiated into Tabuan society, he held ceremonial status within the community and the rights to engage in Tolai ceremony and with material culture. These Tutana banks were created by a group of men, with female support, led by Gideon Kakabin.

Contemporary context

How do the Gunantuna (Tolai people):

  • use materials, technologies or approaches to affect the audience experience?
  • provoke discussion about twenty-first-century issues and concerns?

Personal context

How do the Gunantuna (Tolai people):

  • connect with the viewers’ experiences and/or expectations to construct meaning?

Cultural context

How do the Gunantuna (Tolai people):

  • explore cultural traditions?
  • respond to cultural influences?

Formal context

How do the Gunantuna (Tolai people):

  • employ specific art elements and principles to communicate meaning?
  • communicate intentions using symbols, motifs or signs?
  • enhance the interpretation of the artwork through processes, materials and media?