Monday, 15 May 2017

Learning to make armour from coconut - a tradition from Kiribati

On the 3rd April I was invited to Cambridge to attend a workshop on Coconut fibre armour from Kiribati. The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) is currently displaying the exhibition ‘The Island Warrior’ one of the many outcomes of the Pacific Presences research project. The coconut fibre armour from Kiribati has always held a fascination with me and the weapons that accompany it. I am inspired by the use of local materials, coconut fibre, shark’s teeth, ray skin and porcupine fish skin to make these fearsome objects. I think that the armour and weaponry of Kiribati epitomises the resourcefulness of an island nation. The Republic of Kiribati consists of thirty-three coral atolls isolated in the Pacific Ocean. The coconut fibre armour is unique to Kiribati and the Pitt Rivers Museum has the second largest collection of this armour in the UK after the British Museum. The armour consists of many component parts the most significant being the cuirass, which covers the torso, tunics, dungarees, trousers, forearm guards, waistbands and helmets. Today, the armoured warrior is a symbol of power and strength which appears on t-shirts and sarongs in Kiribati.

The ‘Island Warrior’ is exhibited in two show cases. One case displays the historic suit of armour from MAA’s collections and the other displays a contemporary suit made by artists Lizzy Leckie, Kaetaeta Watson and Chris Charteris. Also inspired by the use of local resources, Lizzy, Chris and Kaetaeta experimented with materials readily available to them from their home in New Zealand. They made the cuirass from twisted polyethylene twine used for fishing trawl nets. This material was successful after having discovered that the knotting technique used to make the original armour was indeed a similar technique used in making fishing nets. The overalls were made from sisal bailing twine. Other man made materials were used for the construction of the armour due to their availability, firmness and strength. As part of the workshop I was able to have a go at plying coconut fibre and the knotting and weaving techniques employed by the artists to make the contemporary suit. This opportunity gave me an insight into the specialist skills required, the time, effort and teamwork necessary to make a complete suit. I wasn’t very good at it and in attempting the weaving appreciated the whalebone needles Chris had made especially for the process, metal needles were extremely unforgiving on the hands! feel that the interdisciplinary approach embraced by the exhibition made me really examine the object and should be an approach adopted more often. The conservation element reminded me of the approach we recently applied at the PRM to reinterpret the Tahitian mourners costume from Captain Cook’s voyages now on display in the Cook case on the Lower Gallery. I was lucky enough the be able to stay for the exhibition opening where we were treated to Kiribati dancing from members of Kiribati community members living in the UK and working with the British Museum as part of their ‘object journeys’ project. We have on display in the Upper Gallery of the Museum a suit of coconut fibre Kiribati armour, do go and have a look when you are next visiting the Museum.

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator