The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 512-516
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Kula: Myth and Magic in the Trobriand Islands, by Jutta Malnic, with John Kasaipwalova. Wahroonga, NSW: Cowrie Books, 1998. Distributed by University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN0-646-34617-2; 222 pages, glossary, map, figures, photographs, bibliography, index, appendix. US$49.00.
Kula: Ring of Power. 51 minutes, NTSC, 2000. Written by Rob Scott Mitchell, Jutta Malnic, and Richard Dennisen. Directed and edited by Michael Balson. Produced by National Geographic Explorer USA, ZDF Germany, Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, and Sky Visuals. Distributed by University of Hawai'i Press for Cowrie Books. ISBN 0-8248-2313-3. US$30.00.
For almost a century, the Kula exchange system of southeastern Papua New Guinea has been a classic subject of anthropological enquiry. Most of the literature on this complex and ever-adapting subject has been written by researchers who have worked in the Southern Massim. The island of Kiriwina in the Trobriands, prominent since Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), is the ethnographic center of both book and film.
These two publications can be seen [End Page 512] as a postmortem homage to Chief Nalubutau, whose knowledge and mortuary feast feature in the book, and whose last Kula competition (uvalaku) forms the plot of the film. Both book and film are an interesting contribution to the vast literature on Kiriwina, easy to consume but in some parts challenging to understand. A lengthy glossary, an index of names and places, and an additional bibliography (though not referred to in the text) link the book with anthropologists' works. Both book and film provide the reader with beautiful images of Milne Bay Islanders, shell valuables, and Massim scenery.
When Malinowski, in his work on the Trobriand Islands, attempted to "grasp the natives' point of view," the "natives'" voices were hardly audible in anthropological literature. Eighty years later, a Trobriand Islander, John Kasaipwalova, ventures to explain the underlying symbolism and deeper meaning of Kiriwinan Kula from his point of view. He is assisted by the Swiss-Australian photographer Jutta Malnic and a film team that captures Kula moments. In the book, Kasaipwalova explains the fundamental epistemology of a branch of mwasila (Kula-magic) formulae to Malnic, who has been visiting the Trobriand Islands for twelve years. The resulting text is both informative and confusing.
First, it bespeaks a New-Age approach to life rather more than anything that has been previously published on the Kula. For example, Kasaipwalova believes that the shell valuables that circulate in the Massim, mwali and soulava, are subordinate to the general idea of growth and growing; the quality of experience within the act of "letting go" of a gift matters far more than the actual shell valuable (37): "A Kula experience is like having a new child" (59). The Kula, according to Kasaipwalova, is not about the exchange of valuables but rather an exercise in, as well as an expression of, fundamental ethics, practices, and interactions called "monikikini." This term encompasses five "principles of excellence" (22-29). These are, in brief: "precision planning and approach" (22), symbolized by the Sea Eagle and the eye; quiet persuasion and emotions, symbolized by the Turtle Dove and the ear; clarity of the point one makes, and awareness of the power of color, symbolized by the Rainbow Lorikeet and the mouth; sensuality, awareness, and perception through the skin, symbolized by the Grasshopper and the sensation of touch; and awareness of beauty, allure, and scent, symbolized by a sweetly perfumed flower and the nose. The center of the spiral is called "gum" (essence), and stands for "spiral thinking," or the "presence of the past," which is the backbone of any Kiriwinian magic, as Kasaipwalova explains (142-144). These principles can also be visualized as a spiral on a tiny mollusc (23).
To be a Kula master, like Kasaipwalova's maternal uncle, the late Chief Nalubutau, involves mastering these principles as well as practicing the unity of the universe by meditating on one's intimate connection to the environment. Kula masters can employ...