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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 193-195

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Unfolding the Moon: Enacting Women's Kastom in Vanuatu, by Lissant Bolton. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8248-2535-7, xxxv + 232 pages, figures, map, photographs, glossary, notes, bibliography, index.US$39.00.

Unfolding the Moon, the title of this book, is taken from a textile design and suggests the poetic resonance of women's agency as it is expressed through kastom practices embedded in the fabrication and exchange of textiles. In this book, women's textiles provide a route to understanding the gendered production of knowledge and women's kastom practices. This beautifully written book has much to say about the relationships between material objects and cultural practices; the articulation of gender and kastom practices; and the inclusionary [End Page 193] and exclusionary practices of kastom and nation building in postcolonial Vanuatu.

Bolton, who is now the curator of the Pacific and Australian Collections at the British Museum, was requested by theVanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC) to initiate theWomen's Culture Project (WCP) inVanuatu in 1991. Together with Jean Tarisesei, whom Bolton trained as a WCP coordinator, she developed theWomen's Kastom Project in Ambae to document and revive the production of textiles (xxvii) as part of the larger project. Kastom, according to Bolton, "does not refer to pre-colonial knowledge and practice as a whole system—as 'culture'—but rather to specific items, aspects, of that knowledge and practice" (51). It is from this important theoretical and unique ethnographic vantage point that Bolton considers the idea of kastom inVanuatu—and how and why women were initially excluded from the arena of kastom. Following independence, Bolton explains, kastom was considered the work of men and national rhetoric about kastom displaced women from its public space. Indigenous and exogenous ideas had converged in the conflation of public domains and male spaces (57). However, in developing the project at the island level, Bolton found considerable interest in the idea that "women had kastom too" (1). The recognition that "women had kastom too" not only linked women to a national context "but significantly altered the status of women in that national context" (155). The Ambae project highlighted the production of gendered knowledge and women's kastom practices at local and national levels.

The book is structured as a textile is woven: in the first section, the book addresses ideas about kastom in Vanuatu (chapters 1-3), while the second section contains an ethnographic account of Ambae textiles (chapters 5-7). Chapter 4, which concerns practices of place, joins the two sections of the book together (xxxiii). Ideas about place, Bolton suggests, are crucial to the formulation of kastom, and the relationship between kastom and place is central to the claim that "women have kastom too." Bolton seeks ways to create space for women's knowledge and practices in exchange rituals as well as in the realm of everyday life. To that end, she makes a case for paying close attention to the often undervalued material objects that women make. "In making presentations of maraha, the most valuable textiles, and qana, the less valuable textiles, the women are not onlymakinga gift in exchange but demonstrating their knowledge, skill and labour "(xiii). Textiles also embody women's commitment to the social relationships in which they are enmeshed. Textiles as objects, Bolton argues, are connected to practice: "what is important about the objects is not what they mean but what they do" (129). The book's argument and approach challenge notions of gender hierarchy inVanuatu, and thus it seems unnecessary to assert that plaiting, an intense social activity, is analogous to men's drinking kava, or to be concerned with the various forms the opposition between textiles and kava takes (121-122). Locating women's practices in such a framework runs the danger of reasserting the binary oppositions that underpin such hierarchies. [End Page 194]

The book offers a valuable and timely analysis of the role of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in postcolonial Vanuatu. Created in the 1970s, the centre is one of...