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AbstractTapa (or barkcloth), which is made from the outer bark of specific trees, is intimately interwoven with past and present socialities across Oceania. The cloths have been used to decorate, wrap, cover, protect, and carry the human body, as exchange valuables and commodities, in land claims, and as indexes and embodiments of ancestral power. This article explores the complexities of personhood in Oceania by focusing on the making and ceremonial use of tapa among the Maisin of Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea. It elucidates dynamics of the intimate correspondence between people and things, and, in particular, how people’s gendered identities are mediated: that is shaped, reproduced, and contested through the cloth’s specific materiality and design. Ultimately, it reveals the mutual growth of people and things and how they are part of each other’s substance, thereby dissolving the subject–object dichotomy.
The field and archival research (2001–2002, 2004) on which this paper is based was part of a research project financed by a Science of Global Development (WOTRO) grant from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) at the Institute for Gender Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The paper was written with financial support from the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship awarded to Professor Margaret Jolly for the project Engendering Persons, Transforming Things: Christianities, Commodities and Individualism in Oceania (FL100100196), 2010–2015.