This large and impressive example, circa 1950s, is built on a large clam shell armband to which is attached a wide collar of colourful trade beadwork covering five large egg cowry shells and six smaller spotted cowries plus four hanging clackers or rattles made of seedpods. Size 30 x 22 x 11 cm / 11 ¾ x 8 ¾ x 4 ¼ inches, excluding the rattles.
You may be somewhat surprised at the shot of the underneath of the piece because it is so much rougher than the front – the supporting egg cowries have holes in them and it appears to be crudely tied together with fishing line – all absolutely true and quite unimportant. Kula trophies such as this one were made to be displayed by the new recipient, and all that matters is how showy and important it looks from the front. I can assure you that this would have been a very important piece with a name of its own when it was being actively traded in a kula ring. Similarly the use of red plastic for the dangle and around the neck of the piece is quite acceptable and common, as is the fishing line, in use for decades since it is strong, cheap and does not require a needle. These modern materials do not diminish the traditional power or aesthetic of the piece.
The Kula is the most famous trading journey in Oceania – large canoes from throughout the Masssim area had trading partners on other islands, with whom they traded their own surplus produce – clay pots, taro, pigs, shell money, etc. At the same time, each kula trader had a trading partner on the other island with whom he exchanged gifts, and these gifts passed form hand ot hand within the kula ring. There was a strict procedure for the exchange. Red shell disk necklaces (bagi) were always exchange in a clockwise direction and white clamshell armbands (mwali) in an anti-clockwise direction. The most famous kula items were named and each item changed hands frequently. The participants politicked (and employed magic wherever possible) to obtain the choicest examples and hold them for a while as they were publically displayed and conveyed great status. It is very unusual for a mwali of this size and age to be sold – possibly the kula ring that generated it on Vakuta had collapsed?
Ref: For a full description of the Kula trading cycle, see B Malinowski, “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” .