If I had to single out one of my favourite pieces of Pacific ornament being showcased in A fine possession: jewellery and identity, it would have to be the wasekaseka neckpiece. Comprising twenty-six sperm whale’s teeth split lengthways, the wasekaseka is among Fiji’s best known types of jewellery that were typically made by Tongan and Samoan craftsmen who lived there. They were sewn onto sennit cords made of plant or coconut fibre and were worn closely around the neck.
Until the introduction of commercial whaling by Europeans in the early-mid 19th century, whale’s teeth were extremely scarce and therefore became the prerogative of chiefs and men of other high ranking status. The craftsmen would have to wait until a whale had beached on shore before they could source the ivory and fashion it into a wearable piece of adornment. Apart from the wasekaseka, other popular jewellery and ornamental items made from whale ivory included the tabua or tambua (a whole polished whale’s tooth commonly worn as a neck pendant), vuasagale (necklaces comprising the stubbier, smaller teeth of the sperm whale before they had been split) and scrimshaw.
Whale’s teeth were bestowed on high-status individuals as gifts, for political support or as a gesture of solidarity and were valued as symbols of wealth and power. The teeth were also sometimes used as a means of exchange for logs and canoes, particularly between the Tongans and Fijians.
Accompanying this particular wasekaseka is one of the Museum’s early exhibition labels, which probably dates to around the late 19th century (when the Museum was called ‘The Technological Museum’ and was housed over the road from where we are now, next to the Sydney Technical College on Harris Street, Ultimo). Curiously, however, the label describes this object as a ‘banyini’ – a term I haven’t encountered before, but which was also used in our early records to describe other whale ivory pieces in the collection. So, if you can shed any light on the use of this term, I’d be more than interested to hear!
This wasekseka will be on display in the ‘Wealth and status’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity at the Powerhouse Museum until September 2015.
Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society