Remaking Middi

Remaking Middi: Reclaiming and re-contextualising Tolai materiality and cultural histories into the contemporary

Image © Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman
Middi from Pacific Collection, Australian Museum. Image: Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman

For the last few years, I have been mesmerised and truly fascinated by an artefact that I discovered in the storage vaults of the Australian Museum, Sydney Australia.  In 2010 I was given a guided tour of the Pacific Collection by artist Taloi Havini.  This was my first time in entering a space where there were so many objects from the Pacific region.  The three hour tour started with the Polynesian and Micronesian collections and ended in the Melanesian collections.  It was here that I spotted ‘tabu’ – Tolai shell currency but used in a different application.

In 2014 I commenced a long awaited inquiry into understanding the cultural significance of this object called Middi (Midi), made by the Tolai people of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea.  Within museums Middi are referenced as shell collars.  My Masters of Fine Art Research project is titled; Remaking Middi: Reclaiming and re-contextualising Tolai materiality  and cultural histories into the contemporary.

Since undertaking this research, I have discovered many things. The middi is part of a group of body adornments specific to Tolai culture called ‘Kurkurua’, which were impacted and culturally devalued through colonialism, religion and trade. Many museums all over the world hold these beautiful and ornate objects of high status, which can only be worn by Luluai; chiefs. A key aim of this research was to remake middi and return it back to the male body, to help me understand and re-contextualise this historical object.

‘Turadawai wearing a Middi’. Page 27 of Album von Papua Typen, New Guinea und Bismark Archipel. Etwa 600 Abilbbildungen auf 54 Talfen in Lichtdruck. Herausgegeben von A.B. Meyer und R. Parkinson. 1894

Returning the middi back to the Tolai community in Rabaul in Papua New Guinea was both a profound and life changing experience.  I gained more knowledge than what I could intellectually contain and realised that I will be doing research within my community for most likely what will be the rest of my life.  My research of Tolai middi was completed in late 2016. The middi and other works of art created part of this research has since been exhibited at the Caboolture Regional Art Gallery 2015 and Queensland Art Gallery 2016-2017.

Damien Kereku, Vunalagir Vunatarai, Tolai People 2015 © Lisa Hilli
Damien Kereku, Vunalagir Vunatarai, Tolai People 2015 © Lisa Hilli

I undertook my Masters of Fine Art by Research at RMIT University, Melbourne Australia. Senior Supervisor: Peter Cripps and Associate Supervisor: Dr Kirsten Haydon.

An electronic copy of my MFA thesis can be downloaded via RMIT University Research Repository