On the Substance of Surfaces: the Calculated Nature of Materials and Design in Melanesia

Graeme Were

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Imagine a shiny worktop surface made of the plastic laminate Formica; for many people born in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, it will rekindle fond memories of their parents’ kitchen. Then imagine learning how these worktop surfaces had undergone a complete re-branding in the 21st century and are now regarded as sleek and desirable, must-have materials for architects and product designers for use in contemporary design. How have perceptions of these everyday surfaces and materials shifted so dramatically and what are the factors that led this laminate surface to be re-imagined in new ways? And, how might we re-imagine laminates beyond their function as hard-wearing and hygienic, towards thinking about them as material sites for the transformation of memory and the expression of new modes of living?

This chapter will approach these questions through an ethnographic analysis of a woven leaf fibre basket recognised for its distinctive surface design. The basket has recently been revived and undergone innovation in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Province of New Ireland, an island group lying to the northeast of the PNG mainland and a few degrees south of the equator, and so provides a fitting comparative study from which to reflect on surfaces from a Western/non-Western perspective. I will conduct an anthropological analysis of the basket’s fibrous surface – its design, production and consumption by Nalik people in New Ireland – in order to engage with the politics of surfaces, and to consider what is at stake materially by pushing beyond boundaries and interfaces (Tolia-Kelly 2013: 154). Here, the surface under scrutiny is a type of slightly coarse wrap surrounding a locally-produced basket, a kind of envelope or second skin, buffering the outer world and human body from the inner warp and wefts of the basket interior design and structure. In investigating the basket’s outer design, I will argue that its surface is akin to what Bruno (2014: 3) calls ‘the fabric of the visual’, the very skin of images and the space of circulation, as its materiality conjures complex relations to materials, objects, persons and environments. I will demonstrate how its surface operates as a material configuration between subjects and with objects (as challenged throughout this volume), a substance for mediating thought and action, revealing meanings, power relations, motivations and values. In framing my approach within the context of Melanesian material culture, this chapter intends to contribute to the emerging area of surface studies, alongside others in this volume, by providing ethnographic substance to J.J. Gibson’s (1979: 23) proclamation that: ‘The surface is where most of the action is’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSurfaces
Subtitle of host publicationTransformations of Body, Materials and Earth
EditorsMike Anusas, Christian Simonetti
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781315646947
ISBN (Print)9781138126299
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Mar 2020

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Anthropology

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