Tolai People, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea
Nassa shell, cane fibre
approx. 104 cm diameter
$10,000, including stand
New Britain, Papua New Guinea
Private collection, Sydney
Nassa shells continue to be used today as part of the traditional currency of the Tolai people. They are important for Bride Price Payment – when the dowry is paid for a new wife. They are rarely sold or traded and few are found outside Papua New Guinea, or their traditional use within Tolai society. They are of great value and highly prized.
When a man accumulates many shells, he threads them on lengths of cane to keep them together and organized. These shells can be used in daily transactions for example, to buy a pig, or a canoe etc. When the man becomes quite wealthy, the threaded shells are wound together into circles like this one and called “Loloi”. Usually they are bound with pandanus or banana leaves to preserve their whiteness, and then stored away. It is in effect, a shell bank.
At important community events the Loloi are brought out for display and are presented to the wife’s family as the most important part of a Bride Price. They are also presented at compensation and funeral gatherings, where they are used to pay debts to those who have assisted the deceased though life. At these ceremonies, the shell lengths are unwound from the circular “Loloi”, and cut into sections, to be presented to the various participants. Then the process of acquiring enough shells to make another Giant Shell Rings starts all over again.
The Sydney gallery in early 2019 positioned a slightly smaller Giant Nassa Shell Ring, ‘Loloi’, with the Art Gallery of New South Wales.