Image of Taloi Havini with local potter from Malasang
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Bougainville's totems autonomous: Naboin, Nakas, Nakaripa, Natasi

Taloi Havini 6 December 2003

Taloi was awarded the ANU Research Centre for Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) EASS Award 2003. This is an excerpt from her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) research report where she spent three months in North Bougainville’s traditional pottery village of Malasang.


This study is divided into two parts. The first part is in the form of an investigative documentation into six months of personal research in North Bougainville's traditional pottery village of Malasang. Working alongside the Malasang Potters from March to June in 2003 I gained insight into and behind the traditions of my cultural objects I first saw in the Australian Museum in Sydney. I was concerned with an investigation of artists practice and have focused on how the traditional pots were made, their markings and firing, from a maker's perspective.

Image of Taloi Havini working with Tamana
Taloi Havini working with Tamana

In July 2003, I returned to Canberra School of Art to articulate a visual response to my research findings in a body of artwork. Whilst I have not made vessels of similar utilitarian likeness my research and traditional art practice, I have reflected in contemporary investigation of my culture – shields; designs; and with traditional elements of life – red, black and white-symmetrical language of totems in shields and clan designs.

Historical Background

Bougainville and Buka Islands are situated in the South West Pacific, and is the northernmost Islands of the Solomon Archipelago. Within Oceania the people are of Melanesian stock and speak a wide variety of Austronesian family of Languages . We have a matrilineal system where the natural custodians of land are the women members of the clan. In Buka Island the clans originate from the four tribes of Naboin, Nakaripa, Nakas, and Natasi.

The Hako tribe of north eastern Buka Island, of which I am a descendant, is a matrilineal clan system where the lineage has descended through the women of the clan since time immemorial. The women are the custodians of our cultural heritage and land, supported in the same line of seniority by their brothers, the Tsunonos or the High Chiefs of the clan. Malasang village south of Buka and home of the potters is the central location of the ancient Buka pottery cottage industry. The people of Malasang speak the Halia dialect and share the same tribal arrangements under Naboin, Nakaripa, Nakas, and Natasi.

The study on the Malasang Potters of Buka is a path well trodden by those before me. From September 29, 1929, to October 8, 1930 an anthropologist, Ms Beatrice Blackwood undertook a detailed study on the socio-economic lives of the people of Buka Island and North Bougainville. It was one of the most extensive studies ever taken in the region. She later published her findings - in her book is a chapter in which Blackwood undertook a thorough study of the Malasang pottery industry, including material components of clay preparations, making pots, technique and tools, firing, dimensions and trading.

The next visiting field worker was German anthropologist Paul Wirz from 1954 to 1955 (Die Topferei der Buka – Bulletin der Schweizerische Gesellschaft fur Anthropologie und Ethnologie, Vol. 31, pp. 35-44). He covered the same grounds as Blackwood, but allegedly not as thorough in his findings and recordings - thus prompting in 1967, a further archaeological fieldwork on Buka by Dr. Jim Specht. Specht conducted a "re-analysis of the industry to clarify of these problems that might be used in the (…proper, own words) interpretation of archaeological materials from the area".

Specht researched Buka and the adjacent Islands to Nissan (some 150km northeast of Buka) and Teop - Tinputz in North Bougainville. Reading from these authors I have noticed some diversity concerning terms with language and issues concerning ceremony. Most of the information however, (particularly Specht) has been close to or consistent with my own experiences and research. I refer to these past authors in outlining certain changes that have occurred, particularly in the case of Specht who provides in-depth fieldwork in terms of mineral content in the clay sources.

The Malasang Potters

I shall start this Chapter by introducing the key figures to my research - the Malasang Potters' themselves. Once a thriving trade in the village of Malasang, almost every woman would practice the skill of making tabele . Now only a handful collects clay, make tabele, and fire the pots. In Buka the rights to these skills are solely for the women of Malasang as they are the custodians of the land where the correct clays are found. The wives of Malasang men who come in from other clans may learn and practice this craft also.

Image of Tamana mixing kepa
Tamana mixing kepa

Malasang is situated on the southern end of Buka Island not far from the main town and airport and within close proximity to the main Island of Bougainville. Elder and most dedicated potter today is Mrs. Tamana Sarenga. Tamana (the name she is addressed by) was already a teenager during Japanese occupation of Buka during WWII. Tamana is a senior woman of her clan who is respected greatly by others. Her mother Ballio was reportedly the best potter of her time, passed down her skills to Tamana.

Image of Tamana mixing kepa

The specific age of a person in Buka was not traditionally known, as birthdays were not celebrated as they are in Western societies. Within Indigenous cultures there are ceremonial events that mark significant times in one's life according to physical and mental maturity of an individual. The issue of ceremony will be covered later in this paper, as it is a vital educational topic and was naturally intertwined during my researching experience. The other senior potter of Malasang is Motosi who still has the strength and endurance for the collection of clays (the more elderly Tamana was absent during those tiring expeditions). Labour intensive tasks, this requires a team of women and when the jungle is thick, men are needed to clear and cut the pathways.

Image of Tamana mixing kepa

Marilyn, who also participated in clays collections journeys, is originally from Malasang. The skills were taught to her before she married into the neighbouring village of Hangan. Marilyn accompanied me to her mother's clan to assist me on all our visits. The other young girls in the photographs are Celestine, Glenda, Clare and Taleo who, as my translators, will by custom be the heirs of making tabele. The remaining young women in Malasang village are aware of tabele in more or lesser degree depending on a personal choice of involvement. A Luman Tabele was a special house for all the potters' to make and store their wares. Now, the making of tabele takes place in Tamana's ‘hauskuk', (kitchen).

Image of Tamana mixing kepa


Memia is a fine grog substance that is found in shallow earth deposits on the top of the Malasang Mountain along the Hahan hills some forty minutes walk from Tamana's house. It is yellowish in color. "Memia" is also the word for "yellow" in both Halia and Hako languages. Tamana's ancestors found memia to be different from soil when they first dug the ground for planting taro gardens. This was how the memia was discovered in ancient times prior to the arrival of missionaries.

The potters lived closer to the raw materials on the Hahan Mountain from where the view south to North Bougainville is impressive. Archaeologist Jim Specht noted;

These hills are formed by an extension of the Buka Formation, consisting of sandstones and siltstones derived from volcanic materials, and basalt lava flows. One of the hilltops, at an elevation of approximately 120m. above sea level, is covered with pits about 1.5m. square and up to 1m. deep, from which the temper is scraped with the valve of a marine mollusk. The temper (memia) consists of crumbs of semi-consolidated lithic tuff and not, as Wirz claimed (1954-1955: 36) another kind of clay.

The journey for memia begins early morning as Motosi, Celestine, Clare, Glenda, Marilyn and I set off from Tamana's house basically equipped with carrying bush knives, hessian straps, plastic bags and seashells. The last time anyone set out for memia was in 2001 for an Education Week expedition with the local high schools. We followed the men who cleared the tracks with machetes, as the bush was very thick and overgrown. Walking for forty minutes beyond the coconut and cocoa plantations, aware of everyone else, for, as a new visitor, I would be 'taking their breath from them'.

An hour after departing the village, it only took about twenty minutes to climb the small mountain. When approaching the site you must not speak (in Pidgin or in English). This could arouse or awaken the spirits who might recognize the new visitor and could cause harm to him or her. To be respectful I must not enter the site until Motosi clears the site where the 'spirits' reside by bashing the earth with banana leaves whilst speaking to her ancestors in her Halia dialect asking them to welcome me, the new visitor.

Image of potters scraping memia at the top of the Malasang Mountain       Image of potters scraping memia at the top of the Malasang Mountain

    Scaping memia from the top of Malasang Mountain

The area was completely overgrown by vegetation, and it took some time to clear. Once cleared, banana leaves were laid down to sit on and we begin the scraping process. Newcomers are able to scrape once the area is prepared. The scraping of memia is a quiet procedure. While scraping, the women meditate and whisper in Halia asking their ancestors to make this work easy and that the journey be quick that they may return to their families. When there is enough memia, it is poured into the plastic bags and wrapped up in the banana leaves. This package is folded tightly into square proportions and the thick hessian straps are tied into a backpack for each woman to carry back.

When we returned to Malasang a tsu tsu ceremony was performed. Water was poured onto my feet washing away the 'spirits I might have picked up along the way, or brought with me'. Once the tsu tsu has finished I must now provide a feast where pigs are cooked and menaka is served. We arranged that this important ceremony be scheduled at the end of my study as one big feast, as I will have been going to countless new places for this study. Once a tsu tsu has been completed I am able to come and go many times just as a local. The memia is then stored in a dry area away from sunlight and kept tightly sealed in the banana packages waiting for the remaining component, petako to be added.


As in the case of memia, the discovery of petako was also stumbled upon during the taro-planting season. It was when the wild pigs dug up the earth and swampy grounds looking for food and water, that this clay soil, petako, was unearthed. One reaches the swamplands; by a fork in the track that leads to the Hahan Mountain with a further thirty minutes walk to get to the memia site. It was explained that some time ago the collection and mixing of clays was achieved in the same journey, when at this fork in the track, one group of women would part for memia and the others for Petako. They would then meet each other at the end of the day and knead the two parts at the fork in the road, then walk back to Malasang with the ready-made mixture called Gits Gits.

Very plastic clay, petako is dug by hand from the Malasang swamps. One must immerse oneself into the waterlogged trenches, and feel by hand for correct consistency of Petako. Since the swamp is muddy, you cannot actually see what you are scraping with your bare hands until you expose it to the air and inspect that it is in fact that sought for greyish – white colour of Petako. I watched long before I personally attempted to dig for the Petako. Specht notes;

The raw materials used today consist of a mixture of fat clay and a comminuted tuff temper…an elevated coral limestone plateau caped with plastic clays (Scott et al., 1967:22). The area is level, covered with forest and tall herbaceous regrowth.

There is another place for petako called Garoru further south, where petako has been eroded down from the hills as very plastic top quality clay. If a Chief dies Tamana can get clay from Gororu to make pots for the Hahur Ceremony. The Petako is wrapped up in banana leaves and taken back to Malasang to be kneaded into the one mixture called Gits Gits.

Image of kepa Image of kepa Image of kepa Image of kepa
    Tamana working with kepa and photo of Malasang potters with tabele

In conclusion

In Bougainville, land is life. Here I gained insight into the sacredness of clay, which is formed from the land. Learning how to make tabele became a point of significance in applying my knowledge of western approaches to art to the traditional practice of making art from land. Through the ceremonies connected to all aspects of working with tabele and embedding them with clan designs, I came to realize the importance of all occasions that marked interconnectedness, the social fabric of interchange and the significance of trading vessels formed from sacred land.

Taloi Havina
6 December 2003

Also see   Yumi Yet   Australian Museum Online