The works in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Micronesian arts, like the Islands themselves, are few and far between.
The islands of Tungaru, more commonly known as the Republic of Kiribati, are a series of low-lying atolls barely peeking out of the sea. They are home to small communities with limited resources who excel in the arts of tattoo, weaving and adornment. One impressive, pre-Christian form of art was necklaces made from human teeth.
The name given to this type of necklace is ririko, which translates literally as ‘the closely placed teeth’. The teeth have been pierced and threaded onto a string of coconut fibre but are otherwise unmodified. Their form, texture and colour, like the finest natural pearls, are pleasing to the eye.
The necklace is a mixture of canines and incisors taken from the front of the lower jaw. The teeth of at least 30 individuals, or at most 180, were used in the production of this necklace, and it is likely, as Micronesian communities are quite small, that this single necklace includes the teeth of many generations of ancestors. For this reason, necklaces like this one are rare finds.
It is a prime expression of identity—quite literally: ‘this is my people’ and ‘I wear my lineage’. Little is known about why teeth are the main representative element in this necklace; although, teeth have obvious associations with the voice, the main communicative part of a person, and teeth chew food, effectively sustaining life. So, perhaps teeth are fitting objects to represent the essence of an ancestor.
The production and use of these necklaces was quickly abandoned under the influence of British missionaries in the late nineteenth century, with only a small number known to exist today.
in artonview, issue 58, winter 2009