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No one forgets the ŋgwalndu : gendered creativity among the Abelam, circa 1960


Drawn from primary source materials found in the special collection libraries of the University of California, San Diego and London School of Economics, this essay seeks an understanding of gendered models of creativity among the Abelam of New Guinea during a particular ethnohistorical moment. In the late 1950s the anthropologist Anthony Forge lived with the Abelam, where he observed men giving disparaging comments about their own creativity. This was puzzling to Forge because Abelam men were world-famous as prolific artists. This essay seeks to better understand what was at the root of this disconnect between Forge and his informants. Through an ethnohistorical reconstruction of Abelam cosmology and gendered activities, I argue that the Abelam understood creativity as something that was at once both innovative and reproductive of social forms. For the Abelam, creativity is a form of making and remaking the world. It's not that Abelam men were uncreative; they created through a different process than what is generally recognized as creativity. By considering the case of Abelam creativity, this essay seeks to reclaim creativity as a valid and productive anthropological category that helps us understand how values are culturally born and reproduced

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