Microcosmic Subtleties: Culture through Accessories

Foreword by Cinnamone Winchester
Photography by Faith Stellmaker

Merriam-Webster defines ‘identity’ as:

  1. the distinguishing character or personality of an individual; and
  2. the condition of being the same with something described or asserted.

What is perhaps most interesting about this term is that it possesses an inherent—almost paradoxical—duality of intention: difference and sameness. We yearn to be recognised and remembered for what makes us different; in the same breath, most of us constantly make active decisions to align ourselves with something that links us to other human beings.

Still, some of these connections may manifest more elusively than others—particularly those which seek to undertake the Herculean task of linking identity to culture. When speaking with four of our readers, Bossy found that a significant value was placed upon more permanent accessories such as rings, piercings, and tattoos, which serve as a subtle mouthpiece for the expression of culture and heritage. Permanent accessories, such as those documented below, can assist in sparking a sense of comfort within an individual, as well as an encouragement of confidence and pride in cultural identity by reinforcing certain cultural values, serving as a means through which the wearer may connect with their family and community, or commemorating memories from one’s homeland.

There are series of lines encircling my forearms. A maze between parallel lines; an enclosed box; a blank channel ensuring the lines don’t touch. These marks are more than just decoration.

My tattoos represent my cultural heritage. My bubu (grandmother) was from Hanuabada, a village in Papua New Guinea. Tattooing (tatu) is a significant part of many Pacific cultures, and in Papua New Guinea, it was largely a women’s practice. Girls were first tattooed as children, and tattooing continued in stages right into adulthood. Marks were made through hand-tapping and poking techniques. Women passed down the knowledge to other women; specific markings were kept to family and clan lines.

I chose to get marked as an homage to my heritage. I wanted to wear that pride in ancestry prominently. Further, I wanted to maintain this practice. When colonisation of Papua New Guinea began in the 1880s, it heralded the slow loss of some traditional practices. My bubu, born in the 1930s, lived with women who still had facial tattoos. Most of her generation was marked; in the generations that followed, this happened less and less, especially among the diaspora.

There has been a tatu revival movement over the past decade, led by Julia Mage’au. Julia has travelled around the Pacific and learnt the traditional techniques of tatu. She has produced documentaries and other bodies of work under her production company Sunameke. It is through her 2015 documentary, ‘Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines’ that I learned of her journey to learn tatu. A few years later, I got in contact with Julia, and she embedded my skin with my bubu’s designs.

My tattoos make me feel empowered. The moment after they were finally tapped into my skin, I felt a surge of energy rush through me. They make me feel ancient and modern at the same time. They are a connection to heritage, language, culture, place—no matter how temporally or physically separated I am from these. To me, they represent strength, perseverance, and decolonisation.

I am proud to be keeping culture and wearing tatu.

– Lily Iervasi

I had the hibiscus, the national flower of Malaysia, tattooed on my ribcage in the winter of 2020. We were in the midst of a global pandemic, and as an international student, any prospect of seeing my family, my hometown, and my culture had disappeared. It was a choice between my freedom and being home with my family, and I had chosen the former.

I had always wanted something from home tattooed on my body—even as a child I never felt like I would end up living at home and it was important to me that I would never forget where I came from. My upbringing in Brunei as a South East Asian Chinese person was intermingled with Singaporean and Malaysian elements from my parents, and it always brought me so much pride. Whether it was the lion dances on the street during Chinese New Year or tucking into freshly made Hainanese Chicken Rice on a Sunday morning, my heart was always full and nourished.

With these memories in mind, the uncertainty of when I would be able to experience these things again felt like a loss that I wasn’t quite ready to face. So, I got a tattoo instead—of my mum’s home country’s national flower. Of Malaysia’s Bunga Raya; of memories of cultural pride.

It felt like home.

– Siang Jin Law

My jewellery and tattoo represent my dynamic and unfinished journey in finding my culture. Yes, I’m Indian and my instinct was to write about the symbolism and significance of body art in India. However, I also left India at the age of three and I don’t resonate with the ideas of jewellery symbolising wealth, status, bravery, and beauty. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how culture isn’t static and we don’t have to embrace every or any aspect of it, or represent what we don’t resonate with. Does that make me less Indian? I don’t think so.

Rather, acts of culture are infused by my personal interpretation: I wear first and second lobe piercings and a cartilage earring, and each one came at a different time in my life, contributing to the larger cultural narrative that I’m still writing. I got my first lobe piercings when I was one month old (when I asked my mum if it was a cultural process or necessity, she replied, “No, no—nothing fancy like that”). My seconds were pierced as a challenge for a residential hall event—reminding me of my strength, of the last four years making me into who I am now. My moonstone ring was bought when I was soul searching and needed balance, and my necklace was a gift from a dear friend which reminds me that we are all connected. My tattoo was also born out of my love, my femininity, my beliefs—it is an unfinished body, an unfinished writing of culture.

– Zenia Vasaiwalla

I’ve always had long fingers: my mother has been calling them ‘pianist’s fingers’ since I was little. She used to tell me that the three brown freckles near my knuckles—one on my left side, two on my right—meant that I was destined to work with my hands (she’s still holding out for the day that I realise I want to be a surgeon, but something tells me that I’m going to be writing for the rest of my life).

I don’t know much about destiny, but I think it’s only fitting that nowadays, I usually express my cultural identity through my rings. My track record with jewellery has never been particularly impressive: I like the idea of arming myself so intensely with silver and gold that it may as well be chainmail, but I rarely used to have enough patience to get through an entire day while being worn down by metal baggage. I wouldn’t be able to tell you why these rings are different. Perhaps it’s because they were both made in my homeland. Perhaps it’s because they whisper stories against my skin—both my family’s and my own.

The plain gold was given to me as a gift when I was 11: I hadn’t been to Malaysia in eight years, and was still reacquainting myself with my extended family as much as I was with the constant embrace of the country’s sweltering coastal heat. Both felt like beautiful strangers to me, and I was afraid that I’d been away far too long to really fit in—but the middle point between contemporary and traditional design in the ring’s geometric shapes and leaf weaves sent me on my way to accepting that I didn’t need to grow up there in order to belong there.

The citrine piece is a little newer, but much older; just as my mother gave it to me for my 21st birthday, it had been handcrafted by a goldsmith for her own 21st birthday. Now more than ever, I know that I’m lucky to own a piece of home; that I can use these reminders of my heritage to present myself as a mass of cultural forces.

– Cinnamone Winchester

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