Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…
Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.
I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”
And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.
I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.
Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1
Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,
a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”
There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.
Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,
One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.
And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.
Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.
This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?
After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.
As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:
Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.
Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.
…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.
And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:
“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).
“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.
And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.
While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.
I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.
The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.
There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,
the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.
I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:
Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.
On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.
I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.
Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.
(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.