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Archive for the ‘American art’ Category

It has been far too long since I’ve written an exhibit review. After all of these book reviews, maybe this could help mix it up a little.

Right: Eagle Gala Dress (2013), by Dorothy Grant (Haida).

The Peabody-Essex is really a wonderful museum. I would love to work there someday. An amazing collection of East Asian and Pacific art, the Yin Yu Tang house, and really top-notch temporary/traveling exhibits, especially for a small town museum. Plus, Salem is a wonderful cute little town; I have only ever been there for day trips, but I have *always* had a great time. I’m actually really kind of surprised that I don’t seem to have more photos from Salem; then again, I hadn’t been in many years, so maybe I wasn’t yet in the habit of using Flickr yet.

Right now, all the way up until March 6, the Peabody-Essex is showing an exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which highlights contemporary fashion designs inspired by Native American traditions. Hyperallergic, I guess I should not be surprised, has done a very nice review of the show, so if you want a better summary/overview of what the show actually features/contains, go read that first and then come back here, and we’ll see what sort of commentary I might be able to add.

Dorothy Grant, “She-Wolf” tuxedo (2014). I’m annoyed the photo didn’t come out sharper. But hopefully you can still make out the Haida patterning on the lapels. Click through for a larger image.

I do love the dresses, and the more art fashion pieces, but there’s also something wonderful about this very sleek, simple, elegant piece, with just enough of a hint of the Native motif. I can imagine that for a Haida person wearing this, it could feel quite powerful, as an expression of one’s identity – attending a black tie affair, and still expressing their identity, wearing a motif exclusive to them.

I have blogged on here about a few exhibits I’ve been fortunate to see, of high art fashion (mostly by Westerner designers) inspired by China, and of contemporary Japanese fashion. And I find all of this terribly fascinating. Just walking around Tokyo, or Kyoto, or elsewhere in Japan, one can see a huge range of fashions, all of them quite arguably “Japanese”, or “authentically Japanese,” authentic simply by virtue of the fact that real Japanese people are indeed choosing to wear them. Basically, a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to culture. TokyoFashion.com is a great website for this sort of thing, too – though they do tend to focus on Harajuku, there’s a pretty wide variety of approaches and styles in there. Basically, the point I mean to reach in this side tangent is simply to say I do think it fascinating how Japanese (or Chinese, or people of many other cultures) employ, adapt, re-invent elements of their own cultural tradition to make a contemporary statement. That’s what a lot of Neo-Nihonga and such is, and what I find fascinating in that realm, too. And I would love to see a museum exhibit about, specifically, that sort of fashion – specifically Japanese fashion that incorporates elements of “Japanese culture” or “tradition.”

But, returning to Native Fashion Now, in a nutshell, “Native Fashion Now” beautifully exhibits how people can, and do, express their Native American identity, embrace it, perform it, display it, in thoroughly modern ways.

While it may be relatively easy to see the contemporary and the traditional as two parts of Japanese culture, neither less authentic or real than the other, Native American cultures (or perhaps, indigenous cultures, more broadly) tend not to be seen that way, in the mainstream imagination. Conventional mainstream attitudes view, or imagine, Native American culture and identity in a unique way, notably dissimilar from how we understand Jewish, Arab/Muslim, East Asian, or African identities and cultures. Or, if not unique to the Native American experience, perhaps it is something particular to how we approach indigenous cultures, as a category. There are few who would look twice, or protest, if they saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Africans adapting their traditional styles and motifs into modern fashions. Cultures change and evolve, and few (I should hope) would have much difficulty imagining, and accepting, that all of these cultures exist in a modern form, and that these people lead fully modern lives. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. “perform” their ethnic/national identities in thoroughly contemporary ways, adapting and innovating. But, because of the particular discursive constructions surrounding Indigenous Peoples – that is, because of the way 18th-20th century people conceived of indigenous peoples as primitive, as un-modern, as being in need of education & civilizing – mainstream attitudes have a problem with conceiving of how one could be Native American, and also modern. Native American and also “regular” American. In the mainstream discourse, in the mainstream mind, being indigenous means being traditional, and if living a typical modern life means being less traditional, then it means being less Native American, too, right? Wrong. If living a modern life doesn’t make you any less Jewish(-American) or Chinese(-American), just because the traditions have changed or evolved or diluted (weakened, arguably), then why should anyone be seen as being less Native American, less truly or authentically Native American, just because their lifestyle doesn’t match that of their ancestors?

Louis Vuitton Quiver (2007), Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman plays off of the expectations, the demands of mainstream stereotypes that associate Native Americans so closely with archery, and with feathers. What, as if they all wear feathers and carry a bow all the time? But then he combines this with Louis Vuitton patterning, a parody of sorts of what indigenous modernity should look like. Does being a Native American in the modern world mean having a Louis Vuitton quiver? Or maybe it means not having a quiver at all. I may be totally off-base, but I imagine that perhaps the artist seeks to shock with this very basic concept – what do you mean Native Americans are just like the rest of us, in t-shirts and jeans, or in suits and slacks? How can you be Native American without feathers and bows & arrows?

Maybe it’s just my own experience, growing up where and how I did, not being exposed very much to any Native American presence in my life growing up, that I had come to hold these stereotyped views about Native Americans. But I do get the sense – both from my own experience, and from serious classroom lectures, readings, etc. – that this is a widespread and extensive discourse, growing out of colonialism and racism and so forth of (especially) the 19th century. I would be curious what experiences or impressions those who grew up in other parts of the country – or in other countries – might have had. For those of you who grew up in areas, or communities, where Native American or First Nation culture was much more present, did you grow up having the same ideas about Native American culture & identity, as traditional, as being opposed to modernity? Similar ideas about people being somehow less authentic if they didn’t lead more wholly traditional lives?

Of course, talking about Native American fashions, and adapting them creatively, one can’t easily avoid the question, or issue, of cultural appropriation. After all, Native American culture – like other indigenous cultures around the world – has faced particularly severe assaults, such that traditions and identity, and in some cases entire peoples, have severely diminished or disappeared entirely; so these cultures, as understood and practiced and cherished by Native people, and not as appropriated and re-invented by others, ought to be approached with an extra degree of respect. Further, unlike many elements of many cultures, which have no real sacred or taboo power to them (*achem* like the kimono *cough*), in many Native American cultures, many garments, accessories, motifs, and so forth are very strictly associated only with particular events or rituals, or can only be worn by particular people, or have to be earned; and for anyone else to wear it, use it, or even touch it – let alone to appropriate it – is sacrilegious, a violation. It is taboo in the truest, original sense of the word.

I quite liked the way the exhibit addressed these issues, when it came to designs by non-Native designers. As one gallery label reads:

Totem-pole designs of the Pacific Northwest Coast captivated the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, inspiring him to create this masterfully embroidered dress. … And yet Mizrahi is not Native – so what to think of his appropriation of these motifs?

Cultural borrowing is complex. Fashion designers are renowned remixers – voracious consumers of images and ideas. Mizrahi makes reference to totem poles, but he does not replicate one exactly. He emulates, yet he also produces a new style.

I am by no means saying this is perfect, or that there is (or should be) any one, singular, way that is the only way these things should be addressed. I’m not putting my foot down and taking a stand behind this approach. But, I like it. It acknowledges that appropriation is problematic, but also acknowledges that cultural borrowing is complex (oh my god thank you. yes. nuance and complexity, people. come on, get it together.), and it encourages visitors to think about the complexities for themselves. Artists and designers, and indeed all people, are inspired by all the things around them. And a great many of those things are from other cultures, that are not one’s own, but they are present in one’s life, one’s experiences, and they are inspiring nonetheless. What kinds of derivative works – that is, what kinds of “inspired by” – are okay, and which are not? Who has the right to produce inspired or derivative works? As the label states, all the designers in this show, including both Mizrahi and the Native American designers, are borrowers, are remixers. And, as the Hyperallergic article says, let us not forget that many of these designers “have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.” So, what kind of borrowing and remixing is okay, and by whom, and which is not? And as much as many blog posts, academic journal articles, and the like assert that there is a single definitive answer to that question, I’m not sure that’s really the case.

Left: Kimono and Obi (2011), Toni Williams (Northern Arapaho)

This brings us to another interesting item in the exhibit. A kimono – very clearly patterned after the Japanese garment – adapted with a Native American design. The artist, Toni Williams, is Arapaho, but she’s not Japanese (as far as we are told, on the gallery labels). Is this not cultural appropriation? For those screaming bloody murder about the thing at the MFA, is this not just as offensive? If not, why not? Is it perfectly okay because the Native American designer is a person of color? Can only white people perform cultural appropriation? Are all people of color, from Latinos to Native Americans to Asians to Arabs incapable of racism, even when it concerns a culture vastly different from their own? If the main objection to the kimono at the MFA was that using the kimono as merely a costume, merely an accessory, is offensive because it relates to a notion of simply taking anything you want from any other culture, willy-nilly, then isn’t this the same? Are all Native American cultures or identities one big group, and are they allowed to borrow from one another’s cultures? If a Diné were to appropriate elements of Haida culture for their designs, where does that fall on a spectrum of offensiveness, compared to a Japanese artist, or a Jewish artist, appropriating those Haida designs?

Did the Native American designer Toni Williams get special permission from a professional kimono designer to do this? And even if she did get permission from a professional kimono-maker in Kyoto, well, so did the MFA, so does it matter? After all, the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Japanese one (in Asia), and so how could a Japanese understand how Asian-Americans feel about this? Anyway.. I think it’s worth thinking about, and discussing. Is this okay? If it is, why? What makes it different? What makes this inoffensive, and how can we (others, everyone) seek to emulate that, in order to avoid offense?

Right: Carla Hemlock (Mohawk), Treaty Cloth Shirt (2012). Features the 1794 Treaty between the US and the Iroquois Confederation. I’m a bit surprised that the artist would choose a Treaty that’s actually been consistently honored, rather than the more political art message of choosing one the US has trampled on. I’m also surprised there are any Native American treaties the US has actually consistently honored.

Apologies to have allowed the cultural appropriation talk to dominate this post. It’s really not that central or prominent a theme within the exhibit. Rather, the theme I most took away was one of “indigenous modernity,” though I doubt that term would have appeared verbatim anywhere on the labels. Native American culture is living, and it is contemporary. Native Americans are no more obligated to be traditional in order to be “true” Native Americans than Jews or Chinese or Dutchmen or anyone else is. They are not less Native American for being less traditional – just as I am myself no less Jewish for not observing the same traditions and leading the same lifestyle as my ancestors. And once you “get” this concept, boy, contemporary Native American culture can be really cool.

Native Fashion Now is showing at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. until March 6, 2016. It is included with regular museum admission – no extra charge. A huge thank you to the PEM for that, and for allowing photos!

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Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

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.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

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.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

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.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

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.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

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I posted a couple years back about a great show of Japanese Art Deco held at Japan Society in New York; that show has since traveled to a number of other institutions, introducing museumgoers in a number of major US cities to a Japan, and a more global, non-Western-inclusive Art Deco movement, they likely knew nothing about before. Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing a similar exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, entitled “Art Deco Hawaii.”

While there were few pieces that really struck me as looking or feeling very Art Deco, and so the overall impact of the show was not really one of expanding my feeling of a more global sense of how Art Deco took place around the world, the show was brilliant nevertheless, including many truly gorgeous works, introducing us to a number of great artists who are widely unknown and woefully under-appreciated outside the niche field of Hawaiian art, and, further, introducing to visitors a somewhat nuanced and complex look at the functioning of exoticism, etc., in the art of that time, with tourism marketing materials and people’s more general conceptions of the islands, between the two of them, building up a certain set of images and understandings of the islands that was purely constructed, imagined, and which continues to have great influence today. As David A.M. Goldberg puts it in his biting review of the show in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “most works were commissioned by corporations such as Matson and Dole, which were either trying to sell the islands’ products, or the islands themselves as product,” through promotion of the islands’ natural charms – both scenic (land, sea, sky, flora and fauna) and human. Goldberg’s review, entitled “Art deco examples distort Hawaiian culture, history,” is far more bold and upfront about the Orientalizing impact of these works than I think the exhibit itself was, and makes for interesting reading.

“The Discovery” (1928), one of a number of works in the show by Arman Tateos Manookian, an Armenian-American artist who tragically committed suicide at the age of 27, in 1931. I find his pieces stunningly beautiful in their bold colors, and distinctive style, with broad blocks of color in place of finer-grained detail.

Still, regarding the Orientalizing/exoticizing discourses to which these works contributed, I was quite pleased to see how the curators described this phenomenon to visitors; ideas of Orientalist discourse, of media discourse theory, and the like, are generally not so widely discussed, or widely known, I think, outside of academia (and certain other fields), and it shows a certain keenly critical, and post-colonialist political, approach to bring this to the general public, by way of the museumgoer. The exhibit does not focus on these works as being simply beautiful, or expertly executed, and to a large extent does not work to reify (reinforce) these exoticizing discourses, but instead really points them out and asks visitors to come away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the history of the construction of ideas of Hawaii. It also situates “Art Deco Hawaii” in the historical contexts of both the Art Deco movement and of Honolulu/Hawaiian history, presenting the topic in a serious and academic way, but in a way which I hope, I imagine, wasn’t too inaccessible to the average museumgoer. In this, actually, I think it may have done a better job than the Art Deco Japan show – since I could not take photos in that show, I don’t have any record of exactly what was and was not said in the gallery labels there, but my blog post on the exhibit does indicate that I felt the show did not provide enough discussion of how this fit into the history of the Art Deco movement, or of the urban culture of Japan at that time.

“A God Appears” (1940), one of a series of six murals by Eugene Savage, all on display in the show, commissioned by the passenger steamship liner company Matson. Where Manookian’s works, for better or for worse, are more subtle (and, arguably, perhaps, that much more insidious?) in their romanticizing of Hawaiian history and culture, Savage’s works boldly represent Hawaii as a place of continuous eternal celebration, extending even to events such as the encounter with Captain Cook, and the overthrow of the kingdom, events which are today considered hardly worth celebrating. The Orientalist tropes here are so blatant, they’re almost laughable – or they would be, if not for their very real and insidious impacts.

In the Art Deco Hawaii show, we are told that “Art Deco proved ideal for conjuring the islands’ natural beauty and fabled past for a public that was aspirationally contemporary yet nostalgic at heart,” and we also see the curators pulling no punches, not talking down to visitors, but instead boldly going ahead with a somewhat more complex explanation of the topic, saying that

A regional form of modernism centered on the islands’ singular sense of place. Art Deco entered the visual arts in Hawai’i as a fusion of modernist visual formulas with localized motifs. … Hawai’i’s Art Deco was an interwar elaboration of visual codes that had been developing in Western art since the early 19th century to construct and evoke the atmosphere and allure considered unique to the islands: the beauty of their landscape, the perceived exoticism of their people and customs, and the imagined narrative of their history.

Right: “Surfer Girl” by Gene Pressler (c. 1930s), one of the only pieces in the show that really felt “art deco” to me, though as I’m not so clear on the defining stylistic characteristics of the movement, that may be off-target. For some reason, though I can’t quite put my finger on it, this feels like a painting that would look right at home at Aloha Tower, or the Chrysler Building, though I couldn’t really say just why.

Thanks so much to the Honolulu Museum of Art for allowing photos in this exhibition, of so many works which are so beautiful, so stunning, and so historically, culturally, discursively, interesting. This also allows me to capture the curators’ wording/phrasing on the labels, as quoted above, without having to bother taking the time to copy it out by hand, with notebook and pencil, there in the gallery. Now, admittedly, I could just buy the catalog. But, then, if I bought the catalog for every exhibit I saw, instead of just taking photos, how much space would that take up on my shelf, not to mention the damage to my wallet. (Incidentally, the catalog is beautifully well-done, and available at the museum for the relatively reasonable price of $30, though strangely for some reason I can’t seem to find it on Amazon or otherwise available online anywhere)

I do not know if this exhibit is going to be traveling to any other museums, but I really hope it would. I think people would very much enjoy it, if only for the truly beautiful works by so many artists who are all but unknown outside of Hawaii (or, for that matter, even in Hawaii, unless you’re one who pays particular attention to art). And, beyond that, it is really far too infrequent that we see anything about Hawaii (not to mention a whole bunch of other parts of the world) in the vast majority of US mainland museums. Just as the Art Deco Japan show was eye-opening and much appreciated by many visitors with a particular interest in Art Deco, but who did not have any particular background or interest in Japan, I think the same would go for this Hawaii show – it’s truly great to have such wonderful shows accessible to the local community, to learn something more about their own history, in this, the most remote archipelago in the world, but I think there is great value too in sharing that with the broader American and world community – and, especially for an exhibit like this, I think there would be great interest, appreciation, and enjoyment too.

Art Deco Hawaii is up at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 11, 2015.

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I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.

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Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

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