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Archive for the ‘Exhibitions’ Category

Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

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Many years ago – presumably sometime around 2004-2006 – I attended a great talk & book-signing event with author Roger Atwood, at Back Pages Books, a fantastic little indy bookstore in Waltham MA, run by my friend Alex Green. Atwood’s book, Stealing History, opened my eyes to incredible stories of the international black market in illegally unearthed & smuggled antiquities.

One of the stories he tells in this book is of the illegal looting and subsequent trafficking in 1987 of a cache of solid gold artifacts and other objects from the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipán, an elite of the Moche culture (c. 50-700 CE). One of the most significant objects in the cache was a large golden backflap, described in Archaeology Magazine as follows:

Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer’s backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors.

If I recall correctly from what I read in Atwood’s book, the traffickers eventually ended up trying to sell the backflap and other objects to a potential buyer known only as “El Hombre del Oro.” After a number of communications to arrange the exchange, they met him in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, only to be arrested by members of the FBI Art Crimes unit, learning to their dismay that “El Hombre del Oro” was Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman. The treasures of Sipán were turned over to the Peruvian authorities, and some (all?) made their way into the collections of the Museum of the Nation in Lima.

I love this story. And I hoped that someday I might eventually happen to make my way to Lima, where I might happen to see the golden backflap at the center of this story. What a pleasure it was to see it – not just any other Moche backflap, but what I’m hoping, assuming, is the very same one – at the Getty’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibit of pre-Columbian art. It’s incredible getting to see, in person, objects you’ve read about, heard about, seen in illustrations or photographs. It’s incredible seeing objects and knowing this whole story behind them – whether it’s a story about the artist, or the composition, or in this case a story of international smuggling & an FBI sting operation.

For this alone, the exhibit was absolutely worth it. But “Golden Kingdoms” turned out to be a truly excellent exhibit otherwise, as well. As I return to thinking about designing World History courses that I might, hopefully, potentially, teach in the future, the artifacts and labels in this exhibit, seeing how they described and discussed various pre-Columbian cultures, was just really interesting and useful. And huge massive thanks to the Getty for allowing photos, even of all these objects from collections all across the Americas! I took photos of many gallery labels, to hold onto the content for future syllabus- & lecture-writing.

One thing that was especially great about this exhibit was its spotlights on many individual cultures and sites. From this, I can piece together just a bit more (more than from the textbook, and whatever other resources I may use) on the Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, Inca, Moche, etc., not only in general, but with some small degree of specific focus on sites such as Sipán, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan, and Palenque.

For a Latin America specialist, all of this might be rather basic material. But for someone like myself, who specializes in East Asian and Pacific history, and who wants to incorporate more of the premodern, the non-West, and more discussion of visual & material culture in his World Survey courses, this was really great. Of course, I could eventually get my hands on the exhibit catalog, or various other materials, but, still, there’s nothing like seeing an exhibit in person and getting inspired right then and there, to talk about how different cultures associated gold, jade, shells, and other materials with being “emitted, inhabited, or consumed by gods,” and …

Having just returned from a trip to Hawaiʻi where I finally got to see the feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) gifted by Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain Cook, now on loan from Te Papa Tongarewa to the Bishop Museum, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some Wari and Nasca feathered cloaks and wall panels. On top of the Māori feather cloaks we saw in the newly renovated Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, this provides a great opportunity for comparison.

The Getty exhibit also included: an Inca checkerboard tunic, an example one can use to illustrate what’s described in Spanish records of the first meetings between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa.; some stunning stelae from Tikal and related cultures; and just a few objects from the post-conquest period, concluding with a painting of Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons Pedro and Domingo, Native elites from what is today Ecuador, dressed in a combination of Native and Spanish clothing.

The Getty’s contributions to the citywide “LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles” event also include a show of contemporary Argentinian photography, a show of the “Concrete” art movement in Latin America (which compares interestingly with the Gutai movement in Japan), and a small but excellent exhibit in the Research Center on “The Metropolis in Latin America,” discussing the modern urban history of Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City – how they developed themselves into modern cities, with national monuments, national architecture, public transportation, and so forth, later becoming centers of Modernist architecture as designers and thinkers turned to Latin America with ideas of building these cities into Modernist utopias. This exhibit not only provided me with comparative narratives and examples, adding to my knowledge/interest in how cities such as Honolulu, Tokyo, Kyoto, Naha, and Seoul were transformed into modern(ist) cities in the 19th-20th centuries, but the exhibit also included some very nice timelines of the major events of Latin American history.

Looking forward to eventually teaching World History, and incorporating some of this great content.

“Golden Kingdoms” runs until Jan 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “The Metropolis in Latin America” closes on Jan 7.

All photos my own, taken at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Returning finally to my previous series of posts talking about Okinawa’s postwar art history, we jump back chronologically a bit as we finally visit the second of the three exhibits I saw that day at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Okinawa no kôgei (“Craft Arts of Okinawa”), an exhibit put on in conjunction with the 80th anniversary of the Nihon Mingeikan, the leading Folk Arts Museum in Tokyo, discussed the Mingei (“Folk Arts”) movement, and the place of Okinawa in it, as the movement’s founder, Yanagi Sôetsu, traveled to Okinawa several times in the 1930s-40s, and took Okinawa’s traditional arts (along with those of Korea, Taiwan, and the Ainu) as representative of some of the greatest things modern Japan had lost. Sadly, the exhibit closed here in Okinawa on Oct 23rd. But more like it are going on constantly, I assume, at the Mingeikan in Tokyo.

Here, too, we have another set of stories to learn and to know, and then to retell. The biographies of Yanagi and his compatriots, Serizawa Keisuke, Hamada Shôji, Kawai Kanjirô, Bernard Leach, and others – their individual stories – and also the story of the attitudes/aesthetic/ideology of the Mingei movement, a story which I feel is all the more intriguing, all the more fascinating, for how problematic it is. One scholar, Kikuchi Yûko, has flat-out called the Mingei movement “Oriental Orientalism,” for how it romanticizes Okinawan, Korean, Taiwanese, and Ainu cultures, appropriating them, recrafting their narratives through the lens of Japanese imperial/colonial attitudes and interests, and so forth. Even as someone for whom ceramics, lacquerwares, and textiles have never been as attention-holding as paintings, I find the story surrounding it – this story of Oriental Orientalist aesthetic ideology, and so forth – really quite fascinating.

An unexpected treasure of this exhibit was a collection of many tens of photos by Sakamoto Manshichi, who traveled to Okinawa with Yanagi several times, and whose photos provide for us a window into the look and feel of traditional / prewar life in Okinawa – traditional fashions, hairstyles, architecture, cityscapes, and lifeways otherwise, which any sort of structural political/economic/social history would never be able to express. Images, artworks, culture, giving as close as we’ll ever get to a real, full, five-senses impression of what it really looked and felt like to be there at that time – what these people’s everyday world looked and felt like. I had not realized the extent to which, even as late as the 1930s, even in Naha and Shuri (the largest cities in the prefecture, and the chief political & economic centers), many people were still very much living in traditional architecture, and traditional clothing and hairstyles. I wouldn’t want to falsely leap to the assumption that these 1930s photos represent what it was really like 30 or 40 or 60 years earlier, in quote-unquote “traditional” times, as if nothing had ever changed. But, even so, at a time when Tokyo was already covered in cafés, jazz clubs, movie houses, moga (“modern girls,” the Japanese equivalent of the flapper), at a time when one might think it would have already been too late to hope to see photographs of “traditional” Okinawa, there it is: hugely valuable documentation of what things looked like before the island was so utterly devastated by the war between Okinawa’s two foreign invaders/colonizers: the Japanese and the Allies.

Uchaya udun, a no longer extant secondary palace of the Ryukyuan royal family, as seen in a photo by Sakamoto Manshichi. Public domain image from Naha Machitane.net.

And, among those photos, images of specific sites of great historical significance. If these buildings had survived, they would be among the most significant historical sites in the islands today, and among the key exemplars of traditional Okinawan architecture. The fact that these temples, palaces, and the like were lost is only the tip of the iceberg of what was lost in 1945, but to see them in these photos is really incredible – not just the outer faces, but various different views of the insides of many of these buildings… And, incredible just to think, just to realize, that all the way up until 1944-45, so much of this was indeed intact, simply surviving continuously (if not actively maintained) since the 19th century. In that sense, while Sakamoto’s photos of daily life – of everyday people’s homes and clothing – may be more truly indicative of a “modern” 1930s Okinawa, his images of Engaku-ji, Uchaya udun, and Sôgen-ji might be said to be at least somewhat reflective of the Kingdom era appearances of those buildings. His photos of Ryukyuan theater and dance, and of Yanagi & friends themselves are of course valuable historical documents as well. One can only wonder, if the island had not been devastated as it was in the battle, what it might look like today. Might Shuri look more like Kyoto, a decidedly traditional-feeling cultural space, as full of traditional architecture on the outside as it is full of traditional arts activities on the inside (behind closed doors), mixed in more naturally, more positively, with modern developments?

“Churashima Henoko” 美ら島・辺野古, by Miyara Eiko 宮良瑛子, 2005.

Finally, jumping forward once again, the museum was also showing at that time (earlier this fall), a solo exhibition of the works of Miyara Eiko (b. 1935), a prominent figure in the postwar Okinawan art world, still active today. I must admit I was completely unfamiliar with her name or her work before going to the museum that day, but according to the exhibition, she played key roles in the founding of a number of notable Okinawan artists’ associations, exhibitions, and so forth, and in particular in building a space for women artists in the postwar Okinawa art scene. I was excited to learn this history, to learn Miyara’s story, and also to see & learn of her works themselves, representative of one piece of the canon of the history of postwar Okinawan art. As gallery labels explained, this is the first exhibit of what will surely prove to be a great many, highlighting new acquisitions by the Museum, as they continue to work to amass an extensive and representative collection of Okinawan art.

As we enter the exhibit, we see Miyara’s “Song of the Bottom of the Sea” (水底の歌), a bronze produced in 1994 as a prayer or song for those killed in the Battle of Okinawa, including many who lie now at the bottom of the sea. It is a statue of a young woman, nude, with her hands in a gesture of prayer, and her eyes looking upwards. She leans forward on her tiptoes, as if leaning towards the gods, or towards a shrine, or the sea.

Right: Miyara’s Mina no soko, bronze, 1994. As the museum wouldn’t allow photos, and as to my amazement a basic Google Images search reveals no “free use” images of Miyara’s work whatsoever, I am using this image, which I found on the blog of radio personality Arthur Binard. Thank you, Mr. Binard, for sharing with us what so many other institutions wouldn’t.

Miyara moved from Tokyo to Okinawa in 1971, a year before Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty. I know little about the logistics and policies of entering or leaving Occupied Okinawa – during the period from 1945-1972 when the entire prefecture was essentially under American martial law – but I assumed this would be quite difficult. And, the exhibit tells us it was, but that even so, and even despite her husband being a known member of the Japanese Communist Party, they were somehow able to do it.

In Okinawa, as was surely the case elsewhere in Japan and around the world to varying extents, Miyara found that men held all the dominant positions in the local art world. Major art activities on the island, such as the Okiten prefecture-wide Salon-style exhibitions (akin to the Nitten, the most prestigious national-level juried art exhibition, except on a prefectural, Okinawa-wide, level), were all controlled by the art department at the University of the Ryukyus, and most if not all of the professors in that department – and most certainly the heads of the department, the most prominent or influential professors, etc. – were men. And it’s not just that they happened to be men, but that they were actively exclusionary of women artists, or of certain attitudes, approaches, or themes these women brought. Thus, along with other women artists in Okinawa, Miyara began organizing exhibitions of artworks specifically by women, in 1971, 1974, and 1975; as another significant step towards addressing the male dominance of the field, Miyara helped found the Association of Okinawan Women Artists (沖縄女流美術家協会).

Her own works, featured in this exhibit, include the one bronze, and numerous works on canvas. Miyara also made a career of doing watercolor illustrations for children’s books. Many of these related stories of World War II, and of the Battle of Okinawa in particular. One I picked up and flipped through told the story of the Tsushima Maru, a civilian ship, carrying Okinawan civilians – including many schoolchildren – which, while trying to take these innocents away from the warzone, was sunk by a US submarine.

In 1982, Miyara helped establish the Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition (沖縄平和美術展). Inspired to action after thinking about the Vietnam War – and about Okinawa’s role in that war as one of the chief places from which American forces were launched, etc. – Miyara led the exhibition with a philosophy of allowing anyone to freely exhibit their artworks, regardless of theme, an idea she associated with the power of peace. She writes that it was in Okinawa, especially, that an exhibit “crowned” with peace had to be shown (「沖縄でこそ平和を冠した美術展を開くべきだ。」). This first Okinawa Peace Exhibition in 1982 was shown at the Naha Civic Hall (那覇市民会館). Ômine Seikan, a major figure in the postwar Okinawan art scene, easily a member of the canon of Okinawan artists I discussed in my previous posts, served as chair of the exhibition committee. However, during the opening ceremonies, he found he was too choked up to say anything. And so, Miyara Eiko stepped in. This Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition continues today, having taken place now 21 times.

One section of the works displayed in the current exhibition (this fall, at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum) were from Miyara’s “Scorched Earth” (焦土) series. They show figures in long robes, their heads covered (are they meant to be Arabs/Muslims, perhaps? Unclear.), in many cases holding children, or holding bodies which are either dead or dying. The background is more or less featureless, yellow and orange, colors which somehow evoke (for me, anyway) a greater impression of the feeling of suffering.

Another of Miyara’s works, entitled 「オモニ幾星霜」 (roughly, “Mainly, Many Months and Years”) and painted in 1996, caught my eye with its deep blue composition. A woman in blue robes, resembling to me perhaps the Korean hanbok, stands in the lower right corner of the composition, her face rendered only in greys. The entire rest of the piece is merely a blue background, shifting in tone, growing darker towards the top, and interrupted here and there by stretches of red. I find this piece a very interesting combination of abstraction, juxtaposed against this depiction of a woman. What are we supposed to think is the theme, or the setting? Just the blue and the red, alone, abstractly, attracts interest – and I don’t normally go for abstract works. It’s a beautiful, cool, relaxing, blue, but shot through with red, like anger, like blood. How does this artwork make me (the viewer) feel, is I suppose the question the artist may be wanting me to be asking. I don’t even know the answer. Is the blue and red supposed to represent, perhaps, the memories or emotions of the woman?

My notes from the exhibit cut off there. But, as I said, this is the first of what is intended to be a long ongoing series of exhibits of the museum’s newest acquisitions, introducing visitors to the ever-growing, ever-changing collection, as the museum continues its efforts to obtain more Okinawan art, and to become ever moreso the chief collection of Okinawan art in the world, the chief center for the exhibition and study of that art, the chief center for the construction and dissemination of the standard narrative, the canonical story, of the history of this art – a history, a story, that is dreadfully, woefully, sadly unknown out in the wider world.

The Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own. The Museum is starting to get a lot better about allowing photography in the galleries – on the History side – but they still have a long way to go, towards allowing photos on the Art Museum side, if they want people to be able to spread and share the story, the beauty, the importance, the wonder of Okinawan art with others.

All in all, to conclude this whole series of posts on that one busy day at the Okinawa Prefecture Museum, there is something terribly exciting about seeing these exhibits, and feeling that even simply in attending the museum and seeing them, I am somehow a part of this storytelling, this narrative-writing. Though I am only a visitor, I am witnessing the construction of the Okinawan canon, and of the standard narrative of Okinawan art history, as it is being written. These are *the* exhibits where that is taking place, and this is *the* museum that is doing it. Much like the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, this is the one and only leading institution leading the charge in telling this story – in amassing a collection and using it to tell a story which, while we likely can’t say it’s never been told before, is certainly being told in a more fully coordinated manner now. All canons are false, and no narrative can ever be truly definitive. Canonization is terribly problematic in its own ways. But, still, in our teaching and in our research, we have standard narratives of Japanese art history, of Chinese art history, of European art history, to build upon, to critique, to work against; something to work to revise. Okinawan art history doesn’t have that yet – the Prefectural Museum is doing this very exciting work right here right now, as we speak, and by visiting the museum, we get to witness it, in the making. And that’s a really exciting thing, something you won’t get to see at the Metropolitan, the Boston Museum, the Freer-Sackler, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, LACMA, the Seattle Art Museum, or at many other places. All of these are excellent top-notch museums, and I absolutely love visiting them; I love them for what they are and what they do. But, I have a hard time feeling that any of them are really the one singular place – more so than any of the others on this short list of American museums – in functioning as the one and only leading institution leading the way in any one particular thing, let alone in recovering and telling the stories of their peoples; none of these museums are the one and only leading repository of not only objects but also of experts, expertise, and authority on a single culture, as places like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Bishop Museum are.

As I walk through the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Bishop Museum, I find myself feeling a certain kind of feeling of “good luck!” “hang in there!” “Chibariyo~!” A feeling of encouragement towards the staff of this museum as they embark on this project that is so personal and powerful and meaningful for them, as Okinawans, creating something for their own people, to promote their own history to the world. It’s a feeling akin to that which I felt in meeting Kamalu du Preez, Interim Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, briefly, at the LACMA opening earlier this year. A kind, energetic, young person, who is also a key member of a team (a staff) working to do this thing, recovering, safeguarding, sharing, the treasures of the history of her people, the Bishop Museum as one of the chief voices unto the world of what Hawaiian history and culture is (was), its beauty, its importance.

And a place like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum feels welcoming to me, in a weird way, despite the fact that I’ve only ever been a visitor and that it’s exceptionally unlikely I’ll ever be staff of any sort. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve visited so many times, and so it feels familiar. But perhaps it has something to do with the notion that I fear I will never be “art historian” enough for any of those mainland US museums – that the staff see me as a “historian,” as an outsider, and so long as they’ve got Columbia & Harvard PhD students explicitly in Art History primely placed to get internships or entry-level positions in those institutions, I’ll continue to be left out in the cold… whereas, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, as someone who is more a specialist in Okinawan Studies than nearly anyone else in the US-centered academic world, I can allow myself to feel a bit more “insider” here. I may not ever be staff; I may not even get to know, or get to be known by, the staff for some time yet. But even just as a visitor, just by going to the museum, I am learning things about Okinawa, witnessing exhibitions, that 99.99999% of Americans have never seen, and I can be the one to share it with them – in English, in a museum, gallery, book, or college classroom closer to home.

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11/4/16

Thanks to the Uchinanchu Taikai, I had a bus pass for unlimited free bus rides all over the island, for nearly a full week after the Taikai ended. So I decided to try to make the most use out of it (well, for one day anyway) while I still could, and went up to Katsuren gusuku – about a one hour bus ride from here, a ride which would normally have cost around 1000 yen (US$10) each way. Saved quite a bit of money.

But before actually going to the castle, I first went to the Yonashiro History Museum. Why it’s Yonashiro and not Yonagusuku is a mystery to me, but in any case, this was a tiny local history museum based in one wing of the town hall. A few years ago, archaeologists working on the grounds of Katsuren castle found a number of coins, which in recent months they determined to be, most probably, from the circa 4th century Roman Empire. That would make these the only Roman coins ever found in Japan – speaking to the incredible maritime activity and connections of pre-modern Okinawa, long before the island ever became part of any Japanese state.

From Kôhô Uruma Magazine’s November 2016 issue:

(rough translation my own; apologies for any errors)

Coins from the Roman and Ottoman Empires discovered at Katsuren Castle

About the excavated coins: In the 2013 archaeological survey conducted at Katsuren castle, ten small, round, metal coins were discovered (nine within the grounds of the castle, and one outside). The metal objects discovered in the survey were brought back [to the research center], and when they were further examined, four were determined by experts’ analysis to be circa 4th century Roman coins, and one a coin made in the 17th century Ottoman Empire. However, as analysis continues, the possibility remains for a different result [to emerge].

The dates we are currently conjecturing for the production of these coins places all five outside of the 12th to 15th centuries, the period of Katsuren’s peak prominence. Continued examination of the Katsuren site, and of ceramics and other objects excavated there, [will hopefully provide some answers as to] why these coins were found there, and how they came to Katsuren.

Other examples of similar coins being discovered in Okinawa are unknown, and it is thought likely that this is the first discovery of similar coins [i.e. from the Roman Empire] anywhere in Japan.

It is thought there is a possibility that someone related to Katsuren castle and serving as some kind of point of contact between East and West obtained the coins somewhere, and as such this is a very important find for continuing research on [the extent and form of] Katsuren’s still largely unconfirmed networks of interaction & exchange. This can be seen as a significant development not only for the fields of Okinawan history or Japanese history, but also for those of the histories of Western Asia, or of the West, and as such for World History as a whole.

Plans from here on: The remaining five coins which have not yet been thoroughly identified will be cleaned, and the designs and inscriptions on them will be examined. Further, the sites that have been excavated, and the artifacts excavated from those sites, will be carefully examined, a more thorough analysis of the composition of the objects will be undertaken, and from this we plan to better determine the time and place when/where they were made.

The History and Archaeological Surveys of Katsuren Castle

Katsuren castle was built around the 12th or 13th centuries, and flourished in the 14th and [early] 15th centuries through overseas trade. The castle fell in 1458, as the tenth lord of the castle, Amawari, was attacked by the armies of the Shuri royal government [i.e. of the unified Kingdom of Ryukyu which ruled over the whole island] and was defeated. From then through roughly the 17th century, the castle was used by the local people in some fashion, but little is known about this period in any detail.

Excavations on the grounds were begun in 1965 by the Ryukyu Government Cultural Properties Protection Agency [part of the Okinawan civil self-government under US martial Occupation], and in 1972 [following the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty] the site was named a National Historic Site. The site was named in 2000 as one of the sites included within the umbrella UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.” Today, the Katsuren Castle Site Maintenance Project receives funding from the Agency for Cultural Affairs [an agency within the Japanese national government], and the cultural office of the Uruma City Board of Education is overseeing archaeological excavations and restoration efforts. Excavation efforts began in earnest in 2012, with a focus on the fourth enclosure (the outermost of the castle’s four main enclosures, baileys, or enceintes, depending on one’s preferred term), and excavations of the eastern and northern portions of this area, and of the area immediately around the Nishihara Gate, were completed in 2015.

From my own notes, taken at the exhibition (if only they would have allowed us to take photos!! then I’d have the full gallery labels to look at again, and to take the time to translate them – I just didn’t have the time or patience to copy down everything by hand, on the spot):

Coin #2: seems to be from the Roman Empire, c. late 3rd century.

Coin #4: possibly from the reign of Suleiman II (r. 1687-1691) of the Ottoman Empire. The coin is labeled “Constantinople” in Arabic script, along with the date 1099 A.H. (=1687 CE).

Coin #5: seems to be a mid-4th century Roman bronze coin. Possibly inscribed “CONSTANTIVS”.

Coin #7: seems to be a coin issued on the occasion of the death of Constantine I in 337, thus making the coin’s date circa 337 to 340 CE.

Coin #8: seems to be from the period of shared/collaborative rule between Constantius Gallus and others, c. 337 to 340s or 350s CE. Researchers have noted similarities to a coin dated 347-348 CE and inscribed “CYZICVS.”

Other objects excavated from the castle site and displayed at the museum included Chinese coins from the Sui (581-618), Northern Song (907-1127), and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, as well as dice, hairpins, smoking pipes, elements of Japanese weapons & armor, and plenty of shards of pottery, including Chinese celadons and other luxury items from overseas.

I’m sorry that I don’t have more information… I shall certainly keep my eyes open for further news articles or the like.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, as I finish talking about my adventures of that day, at Katsuren castle, the surrounding neighborhood, and in Futenma/Ginowan on the way home.

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Continuing on from my last post

Right: Chinese folk deity Guan Yu, by Higa Kazan 比嘉崋山 (1868-1939), one of the premier Meiji period artists in the Okinawan equivalent of (mainland) Japan’s Nihonga movement. (Reproduction on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own.)

I find it really exciting to be seeing these exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. This is the history of Okinawan modern art, and the associated canon of works, being promulgated right here, right now. By which I don’t mean to say this is Okinawa’s equivalent of the Armory Show or the Salon des Beaux-Arts, events where the newest latest artworks made a great splash, receiving such positive or negative reactions that they later became famous, oft-cited – in other words, canonical – touchpoints in the history of modern art. But, still, these exhibits right now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum are the ones pointing to those earlier events and telling a story about them, in perhaps the most coordinated effort yet, and thus in doing so are creating the standard story of Okinawan modern art, and the standard works featured within that story. Imagine being there the first time a major museum put works by Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Magritte, Picasso, Gaugin, Seurat, Matisse, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Rauschenberg in a room together and told you, the viewer, that this is the story of “modern art.” Imagine getting to see all of those works, which a decade or two later have – as a result of this exhibit – become known as some of the most important, most famous works in the world. At that later time, students and others see these paintings in textbooks, in lecture slides, in newspapers or magazines or websites, and dream of someday hopefully getting to see them – but you were there, at the exhibit that made them famous. Visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and seeing all of these works by Nadoyama Aijun, Higa Kazan, Nakasone Shôzan, Ômine Seikan, Adaniya Masayoshi, Yonaha Chôtai, Kawahira Keizô, and all the rest, is something like that, but for Okinawan art.

I may be mistaken, I may be reading this whole thing wrong, but it certainly feels to me, as I walk through these galleries, that these are the exhibits that are setting the story. These are the exhibits people within the field will be talking about for decades to come. I certainly will be. I don’t know what competition might be out there, other up&coming English-speaking specialists in Okinawan art, but I’m certainly hoping to be one of the first to put out some kind of comprehensive survey in English on the overall history of Okinawan art, and/or to teach classes on it, and I certainly will be looking back at exactly these exhibits, and at some of those I have already missed, but for which I at least got the catalog, such as the museum’s opening exhibit, back in 2007: “Okinawa bunka no kiseki, 1872-2007.”

I wrote in my last post about developments in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Western oil painting (yôga) came onto the scene, and as “traditional” Japanese painting transformed into something new (Nihonga) in order to adapt to the new modern age. Sadly, I missed the earlier rotations of this “Okinawa bijutsu no nagare” (“The Flow of Okinawan Art”) exhibit, and as I am not so well-read on any of this yet, I don’t know actually what was going on in Okinawa’s art world at that time, that might better parallel these developments.

“Yaeyama Landscape” 八重山風景, by Ômine Seikan 大嶺政寛, 1970.

But, despite leaping anachronistically straight to the postwar period, artists like Nadoyama Aijun (1906-1970) and Ômine Seikan (1910-1987) were still hugely influential and significant pioneers in their own ways, for that time. I wish I could say what the earlier history of oil painting, or other Western influences, in Okinawa were, and thus where exactly Nadoyama and Ômine fit into a longer story. I’ll learn that in time. But, even in the postwar period, they were creating works that depicted traditional Okinawan subjects in relatively realistic (if at times Impressionistic) styles, that far more closely resemble the styles of Paris-trained Meiji era artists, than those of abstract or conceptual artists of, say, the 1960s. Maybe a more trained eye would be able to look at these and know immediately that there’s something about their style that marks them as being no earlier than the 1940s-50s, but to me, they remind me of those Meiji developments, as artists like Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui worked to depict their own world – Japan, a Japan still very much filled with “traditional” sights – in a Western, “modern,” realistic mode. Also like the Meiji artists of a half-century or so earlier, Nadoyama and his contemporaries were founding artist communities, exhibitions, and journals, and exploring new (well, by the postwar maybe not so new) ways of being an artist in the modern world.

Nadoyama followed, really, somewhat, in the steps of the major Meiji period artists. Born in 1906, he began studying oil painting in 1924, at the Tokyo Art School (Tôkyô bijutsu gakkô), the very same school that is at the center of the standard narratives of the major developments of Meiji art. Twenty years later, he lost nearly all of his works in a major air raid on October 10, 1944.1 Two years later, after the end of the war, he created what’s now in the process of becoming one of the canonical works of 20th century Okinawan painting, a portrait of a woman in a white bingata robe, titled simply 「白地紅型を着る」 (lit. “Wearing Bingata with a White Ground”, Left.).

Meanwhile, in August 1945, within the very first weeks of the Occupation, US Navy officer Willard Hanna headed the establishment of what they called the Okinawa Exhibit Hall (沖縄陳列館). The US Military Government of the Ryukyus also established an Office of Culture & Art (文化美術課) and enacted some significant efforts to support and promote artists, actors, dancers, and the like. In 1948, Nadoyama, along with a number of others, successfully petitioned the mayor of Shuri for the creation of an artists’ community which they termed Nishimui; many of the artists who took up residency there worked for this Culture & Arts Office, either as “art officers” (美術技官) or in some other capacity. They established private studios at Nishimui, and many made a living by painting portraits for GIs, using that money and stability to pursue their art practice. Today, we are told, one of those studios remains in operation in the Gibo neighborhood of Shuri.

As early as the following year, in 1949, the artists of Nishimui organized the first “Okinawa Exposition,” or Okiten, an event meant to stand as the premier art exhibition in Okinawa, paralleling the national-level Ministry of Arts Exhibition, or “Bunten,” held annually in Tokyo, which had by then been renamed the “Japan Exhibition,” or Nitten.

Though it may be anachronistic to compare 1920s-40s Okinawa with 1870s-90s Japan, I cannot help but see Nadoyama’s story as connecting into the broader story of Okinawa’s art history, as a parallel to Japan’s. Just as we learn of the Tokyo Art School and the Bunten, and the various different art schools, artists’ groups, exhibitions, notable events, art/literary magazines, that took place, and the factions and tensions and rivalries, and the role of all of this in influencing the art itself in Meiji period Tokyo and Kyoto, so too does Okinawa have its stories, of the Nishimui artists’ village, created in 1948 in Shuri, and the relationship of these artists to the US military Occupation government; and of the Okiten, first held in 1949. And for me, that’s one of the things I love the most, is the stories. Stories that have yet to be told widely enough; stories that have yet to be incorporated into our mental vision, or understanding, of our infinitely complex, diverse, colorful world.

“Now… (3)” by Kawahira Keizô, 1988. Apologies for the skewed shape of the image here; I wish I would have been permitted to take my own photos in the exhibit, but since I wasn’t, and since I can’t find images of the work online, I had to fall back to taking a cellphone photo of an image out of a book.

The other major side of what I found so intriguing about this exhibition at the Prefectural Museum was how starkly obvious it is, just by glancing around the room, that Okinawa was right there, following right along with global art trends – that Okinawa is not only folk art; that they were not woefully behind the times; that while they may have been absent from the global art scene, and remain absent from our narratives of world art history, they were indeed producing modern art indicative of the styles current around the world in the 1930s, 1960s, 1980s. Looking around the room, one can immediately spot works that absolutely reflect those styles, and interests, in abstraction or whatever it may be, while at the same time reflecting the particulars of Okinawan culture, identity, history, politics, and experience.

“Now… (3)” (1988) by Kawahira Keizô, an oil painting depicting the Japanese and American flags flying together against a perfect cloudless blue sky, has a smoothness and starkness that, well, I don’t know what exactly was going on in the 1980s elsewhere in the world, but it’s certainly moved on past the obsessions with abstraction and conceptual art of the 1960s-70s, and with earlier decades’ trends in rejecting realism and embracing impressionism. This is one of the cleanest paintings in the place – bright colors, stark clear lines, nothing impressionistic or “stylized” about it.

“Koko ni iru watashi” (ここにいるわたし) by Gibo Katsuyuki 儀保克幸 (2009). Image from galleryokinawa.com.

Koko ni iru watashi” (“I, who am here”), a wooden sculpture of a schoolgirl by Gibo Katsuyuki, made in 2009, similarly, would not stand out at any contemporary art gallery. Put it in a US university’s art gallery and tell me it’s by one of the MFA students, or one of the professors, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But, look closer, and you find that the girl is hiding her hands behind her back, and that they are tattooed with designs which were typical on Okinawan women’s hands prior to the late 19th century, and which were banned as “uncivilized” practices for many decades.

These pieces are not only beautiful, masterful, inspiring, moving pieces of art, just as good, just as modern, as anything produced elsewhere in the world, but they also speak to the viewer of a particular story, a particular experience. They convey for us the emotions of that experience, and the issues and difficulties of that particular history, a history unique to Okinawa, and thus contributing to the diverse fabric of global understanding something that only they can provide – the uniquely Okinawan piece of the jigsaw. At the same time, these same issues parallel those shared by a great many indigenous and colonized peoples around the world – issues of suppressed, destroyed, lost traditions and efforts to revive and restore one’s identity; issues of stolen land and of suffering under occupation – issues which the vast majority of utterly mainstream (post)modernist, conceptual, abstract, thematic works by Japanese, American, or European artists won’t give you.

I can’t believe it; I wasn’t planning for this to be a whole series of posts. I think my first (lost) draft was actually much more concise. Oh well. I’m certainly not going to complain about having more content. Stay tuned for Part 3.


1) At least one of Nadoyama’s prewar works, long thought lost, was actually discovered in 2006.; as for the air raid, why am I not surprised that even despite the extensive interest among English-language Wikipedia writers, and English-language history enthusiasts more generally, in just about all aspects of World War II, there is no English-language Wikipedia page for the 10-10 Air Raid, an event cited regularly in Okinawan histories as a specific and extremely notable event?

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I have been very much enjoying visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum several times these last few weeks. They have three exhibits up right now on different aspects of Okinawan modern art, which not only provide the opportunity for me to learn new things, to continue to work towards an ever-fuller (though never complete) vision, or understanding, of the infinite depth and breadth of all that is “Okinawa,” its people, and their history & culture, but they also remind me of who I want to be as a scholar. I feel in my element, in a way, in those galleries. I am not someone whose passion lies chiefly in wrestling with complex conceptual interpretive problems about how our society functions, or what anything “really” “means,” so much as I am someone who revels in learning new things – stories, images – and then sharing them with others.

I am not a specialist in modern art, and none of these exhibits really do much to inform my research in any direct way. They are addressing a different period, a different set of themes and questions: problems of modernity, of identity amid a particular context of 20th century political and cultural experience. But these are still Okinawan objects and images, Okinawan stories – stories that are only just now beginning to be told; stories I am glad to be learning, deepening and expanding my knowledge; and stories that I am eager to share with others, should I ever be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to teach a university course on Okinawan art history, or to curate an exhibit.

The museum’s exhibition calendar for 2016-17, which I’m putting here as a stand-in for the notion of Okinawa bijutsu no nagare, the “flow” of the history/development of Okinawan art.

The first of these exhibits is part of an ongoing, or at least quite frequent, series of rotations of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, constructing and conveying a standard narrative of the history of Okinawan art, as well as a canon for that art history. On those rare occasions when Okinawan art appears at all in museum exhibitions outside of Okinawa, or in textbooks or course syllabi, it almost always takes the form of folk arts or decorative artstextiles, lacquerwares, ceramics – or, if you’re really lucky, you just might see discussion of the aesthetic world of the Ryukyu Kingdom more broadly, one drawing heavily on Ming Dynasty Chinese styles, in terms of the bold colors of Shuri castle, and of the court costume of the Confucian scholar-officials who peopled its government; not to mention ships, paintings, traditional Okinawan architecture otherwise… Or, you might maybe see something of far more contemporary work, political art, speaking to contemporary indigenous identity struggles and/or the ongoing protest campaigns against the US military presence. And all of these are fantastic and wonderful in their own ways. But, what you won’t see at other institutions, and what therefore makes these exhibits at the Prefectural Museum so exciting, is the fuller narrative of how Okinawan art got from one to the other – and the fuller narrative of everything that happened in between.

Right: Nadoyama Aijun 名渡山愛順, one of the giants of Okinawa’s early postwar art scene.

Having studied Japanese art under John Szostak, a specialist in late 19th to early 20th century “modernist” movements in Japan, I have something of a basic knowledge of the vibrant and complex developments of that time. As Japanese artists began to engage with Western “modern” or “modernist” art, and with negotiating their own place in the “modern”/”modernist” art world, many took up European oil-painting (J: yôga, lit. “Western pictures”), creating works that drew heavily upon and emulated – sometimes more closely, sometimes less – the styles, approaches, and themes of French Academic painting, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and so forth, albeit while still creating works distinctively Japanese in their subject matter, thematic concerns, or otherwise. Meanwhile, other artists worked to maintain “traditional” Japanese painting – in traditional media, i.e. ink and colors on paper or silk, depicting traditional subjects, motifs, themes – and to adapt it to the modern age, giving birth to a movement known as Nihonga (lit. “Japanese pictures”). Both of these movements were also closely tied into issues of inventing a national identity, a set of national arts and national traditions, the creation of a canon of “Japanese art history,” and issues of performing modernity, proving to the world that the Japanese (1) can do modern art, and modernity in general, just as well as anyone else; that they are fully modern people and ought to be treated as respected equals, and that the Japanese (2) possess a history and cultural traditions that are just as noble, as beautiful, as anyone else’s.

The stories of this time in Japanese art history, of these movements in painting, and of parallel developments in architecture, textiles, ceramics, and countless other aspects of visual & material culture (or, aesthetic life), are beginning to be shared in major art museums, university classrooms, and elsewhere in the US, though they remain woefully under-discussed, under-known. Giants of Japanese art history such as Asai Chû, Kuroda Seiki, and Leonard Foujita; Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Kanô Hôgai, Uemura Shôen, and Maeda Seison; among many, many, others, along with the stories of their competing art schools, the development of the salon-style Bunten national art exhibitions, and so forth, remain almost entirely unknown even among the most regular visitors to the Metropolitan (for the example), the most devoted, cultured, informed, passionate lovers of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, or whatever. And I am most certainly eager to someday hopefully be granted the opportunity to share these stories with college students, museumgoers, or some other portion of the willing public.

But Okinawa has its art history story, too, and it is fascinating to see how these very same trends manifested in Okinawa at the very same time, in ways that sometimes closely parallel what was going on in Japan, and sometimes diverge, speaking to Okinawa’s unique, particular, cultural and historical experience. I sadly missed the earlier rotations of this Okinawa bijutsu no nagare (“the flow of Okinawan art”) set of exhibits, which would have covered precisely that period, from roughly the 1860s until the 1900s, as the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and absorbed into the newly-born modern nation-state of Japan, and as Okinawan artists first began to wrestle with the very same issues of tradition and modernity, Okinawanness/Japaneseness vs. the Western, and so forth, creating their own Okinawan version of the Nihonga movement, as well as oil paintings, and so forth. But, even in the rotation I did see, which begins around the 1930s and features artists and artworks up through the end of the 20th century, we see many of the same themes, and we see how they played out similarly, and differently, in Okinawa.

(More on this in my next post, coming up soon. Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Okinawan Art & History Part 2)

Thanks to the Ryukyu Cultural Archives for making the photo of Nadoyama, and so many other images easily accessible on the web, while the Prefectural Museum prevents one from right-clicking to either link to or save the images from their website. All images used here only for explanatory/educational fair use purposes.

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Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.

The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.

A feather helmet (mahiole) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Royal cloaks (ʻahu ʻula) in the background.

Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.

It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.

A cape (center) associated with King Kamehameha III, and two other cloaks from the Bishop Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.

I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.

Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.

The crowd there to see the exhibit created a particular energy in the gallery, that I think made for a wonderfully different experience than if I had visited at any other time.

The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.

A feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu and obtained by the Bishop Museum in 1968, from the Earl of Elgin.

Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.

And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.

We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.

Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.

The mamo, as depicted by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1900.

Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?

Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.

Tammeamea (Kamehameha I) by Louis Choris, 1816. Pen and ink, ink wash, and watercolor on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art.

A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.

All photos are my own.

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