On my recent trip to New York, I picked up two more Pacific Art books. I have yet to have the chance to read them through, cover-to-cover, so this post is not part of my series of response essays on books read for my exams, but rather, a book review post like those I have done more typically, previously, sharing general impressions based on a thorough skim.
The first, Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles, was a particularly exciting find. A 1980 exhibit catalog from Bishop Museum Press, I found it at the Strand, one of New York’s greatest bookstores. This is not an exhibit I had ever heard of before, and it was a very different exhibit from just about any other Pacific art exhibition I have ever heard of.
In Pacific art books, courses, and exhibits, including in Pacific Art in Detail, the second book I’ll be discussing in this post, the focus is typically on objects of traditional use: fish hooks, baskets, tapa/kapa cloth, oars/paddles, religious icons, ritual garments, and so forth. And that’s fine. That’s great. These objects are beautiful, fascinating, and the cultural beliefs & practices to which they are related are of great value and interest and importance. From a historian’s or anthropologist’s point of view, they constitute the material culture of that society, and are valuable tools for examining, investigating, understanding, and envisioning that society, and from the art historian’s point of view, too, these constitute the artistic production of that society, products of that society’s aesthetic sense or interests, and are valuable tools for encouraging appreciation of those aesthetics, appreciation of that society, appreciation of the great diversity of our world, and that everyone makes art worthy of appreciation.
But, Hawaiʻi has a history, too, of a cohesive, complex, and in many ways “modern”/Westernized polity, as many other places in the Pacific do as well. Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was an exhibition of that history. It did not only include koa wooden bowls, feather cloaks, wooden idols, and other objects of “traditional” culture, such as we would expect to typically see in any Pacific art exhibit; rather, it included numerous paintings and photos of the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi, of Honolulu and other parts of Hawaiʻi itself, and of haole and other influential figures in Hawaiian history from Captain Cook all the way up through the overthrow, as well as “modern” or “Western” objects1 related to the kingdom, such as the scepter, sword, and ring used at Kalākaua’s coronation, the royal throne of Kamehameha III, examples of the Order of Kalākaua and Order of Kamehameha, the gown worn by Liliʻuokalani for her coronation, and the suit worn by Curtis ʻIaukea at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, along with traditional items directly associated with the royals, such as a feather lei worn by Princess Kaʻiulani. Unlike the fishhooks and so forth which are wonderfully evocative of a culture, but which alone convey to a Western museumgoer, or reader, little sense of a historical narrative, these objects convey to that Western observer a clear sense of a line of kings and queens with a real history, developing over time through different personalities, different times, different events and influences and obstacles.2 The exhibit contained at least one formal portrait of every monarch of the united Hawaiian Kingdom, from Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) to Queen Liliʻuokalani (r. 1891-1893), and through these portraits, a variety of objects directly associated with the monarchs, and other paintings, photos, and objects, the exhibit suggested, if not actually narrating directly, the complex and real history of the kingdom, as it confronted Westernization, dynastic change, pressure from imperialist powers, and eventually, overthrow.
King Kamehameha III (r. 1825-1854), and his sister Nāhiʻenaʻena, ages 12 and 10 respectively, in 1825 works by Robert Dampier, which were included in the exhibition in 1980. I was fortunate to see these on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, last year, where I believe they are now on regular or permanent display. As the HMA gallery labels note, both the king and his sister normally wore Western clothing for both formal and everyday occasions, and dressed in this fashion merely for the portrait.
I do not know what gallery text accompanied the exhibit, as it was mounted, at the time, but the catalog entries include short sections which run through themes pertaining to the history of Hawaiʻi, from earliest mythical origins, through the reigns of the various kings and queens, including themes such as “symbols of sovereignty,” hula, pre-contact Hawaiian religion, and the arrival & influence of missionaries. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to present an apolitical account of this history, and in order to say quite where this book lies, what sort of narrative it is presenting, I would have to read it more closely, and really analyze what is and is not being said. But upon a brief skim I think it’s fair to say that while these brief sections do not level any boldfaced criticism of the US, or of the other imperialist powers, nor of the haole influence within the islands, neither is the book particularly laudatory or celebratory of haole/US influence either, presenting what it presents in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. As such, this is not a powerfully progressive book, like Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui or Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom, but neither is it a regressive text, presenting the Hawaiians as backwards, or the US takeover as a great and wonderful thing. As for the history, it is at least a good source for the most basic outlines of the history of the kingdom – names & dates & events, from Captain Cook, through each of the kings and queens, to Liliʻuokalani.
The one lengthy essay in the catalog, entitled “The Persistence of Tradition,” and written by Adrienne Kaeppler, builds upon this basic framework in a very valuable way. Having not read it through word for word, I cannot say precisely how good this essay is, or whether it is wholly unproblematic, but, I can say that it contains a number of important ideas that I think may have been radical (in a good way) for the museumgoer, or catalog reader, of 35 years ago. Kaeppler writes positively of the value and validity of oral tradition, and negatively of how Western media has, for the most part, ever since Captain Cook all the way up through the present, “largely built upon the original erroneous conceptions, and have done little to dispel the myths” (53). Perhaps more pleasantly surprising for a book of this age, and also of great importance, is her foregrounding the idea that
traditional Hawaiian world views, philosophies, arts, and crafts still flourish in Hawaiʻi in spite of the overlay of 19th and 20th century European and American value systems, a competitive money economy, and an introduced Christian God. Even before the recent resurgence of Hawaiian tradition, there were many visible elements of Hawaiian culture that had never died. The persistence of tradition is a more appropriate vision of Hawaiʻi … Hawaiian values have not fossilized; they are living forces for inspiration and creation that form a continuous link between the Hawaiʻi of today and of yesterday. (53-54, emphasis added)
Perhaps it should not be surprising that we should see such ideas in 1980, as the Hawaiian Renaissance was well underway already since sometime in the 1970s, nor should it be surprising that the Bishop Museum – the museum founded in the name of Hawaiian royal Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and housing the collection of the Kamehameha Dynasty, including the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts of any institution in the world – should be saying these rather progressive, pro-indigenous, anti-Eurocentric, things, even a full 35 years ago, and taking the bother to include the ʻokina where appropriate throughout. But, still, given that issues of how to appropriately and respectfully represent indigenous cultures in museums remains very much an ongoing debated issue today, something museums are still very much struggling to do properly, it was for me really something to see these kinds of attitudes and approaches represented in this fashion in a 35-year-old book. In particular, the attitude, or conventional wisdom, that indigenous peoples or at least their distinctive culture, have all but died out, and belong only to the past, remains quite strong today in the United States, if not elsewhere in the world, and it is only in the last few years, or maybe the last decade or two at most, that many museums in the country have begun to more actively include contemporary Native American works alongside the traditional ones, in their galleries, in order to more directly and actively confront this myth, and to assert instead the “persistence of tradition.” To give some examples, the National Museum of the American Indian only first opened its doors in 2004, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though I do not recall how they represented Native American art/history/culture previously, it is in the new American Wing, which only just opened in 2010 or 2011, that contemporary Native American artworks are placed front and center amidst older objects. Even the Bishop Museum itself, though I don’t know precisely how things were represented in the past, only very recently did an overhaul of its permanent galleries, re-opening Hawaiian Hall in 2009, and Pacific Hall in 2013, with a renewed focus on Native, rather than Western/anthropological, perspectives. In any case, Kaeppler’s essay goes on to discuss at some length Hawaiian origin myths, beliefs about mana and kapu (taboos), and so forth, hopefully informing the 1980 visitor about Hawaiian traditional values and their vitality still today, and perhaps even inspiring that visitor, or reader, to rethink their attitudes, as to the validity and appeal of these non-Western perspectives. I certainly think this essay, along with the rest of the catalog, will be of value and usefulness to me, as I continue my education in Hawaiian & Pacific historical matters.
Replica of the 1886 Convention on Immigration signed between Meiji Japan and the Hawaiian Kingdom, with photograph of Hawaiʻi’s Permanent Minister in Japan, Robert Walker Irwin, and his Japanese wife Iki. On display at Bishop Museum, 2011.
But, to return to what really impressed and amazed me about this catalog, is that such an exhibit could be held, was held, traveling to museums in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I said at the beginning of this post, every other Pacific art exhibit I have seen on the US mainland, or for example at the British Museum in London, has focused on utilitarian and ritual objects of traditional culture, and only very rarely do I recall seeing such an exhibit that extended beyond the permanent galleries, into being a special exhibition. For a place like the Metropolitan or the MFA to devote such space, money, efforts, and so forth to a show of Pacific art is, at least in my experience, all but unheard of. And for them to do so with an exhibit that brings forth the greatest “national”/royal treasures of the Hawaiian Kingdom, to tell a story not about a culture in vague “traditional” “past” times, but rather a story about a complex and modern kingdom, with a chronology of monarchs with specific names, appearances (portraits), and so forth, who possess a real narrative of the rise and fall, trials and tribulations, of their kingdom just like any other Western or non-Western country, is truly something I never suspected ever took place. Not at this level. Not on this scale. Half the objects in this exhibition I have not even seen at the Bishop Museum or ʻIolani Palace themselves, in Hawaiʻi, let alone ever dreaming of seeing them at a mainland museum. My point, simply is this: if mainland museums won’t even show enough interest to devote time, money, effort, to bringing over an incredible show of Hawaiian Art Deco, how can we hope to ever see such an exhibit as this? Or, a different way around, I am honestly floored by the idea that this exhibit ever took place. Can it, will it, ever take place again? Why do we not have more exhibits like this one? The American people could really benefit to learn more about this history, and given the general appeal of Hawaiʻi, and the flashiness of thrones, royal scepters, and monarchy in general, I think this really could be a rather successful blockbuster exhibit. I don’t think it would fall flat. Tonga or Samoa, Fiji or Guam, sadly, might be just a little too distant to attract the crowds; but Hawaiʻi, for better or for worse, is a part of our country, and very much a part of our popular consciousness – I think people would be interested to see such an exhibit as this. Plus, if the immense popularity of the Met’s Alexander McQueen and “China Through the Looking Glass” shows are any indication, fashion has some serious popular attraction – so, an exhibit such as this, including Liliʻuokalani’s coronation gown and ʻIaukea’s formal Victorian-style official suit, should fall at least partially within that market, right?
Well, at least we have the catalog, which is available used on Amazon, as well as elsewhere on the Internet, for rather reasonable prices.
The second book I’d like to touch upon today is Pacific Art in Detail, one of a series on artistic traditions from different parts of the world, put out by the British Museum in 2011. The book, aimed at a fairly general museumgoing / arts-interested audience, incorporates on a fundamental level many wonderful progressive ideas about approaching Pacific art, including some of those I have already mentioned above: e.g. that post-Contact objects including Western influences and/or imported materials can still be authentically “traditional,” that these traditions do survive, and that contemporary art is also very much a part of the bounds of “Pacific art” – that there is a such thing as contemporary Pacific art, and that it addresses important themes of identity and politics in interesting, powerful, and artistically high-quality, post-modern ways. I suppose no one is going to be reading this book who is not already inclined towards interest in Pacific art, in non-Western cultures, and in non-Western perspectives, but, still, for any reader, from the beginner with a passing interest to someone like myself, the book helps instill in the reader a broad-ranging and fundamentally progressive (read: post-colonial, anti-Eurocentric) perspective on a variety of matters important to understanding and appreciating Pacific Island cultures and history.
I suppose there are two things which I most appreciate and enjoy about this book. One is the essays and thematic content, as touched upon in the previous paragraph, and the excellent quotes which can be pulled out from them. The second is the treatment of the British Museum’s collection. Just as Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles serves as an excellent source for at least a portion of the Bishop Museum’s collection – a source for knowing about portraits of the monarchs, royal costumes & objects, photos, and a variety of other objects that exist in that collection – this is a good source for some of the chief treasures of the British Museum’s collection. And, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite not having any dedicated Pacific gallery, the British Museum does have many of these objects on display, in thematic galleries on the Enlightenment, “Collecting the World,” and “Living and Dying.”
A hei tiki given to Captain Cook by a Maori chief in 1769. Carved of jade (nephrite), it is meant to absorb the mana of those who wear it, and continue to accumulate mana down through the ages, becoming ever a more and more powerful object. Given by Cook to King George III, and thence to the British Museum, and having become one of the canonical objects of Pacific art history due to its inclusion in British Museum displays and publications, I would say it has certainly acquired considerable power of a sort, albeit if not exactly within the Polynesian context.
Whereas the Bishop Museum’s collection is largely that of the Kamehameha Dynasty itself (or, more cynically, as appropriated by Charles Reed Bishop, top banker in Hawaiʻi in the 1890s, on par with Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan in his fat-cat-ness), and whereas the collections of most American museums, such as the Metropolitan, come largely from individual collectors and donors, the British Museum’s collection of Pacific artifacts comes largely from nationally-sponsored voyages of exploration, and from the imperial/colonial project. While this introduces considerable controversy, and very rightfully so, for obvious reasons, at the same time, it means that the Museum does possess a great many objects of great historical significance, which a place like the Metropolitan does not. Thus, we are able, at the Museum and in Pacific Art in Detail, to look not just at various general fishhooks but at, for example, a particular set of shark-fishing fishhooks made for the exclusive use of high chiefs – the only ones permitted to fish to catch sharks – and possibly given as gifts directly to Captain Cook himself, or his crew. Not only are these objects directly associated with some truly famous, prominent, significant historical events (the voyages of Captain Cook and his “discovery” of Hawaiʻi), but they are also significant and powerful within a Native Hawaiian context, as they are imbued with the mana of these chiefs.
Left: A wedding dress designed by New Zealand-based Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, in 2014, incorporating traditional designs and material – siapo (barkcloth, known as tapa or kapa in other regions) – into a rather postmodern garment.
Pacific Art in Detail talks about a wonderful range of “traditional” objects from across the Pacific, but also extends into discussing contemporary art. We are told that one of nine Pacific Islanders lives elsewhere in the world, and yet “Oceanic artists can feel more closely defined – whether they would like to be or not – by their cultural background” (16).
Personally, this has long been a particularly fascinating aspect or element of contemporary art. I have no doubt that there are artists of Pacific Islander ancestry who are producing works having little or no relation to that heritage, and many of them may be great artworks in their own ways. But, what really intrigues me, and which this book delves into as well, is the various ways in which contemporary artists draw upon their own heritage and traditions, and wrestle with their identity & that of their people more broadly, and with colonial & post-colonial politics. As Anne D’Alleva is quoted as writing, “the past is as multi-faceted and open to interpretation as the present, and tradition is not fixed but contested” (17). And, further, not only are people today drawing upon the traditions of the past, but also expressing, practicing, and influencing the traditions of the present – present traditions which are real and ongoing. All cultural identities draw upon a past for their foundations, their histories and identities, but cultural identities also exist in the present, and the people of today are no less Polynesian, no less Pacific Islander, for living today, rather than in the past. And, the artworks they produce, similarly, are no less authentic, no less genuine, for having been made in the 21st century rather than the 18th.
Pacific Art in Detail links past and present beautifully, and introduces readers to the power, meaning, and aesthetics of Pacific art, in order to help readers know how to appreciate Pacific art – not only for its style, design and aesthetic qualities, but also for its cultural and historical meaning, for its association with great people and events, or with spirits, deities, or cultures. It also serves as a great introduction to the highlights of the British Museum’s Pacific collections.
All photos are my own.
1) Of course, we shouldn’t really draw such stark categories between “traditional” and “modern” or “Western,” since, as Stacy Kamehiro reminds us, a great many things about the Hawaiian Kingdom incorporated Hawaiian traditional symbols and practices on a fundamental level, into a distinctively Hawaiian modernity – just as Meiji Japan (1868-1912) was no less Japanese for being modern, as well.
2) Objects such as fishhooks and feather cloaks can very much be the vehicles for history and memory within indigenous traditions. The malo ura of the Tahitian high chiefs serves as a great examples of this, as it was passed down from one chief to another, maintained in a sacred storehouse, and worn for various special occasions, incorporating the mana of those great people and great events within it. Pacific Art in Detail also talks about a variety of other objects which were used in various ways, if not to “record” history as we might understand it in the West, then at least to serve as mnemonic aids, for a chief or priest to recite the genealogies using the carved bumps in a rod, for example, to help him remember the generations. While this approach to history and memory may seem rather foreign to us at first, in truth, it is not so foreign, is it? After all, we Westerners, too, can look at a fishhook given as a gift to Captain Cook, and feel it is a greater object, somehow, imbued with the significance of that association and that event. Even if we do not think of it as containing “mana,” it is certainly much more than just a piece of ivory – it is a very specific piece of ivory, that passed through Cook’s hands, that was given to him in conjunction with a very prominent historical event, and that very same fishhook is now sitting in a glass case before you, as symbol of that event, and because of that object, you are thinking about that event again. So, I just want to be clear that I do not mean to ignore or disparage indigenous ways of knowing; and, indeed, an exhibition truly dedicated to indigenous ways of knowing could be fascinating. But, for the Western museum visitor, or Western catalog reader, I think there is something very valuable in showing too – just as Kalākaua himself wished to show the world back in the 1870s-80s – that Hawaiʻi had a vibrant, complex, and meaningful history as can be understood in a Western mode, too, in order to recognize and respect Hawaiʻi as a kingdom, and as one quite similar to Western countries in a lot of ways.
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