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Archive for the ‘Pacific art’ Category

I was very glad for the coincidental good timing that I got to be in London to see the Oceania exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts. I had read online about this being the largest Oceanic Art exhibit ever held in the UK, so I was quite excited. And it was, indeed, an excellent exhibit, though not quite as large in the end as I might have expected. If this was the largest ever held, that’s not really saying much for all the previous ones.

Still, I think it was really a privilege to get to see it. The show opened with a video by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a spoken word and performance artist from the Marshall Islands, whose performance put me on the verge of tears right from the very beginning. I wonder how most other visitors received this, how it made them feel. Because I now have so much more background in this, I know a little more deeply what she’s talking about, and sympathize and resonate with it, at least a little more. In the video, she speaks of buying gifts for friends, of earrings and baskets, and telling her friends, when other people ask you about those items, tell them you got them from the Marshall Islands.

Tell them about our culture and our history.
Tell them about how the oceans are rising and our islands are flooding.
Tell them how we don’t want to leave.
Tell them we are nothing without our islands.

This set the tone for me, as if it were an exhibit of a vanishing race, so to speak. Even as I know better, that Pacific Island peoples are (for now) very much alive, that their traditions and culture and contemporary identity are very much alive and current, not belonging only to the past, even so, this set a certain tone, making me think of as if, what if the oceans do keep rising and the islands do disappear, and what if someday not so long from now, these treasures become emblematic representative examples of a much diminished greatness that once was? Some of the only things to survive from a myriad of cultures spanning a vast ocean, which have disappeared into that ocean?

While contemporary artworks were mixed in throughout, the core of the exhibit to my mind was the great many artifacts borrowed from across the UK, Europe, and beyond, representing cultures all across the Pacific and including many objects I might never otherwise see unless I visited Berlin, Vienna, and a half dozen other cities. Many were famous objects I’d seen in books or catalogs before, or objects of some great historical significance otherwise – such as the oldest extant pictorial depiction of a Christian house of worship by a Pacific artist; or sketches drawn by Tupaia, one of the very first Pacific Islanders to ever travel to (be brought to) Europe.

To see the Kūkaʻilimoku statue belonging to the British Museum, one of only three such large-scale Hawaiian kiʻi (tikis) extant in the world, was breathtaking. I had seen it before, at the Bishop Museum, elevated high up on a pedestal alongside its two brothers, in a most historic and powerful reunion of the three, returning two of them to the islands (from Salem MA and London) for the first time since the 18th or very early 19th century. But to see it more close-up, closer to ground level, now, was a real privilege. And I imagine that if I knew the backstories behind more of these objects I would feel similarly about more of them as well.

The exhibit was organized in part by Nicholas Thomas, unquestionably one of the leading Pacific scholars in the world, and had the involvement of Noelle Kahanu and Ty Kawika Tengan (two of the most prominent Native Hawaiian scholars active today), as well as Maia Nuku (Pacific Art curator of the Metropolitan Museum), and some other Māori scholars as well. And it was obvious from the labels and from the audio guide that the emphasis was being placed on Native cultures and Native perspectives, not on the history of “discoverers” or “discoveries.” I am sorry to say that no matter how you dress it up, I could only muster so much interest for fishhooks and spears and the like. But, even so, the fact that they were there, representing so many different Pacific cultures – not just the Sepik Valley over and over again as in the Met’s permanent collection galleries – were being described as to their treasured value within their cultures, and included some of the greatest such treasures of European collections, made them appeal nevertheless.

One highlight of the exhibit was the installation of Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” a video art piece installed all along one very long wall of an entire room. Emulating a particular famous painting of European explorers viewing the planet Venus from Tahiti, the video is brilliantly designed to resemble a painting, but animated, with the figures within acting out numerous individualized scenes of European and Islander activities and interactions. Some more friendly and peaceful than others. These scenes are isolated, but interconnected. Here, a small group of islanders perform a hula or other sort of dance. Nearby, some sailors sing a sea shanty. Explorers take off layers of clothing and fan themselves as they look around at the scenery. Islanders pray, or gather for food. An explorer suddenly gets scared, and grabs his gun, pointing it in this direction and that. A native prepares and fires a sling. The gun goes off. A Native is killed. The sailor is all the more wary now, scared of what he’s done, and scared there might be more Natives around, coming for him. The video continues to slowly scroll, continually, such that each of these scenes, as they repeat or develop, gradually moves to the left and eventually off-screen, replaced by others. The music and sounds change depending on what is visible on-screen, from happy and sunny Native songs, bird tweets, and the sounds of the ocean to ominous, deep dramatic music, as skirmishes break out and people are killed. I had read about or seen stills or segments of this in the past, but had never seen the whole thing before. A wonderful precious opportunity.

A section of “Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals)” by John Pule, an artist from Niue. Look closer and you can see specific episodes from past and present.

The show closes with a last room featuring a few more traditional and contemporary pieces. One in blue and black and white, resembling at first glance the sketches of Tupaia, caught my eye. On closer examination, one sees the events of 9/11, and the ensuing mobilization of warplanes and tanks, dropping bombs on cities. One sees missiles, nuclear or otherwise, being preppred for launch. One sees people carrying away moai and other Pacific treasures. A beautiful and powerful piece.

In total, I suppose the exhibit covered X rooms (galleries), and felt to me like maybe about the same size as a Metropolitan special exhibit. Sizable, but not so incredible. I wonder, if we were to actually compare the number of objects or the number of galleries to, for example, the Silla exhibit at the Met, the Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit I saw at LACMA, or the much larger(-feeling) Pre-Columbian exhibit I saw at the Getty, how this would compare.
I did buy the catalog, though. While entrance to the exhibit itself was definitely overpriced at £15, especially compared to the British Museum being free, the catalog was very reasonably priced at £13. So I took advantage of that opportunity to buy a nice, big, full-color book.

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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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Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).

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Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…

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“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:

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Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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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.

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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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Adrienne Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Oxford University Press, 2008.

In The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Adrienne Kaeppler not only provides a broad-ranging and detailed survey of material cultural forms and objects of the various cultures of these two regions, but also introduces the reader to a number of crucial theoretical or critical issues in approaching these objects and traditions.

The first chapter provides an introduction and overview of the geography and history of the islands and their peoples, and of those peoples’ various types of arts.

In the second chapter, in the course of discussing various forms of ritual containers, Kaeppler discusses the inseparable interconnectedness in Pacific cultures between objects, ritual use, and meaning. As she explains, these objects can be considered in isolation, for their purely visual and formal qualities, and they often are, in museums and similar institutions around the world; however, within Pacific Island cultures, the arts are surface manifestations of systems of knowledge, forming the scaffolding of meaning that encompasses visible, verbal, musical, or performative instances of art. As a result, visual arts, performing arts, and ritual should be understood together, and not in isolation from one another. The Fijian kava bowl has certain formal and visual qualities that make it a beautiful work of art in the Western sense of the term, but it is through understanding its use in the ritual of mixing and serving kava that we gain a deeper appreciation for the way Tongan people might understand and appreciate the object.

Hawaiian royal feather cloaks on display at the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu. Photo my own.

The importance of ritual meaning and use otherwise within cultural contexts is seen further in chapter four, in which Kaeppler discusses textile arts. As she explains, textiles can be embodiments of ancestors, genealogies, histories, or memories, or prayers given solid physical form. The specific examples of individual named kie hingoa woven mats passed down through the generations and worn by kings and queens of Tonga at weddings, funerals, coronations, and when receiving foreign royals (such as Queen Elizabeth II) help the reader to appreciate how this functions, including how these objects become prized, their power as symbols, and the ways in which they come to be associated with powerful individuals and significant events. The related Hawaiian belief that garments contained the mana of their wearers, and how this sacred (or kapu) quality makes them dangerous becomes clearer in a discussion of Hawaiian royal feather cloaks in the fifth chapter (on tattoo and personal adornment), which also discusses the personal sacredness of Māori moko and facial & body tattoos in other Pacific island cultures.

Various objects from the Sepik Basin in Papua New Guinea, one of the most studied places in the Pacific, on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo my own.

Jumping back to the third chapter, in her discussion of carvings, Kaeppler provides a lengthy unpacking of Western concepts of “aesthetics” which not only (hopefully) helps us move further towards being able to more appropriately understand and appreciate the ways in which Pacific Island peoples appreciate their own “artworks,” but also seems a profoundly useful set of passages for inviting reconsiderations of how we approach all art, Western and non-Western alike. As Kaeppler explains,

When one decides whether something is beautiful or not, a value judgment is being made. Beauty of course is not inherent in any object or thing but is a mental construct of an individual that may or may not be shared by others. The basic concept here is evaluation (that is, whether something is beautiful or not) and how this mental construct is part of a system of thought.

Further, “ways of thinking about cultural forms, including the standards by which they are judged, are largely determined by the cultural tradition of which they are a part. … Members of different cultures simply do not react in identical ways to the same stimuli, artistic or otherwise.” These 2-3 pages alone, and the book as a whole all the more so, provide a powerful argument for a more culturally sensitive and globally-minded (non-Eurocentric, cultural relativist) approach to the arts and cultures of the world.

Finally, throughout the book, Kaeppler intersperses discussions of contemporary art, and quotes from contemporary artists & traditional practitioners, with discussion of older objects and traditions. That Pacific Island cultures are alive and well and that traditional cultural attitudes continue to be powerful and relevant – while having also developed and changed over time, as in any society – is presented not so much as an argument, but as a matter of fact, woven throughout the book.

Canoe/Waka, by Māori artist Lewis Tamihana Gardiner and Haida (Pacific Northwest) artist Preston Singletary, 2007, on display at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo my own.

Kaeppler’s incorporation of contemporary arts & attitudes, and discussion of aesthetics and the importance of appreciating native uses and understandings, serve as powerful models and arguments for culturally sensitive, global or non-Western, approaches. Meanwhile, her elaboration of specific concepts such as the association between danger and the sacred, and the importance of objects as embodying oral histories, provide a detailed and important foundational sense of the cultural character, attitudes, and beliefs of the various Pacific Island cultures, and the similarities and differences between them.

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