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Dismembering Lāhui

Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dismembering Lāhui, University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

Osorio’s account of the history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, focusing particularly on the evolution of the constitutions and legal structures of the island, raises a number of rather thought-provoking issues. Essentially, he suggests that the key issue relevant to the history of the kingdom, or the lens through which we should understand that history, is one of gradual separation, or “dismemberment,” of the Hawaiian people from the traditional relationships of reciprocity they enjoyed with their leaders, through the gradual insertion of haole modes of running a government, or a state.

Whereas certain versions of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom, including that given in To Steal a Kingdom, present the Hawaiians as utterly powerless, and the haoles as single-mindedly, deviously, and selfishly engineering the kingdom’s downfall from the very beginning, Osorio presents a somewhat more nuanced view, looking at why the haoles did what they did, and why the Hawaiians went along with it. Osorio’s account also differs widely from Dougherty’s in that Osorio pays considerable attention to the Native Hawaiian perspective, informing the reader of Hawaiian attitudes, perceptions, intentions, and desires, while Dougherty’s account relates Hawaiʻi’s history exclusively through the lens of the haole perspective. In the 1820s to 1840s, we see the example of Christianity, which – among other reasons for its acceptance by the Hawaiians – seemed to provide a new set of prohibitions to replace the kapu (traditional systems of taboos) which had been abolished, and to thus, perhaps, provide a way to set right, or to make pono, the spiritual balance; many at that time are said to have seen the abolition of the kapu and of the traditional heiau rituals as having toppled the spiritual balance, thus leading to the smallpox epidemics and other difficulties faced by the people at the time. We also see the Hawaiian people, especially at that time but in later decades too, genuinely believing that some haoles were “good” haole, and that these people were genuinely bringing benefit to the kingdom through education, and through advising the chiefs as to constitutional government and capitalist economy (26).

The Nuʻuanu Valley, as seen from the Pali Lookout. Photo my own.

Osorio also explains how traditional understandings of the functioning of governance, and of the relationship between makaʻāinana (commoners), aliʻi (nobles), and mōʻī (monarch), informed Natives’ understandings and behavior in the new Western-style government of the 1840s.1 Osorio suggests that haoles, in becoming the chief royal advisor came to be seen as an equivalent to the kālaimoku, whose advice, given in secret directly to the king, traditionally superseded all other advice. Whether this was intentional, or whether the haoles even recognized or understood the association, is unclear. The aliʻi could present their suggestions, but if told this contradicted the advice of the kālaimoku, the aliʻi would then defer, without questions or challenges, as was traditional. Similarly, makaʻāinana petitions to the aliʻi were traditionally mere descriptions of conditions and expressions of desires, often in the form of requests for personal redress.

Makaʻāinana petitions to the legislature reveal considerable awareness and intelligence on the part of the common people as to what was going on in the government, how it affected them, and what policies they believed should be implemented. Once the petitions were submitted to the aliʻi for consideration, the job of the makaʻāinana representative was done; it was not his place, according to the traditional political thinking, to question or challenge the decision of the aliʻi, nor to argue for a side, nor to make a decision, but simply to present the petition and leave the decision up to the aliʻi; it was unthinkable, initially at least, for commoners to presume to go any further, to make decisions themselves, to challenge or oppose the decisions of the aliʻi. And, once these fundamental beliefs or conceptions underlying the traditional political structure of the relationship between the segments of society began to break down, and commoners were able to challenge and oppose the aliʻi, we are led to understand, the kingdom itself, as anything resembling its former political culture was essentially doomed.

Osorio’s narrative, and argument, rests largely on this notion of the gradual breakdown of the traditional political system, and of the traditional system of relationships and mutual responsibility, which left Hawaiians unable to rely upon their own nobles and kings for help, and left them at the mercy of haole desires and ways of governance. Step by step, they were alienated from understanding how their own government ran, and how they were expected to operate, or behave, as “citizens.” To many of the haole advisors, they may very well have believed they were bringing the Hawaiian people a better, more modern form of government, and indeed a freer and more democratic one. That the Hawaiian people proved unable to instantly, overnight, appreciate how to behave within this new system, was taken by many of the haoles as an indication that the Hawaiians were inherently, biologically, racially, less intelligent, or at the very least, simply not yet ready for self-rule. Seeing it spelled out here in the Hawaiian case, it becomes clear that this must have been quite similar to what happened throughout the world, giving birth to notions of the “white man’s burden,” and of the idea of colonialism as a civilizing mission – that imperial powers were there to rule the “natives” until they were ready to rule themselves – a time that never seemed to come. But, as Osorio’s account so brilliantly makes clear, it’s not that the Hawaiians were inherently less intelligent (of course), or that their minds were somehow shackled by feudal upbringings preventing them from shaking themselves free and realizing and embracing democracy. Rather, it is simply the fact – to which the haoles at that time were oblivious – that the Anglo-American system of government is a culturally particular system, that it requires thinking about things in a particular way, and articulating things in a particular way in order to engage in legal arguments. It was, simply, a different set of cultural understandings and practices, as foreign for the Hawaiians as the Hawaiian system was for the haoles. Aliʻi who were used to presenting their thoughts to the mō’ī and then leaving it to him to make his decision were not used to the idea of debates, back and forth, within a legislature, the idea of continuing to argue your position against a political opponent. And they were also not used to the concepts of “rights,” “property,” “citizenship,” and so forth which were now enshrined within their own Constitution. So they were at a serious disadvantage within their own government, a government now run based on haole ideas and ways of doing things.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, home to the legislature and other organs of government from 1873 until the overthrow. I realize now I don’t think Osorio ever makes it clear where the government was housed – his history is very much a legal history, not an architectural or urban one.

Osorio’s is a fascinating and compelling argument, and I have no reason to think it mistaken. However, if I were to level one criticism, or concern, one thing I do feel Osorio leaves unclear is how such a complex system of traditional political relationships and governance could have been so well-established, when the kingdom was only unified a few decades before the arrival of the first haoles. Back when the islands were not united, was there a mōʻī, and a kālaimoku, and a council of aliʻi who represented the interests of the konohiki and makaʻāinana of their respective ahupuaʻa in precisely this same way that Osorio is now presenting as the established, age-old, traditional system? Had Kamehameha lived 100 years earlier, I’d feel more comfortable with the assumption; had Osorio even just taken the time to address this concern, to reassure the reader that these systems were well-established, either from older times, or simply very thoroughly impressed into the popular consciousness very quickly, within these first few decades since unification, I think it would have helped. There are a number of books out there that focus more strongly on pre-unification, and unification, and while I do not know for sure what these books might cover, I wonder if they might help clarify this question.

In any case, returning to his argument, as Osorio explains, as the traditional respect for the authority of the aliʻi broke down, so too did the traditional system of reciprocal responsibility, in which aliʻi, konohiki, and makaʻāinana were responsible to one another for the productivity of the land, and responsible for one another’s well-being. In “freeing” the Hawaiians from what the haoles perceived to be “oppressive” “feudal” arrangements by establishing private property, Osorio explains, the haoles actually left the makaʻāinana (now called hoaʻāina under the kuleana system implemented after the Mahele of 1848) abandoned, and on their own, deprived of the systems which had helped ensure their welfare. The assertion by Richard Armstrong that

“If you now continue poor, needy, living in disorder in miserable huts, your lands lying waste … whose fault will it be? Whose but yours?”

rings far too true of Conservative ideologies widely espoused today, asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One can easily imagine Armstrong, or his counterparts today, simply standing and scratching their heads, dumbfounded as to why these people, given “freedom,” and their own land, are not spontaneously and suddenly productive and prosperous, as Locke’s notions of the “state of perfect freedom,” and classical economics notions of incentives say they should be. Possessing a mental block against the idea that people should have support structures, and against the idea that they have been deprived of what they need for success (in the case of the hoaʻāina, being deprived of the irrigation access and rights of fishing & other gathering activities on communal land they once possessed, and given, yes, some land, but not enough land to grow enough taro), and fueled by racist ideologies which sadly persist today, these people could find no explanation for failure but to think the farmers “lazy,” or otherwise racially/bodily/mentally incapable.

What’s frightening and disheartening and disgusting is just how similar – indeed identical – much of these 19th century haole attitudes are to fundamental aspects of our own American discourse today. These same logics continue to underlie our society today, and while I suppose they must have played some role in bringing our country to the greatness it is (or was), I cannot help but see them as terribly dangerous for our future. The history of Hawaiʻi, though quite widely generally seen as peripheral, marginal, in fact bears numerous parallels to developments today, which I think makes this history a powerful warning. (In my own words, but pulled out just for emphasis:)

The people petition the government, and the government, “bought” and in the hands of corporate interests, ignores the voices of the people. The government equates prosperity and success for industry and economics with prosperity and success for “the nation,” putting corporations first, and people second.

Certainly, the situation in the United States is powerfully different from that of Hawaiʻi in important ways – one of the chief ones being the matter of self-rule. Those who espouse these dangerous ideals and threaten our way of life today are not some foreign influence, bringing some foreign way of doing things, as was the case in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but rather they are our fellow Americans, of similar ethnic, religious, and/or cultural backgrounds to many of us, espousing ideals and systems of government that, far from being foreign, are indeed some of the ideals upon which our nation was founded – the very same ideals which were foreign to Hawaiʻi, and which brought its downfall.

Sympathetic as I am for the Hawaiian people, and angry as I am, especially after reading To Steal a Kingdom, at the greedy and self-righteous haoles for what they did in Hawaiʻi, Osorio actually presents a more sympathetic picture of the haoles than Dougherty or many others do, in seeking to understand why they did what they did, and why the Hawaiians allowed it to happen as they did. Sympathetic or not, I think that such an approach is crucial towards truly understanding why horrible things happen, and being able to recognize and combat such trends when they re-emerge. If we simply see haoles – and Nazis, and Japanese militarists, and American Confederates – as “evil,” it makes it far too easy to simply relegate them to some distant corner of history, to believe that evil is always easily recognizable, and that the only reason such horrible things happened in the past was because the people of that time were too stupid to recognize it, too weak to fight it, or were simply bad people themselves. We consider ourselves smart, strong, and “good,” and so distance ourselves from, and blind ourselves to, the possibilities that such things could happen again – and the possibilities that our own beliefs and actions might be contributing to such negative trends. By contrast, if we do not simply dismiss these people as “bad people,” and instead engage with attempting to understand why people support the causes and policies that they do, and the appeal and flaws of certain ideologies, we can get a better understanding of how a country falls into the hands of fascist, Communist, militarist, or otherwise destructive forces.

Such an approach raises all kinds of questions as to how we should think about American ideals and discourses, and how we act upon them. In the wake of reading these two books by Osorio and Dougherty, and amidst discussions about Citizens United, among other related subjects, I have less sympathy than I ever had before, to be sure, for corporate interests or pure profit motives. But, if I were living in a foreign country, and most especially if I had sworn an oath of allegiance and been granted citizenship of that country, would I not, too, want to see government address my interests? Would I not, too, at the very least, want to feel that I was safe from the arbitrary will of the leaders of that country? Both on a general logical, practical, and emotional level, and in drawing upon my understanding of the United States’ foundational (Revolutionary) anti-monarchical ideologies, I can understand why an American, or a group of Americans (and Brits and Frenchmen), who grew up with certain notions about equal protection under the law, protection even from the government itself which is also constrained by the law, would fear the arbitrary will of a King and his Nobles, and would want to see a system of law put into place to protect them. Indeed, I have these fears today, in my own life, in my own experiences, in Britain and Japan. If Japanese law enforcement accuse me of something, convict me of something, something I am either innocent of, or something for which the punishment is much harsher in Japan than it would be at home, of course I would wish for extraterritoriality, or want to call my Embassy. And this is precisely what these haoles do, in 19th century Hawaiʻi. Yes, there was also a very significant element of flat-out racism, the Orientalist and “white man’s burden” kind of racism that undergirded imperialism and colonialism throughout the world in that era, and there was in many cases unbridled greed for power and wealth, and I certainly do not mean to condone or excuse those motivations whatsoever. But, I guess in summary, it should serve as an object lesson that our ideals, even those which we think among the best of our ideals, can be extremely problematic and dangerous, and how a people can become constrained, indeed doomed, by their own laws, when law is given priority over justice, or over what is right. (Though, of course, there can be many differing opinions as to what is right on any given point, and it is this which the supremacy of law is meant to protect from. But, hence the dilemma.)

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(1) Osorio uses the term “Natives,” and so I do as well, taking after his example. I appreciate the potentially problematic nature of using this term, as it is evocative of old Orientalist tropes of “the natives,” e.g. as in the phrase “the natives are restless.” As Osorio is a Native Hawaiian scholar himself, I feel it safe to follow his lead, to use the terms he uses as appropriate. Further, while it might be more precisely culturally accurate to use a term like kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of granting myself permission to use those terms. It is, to be sure, something to continue to think about and wrestle with. If any of you readers are Native Hawaiian yourself, please feel free to let me know what you think. Mahalo.

Banner at Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima, summer 2014, advertising the campaign to get these sites named World Heritage Sites.

Well, after considerable controversy and opposition, Japan’s proposal for a whole series of sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites has been approved. Congratulations to those municipalities, prefectures, and individual sites, and my condolences on the loss of Nadeshiko Japan in the women’s World Cup soccer match thing. I was rooting for you as soon as I found out you made it into the finals, which was about an hour before the game ended.

Frankly, I think this is one of Japan’s better World Heritage proposals. I think at one point they were trying to get “Warrior City” Kamakura named to the list – sorry, but while Kamakura may be really significant to Japanese history, I’m not sure there’s any call for it to be called “World Heritage.”1 By contrast, these Meiji period sites are perhaps among the greatest candidates in Japan for “World Heritage” significance – they represent the sites at the core of Japan’s modernization, industrialization, and Westernization at the end of the 19th century. Japan was the very first non-Western country to Westernize (for certain definitions of “Western”), and did so at a supremely impressive pace and degree of success.

The controversy, of course, is that Meiji industrialization is directly tied to Meiji imperialism, and to Shôwa militarism and imperialism. Many of the late 19th century sites on the list are exactly the same sites which in the 20th century were major centers of Japan’s war engine, some of them operated in part by forced labor of abducted Koreans. Japan’s wartime history is not something to be celebrated (though, worryingly, I think a lot of people in the Japanese government think otherwise), and least of all Japan’s exploitation of others, e.g. through forced labor. In the end, a compromise was reached, the terms of which were seemingly that Japan got to have its Meiji sites so long as a whole bunch of Korean sites got named World Heritage Sites as well, and so long as the plaques and other information associated with the Japanese historical sites make clear the negative things that happened there. I’m certainly not going to argue that these Korean sites aren’t worthy – Paekche was of great historical significance for Korea and for Japan, and these ancient sites look absolutely stunning in the photos; congrats to them on receiving some extra attention, and extra provisions for their protection. I hope to visit them someday. But, the politics are all too plain. The jostling between countries to have the most World Heritage Sites continues.

The Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima. One of Japan’s first ever industrial factories, and today a museum of Satsuma history.

From what little I know of the controversy, I don’t understand why Japan didn’t simply focus on a smaller number of sites that were more prominently or more exclusively associated with Bakumatsu/Meiji, and not with 20th century developments. The Shimazu villa compound at Iso, for example, was home to the first hydroelectric dam in Japan, the first steamship (built based on Western books, with no Western experts present in person), the first gaslamps, and so forth, and is closely associated with the first modern cotton mill in Japan, the Shûseikan – Japan’s first modern factory, complete with reverberating furnaces, blast furnaces, a smithy, a foundry, and a glass workshop.

But, instead, they decided to include, and to continue to insist upon, controversial sites like the coal mines at Gunkanjima (Hashima Island, Nagasaki), which were run in large part, in the early 20th century, by Korean and Chinese forced labor workers taken from Japan’s colonies / conquered territories, all of them working for Mitsubishi, one of the most major corporations at the time producing war materiel. What kind of politics was involved that this site had to remain on the list and be fought for, rather than just being dropped? Was it just stubbornness against backing down to Korean complaints? Was it pressure from local Nagasaki government? Was it the political influence of Mitsubishi? Whatever the case, it seems clear that politics, once again, comes before any semblance of an effort at objective choice of sites based on the expertise of historians & art historians.

The Iso ijinkan, or Foreign Engineers’ Residence at Iso, in Kagoshima.

Well, whatever. While the news and even the UNESCO webpage itself continue to only give vague and confusing information, are we not surprised that Wikipedia already has its shit together, just one day after the announcement. Ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify otherwise, here are your new Japanese World Heritage Sites:

In Hagi (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace
*The Ebisu-ga-hana Shipyard
*Ôitayama tatara iron smelting works
*Shôkason-juku Academy (run by Yoshida Shôin)
*Hagi castle town (pretty cool; glad they snuck that in there, though it’s clearly more about being a castletown than about the industrialization period)

In Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*Mutsurejima lighthouse
*Maeda Battery (assoc. with the 1863-1864 Shimonoseki War against ships from France, England, US, and Netherlands)

In Kagoshima:
*The Shûseikan and surrounding areas, including:
**Shûseikan Machine Factory (erected 1865, long before anything with forced labor)
**The Iso Ijinkan (Foreign Engineers’ Residence, 1867-1869)
**Gion-no-su Battery (coastal defense batteries used to fight off the British in 1863)
**Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat
**Charcoal Kiln
**Reverberatory Furnace at Iso

In Saga:
*The Mietsu naval facility

In Kamaishi (Iwate prefecture, all the way up north):
*Hashino iron mining and smelting site

In Nagasaki:
*Kosuge ship repair dock
*Hokkei well shaft & Takashima coal mine
*Hashima coal mine (Gunkanjima)
*The former house of Scottish merchant & modernization advisor Thomas Blake Glover, oldest Western-style house in Japan
*Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyard

In Fukuoka Prefecture:
*Miyanohara Pit & Miike Coal Mine (largest coal mine in Japan since early 18th c.)
*Miike coal mine associated port and railway
*Misumi West Port
*Yawata steel works in Kitakyushu
*Onga River pumping station

I’m certainly more eager to visit some of these sites than others. I’m much more into arts & culture side of things – e.g. the Hagi castle town, and Glover’s Western-style house – than the ugly, dirty, steel and concrete industrial sites, e.g. coal mines and such. But, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy visiting the few I have already seen – those in Kagoshima – and am glad to see those sites recognized. Looking forward to future trips to Shimonoseki, Hagi, Nagasaki, and South Korea’s many World Heritage Sites as well.

You can read more about the Kyushu-Yamaguchi sites at their official English website.

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1) Though, actually, on second thought, the Daibutsu is super majorly iconic, and many of the Zen temples represent a majorly important historical moment in the spread and development of Zen, and in the role of Zen monks as foreign relations advisors and diplomats.

To Steal a Kingdom

While we’re still in the mood from yesterday of celebrating our own freedom and independence, let’s give a thought, maybe, to those whose freedom and independence was taken from them by this good ol’ US of A, and by the capitalistic ideals we hold so dear. In the next in my series of book reviews on Pacific Island history, I look at Michael Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom (Island Style Press, 1992). Together with Jon Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui (Univ of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002), which I will discuss in another soon upcoming post, these two books serve as the chief sources of my personal understanding (thus far) of the historical narrative, and contributing forces & factors, of the decline and downfall of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In this post, I focus almost exclusively on Dougherty’s book. I will address comparisons or syntheses of the two books either in my review of Osorio’s, or in an additional separate post.

…..

As you might guess from the publisher (Island Style Press, based in Waimanalo, Oahu), Michael Dougherty is not a professionally-trained historian, and his To Steal a Kingdom is not a formal academic work. Yet, it was by far the most detailed history of the Hawaiian Kingdom I had yet read, and provides not only an informative, detailed account of that history, but also a biting critique of the attitudes and actions of haole missionaries & businessmen as he represents much of the kingdom’s history as a steady march towards greater and greater haole control.

Dougherty’s account is not so much a history of the kingdom, as a history of the white (haole) presence and influence in the kingdom. His treatment is based almost entirely on haole writings (e.g. diaries of businessmen and missionaries, as opposed to Hawaiian government documents, or materials otherwise from the Hawaiian point of view), and is organized into chapters taking prominent haole individuals as points of focus. Dougherty refers to many of the other Polynesian islands only by their English names, with no reference to native placenames (e.g. Easter Island with no mention whatsoever of Rapa Nui), and his treatment is somewhat Orientalist at times, describing the people of Tonga, for example, as utterly peaceful and “well-proportioned,” making no mention at all of the Tonga Empire. His treatment of the character, attitudes, and policies of the Hawaiian monarchs is also described largely based on the writings of haole businessmen and missionaries, and as a result is unsurprisingly often quite negative. He portrays Kamehameha III as a drunkard and as a weak king who was totally controlled by his haole advisors, and Kalakaua as a “sell out” to Washington (at least in some respects), in contrast to the rather positive impression of Kalakaua presented by Stacy Kamehiro. Yet, despite representing quite a few of the Hawaiian monarchs as being weak, misguided, selfish, and/or poor rulers, and despite his rather mainstream/Eurocentric/Orientalistic approach in various respects, Dougherty’s account of Hawaiian history is still one that is deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian people, and villainizing of the haoles. I came out of this book perhaps angrier than any other history I’ve ever read, at the raw injustice of it. Jon Osorio, a Native Hawaiian scholar and head of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii, whose book I’ll be discussing next, interestingly presents a more nuanced view of haole intentions.

Hotel Street, Honolulu, 1890.

Dougherty organizes the book’s chapters around individual figures, with one chapter for example taking Hiram Bingham as its focus point, and another Charles Reed Bishop.1 His narrative biographical style brings the history alive in a way more academic writing often doesn’t, making for a vivid and engaging read. However, nearly every chapter overlaps chronologically with previous ones, rather than following along chronologically, and the narrative frequently jumps far backwards, such that we are discussing the terms of the Constitution of 1840 on page 93, and the attitudes and decisions of Kamehameha III in 1832 on page 101. We are introduced to Hiram Bingham and the events of the 1820s-1840s in one chapter, and then to Charles Reed Bishop, and the events of the 1840s-1860s in another chapter, with the overlapping period portrayed in such a different manner that one might be led to think we’re talking about multiple different Hawaiis, or multiple different 1840s. In the hands of a more expert historian, such multiple perspectives can bring a fuller, richer, deeper understanding of the topic through the introduction of nuance and complexity; sadly, Dougherty’s narrative only manages to confuse. Though I myself have some considerable experience reading history scholarship, and negotiating complex and nuanced histories in my head, as someone who is learning much of this narrative for the first time – and even in revisiting my notes on this book now, in the course of writing this blog post – I still find it hard to keep it all straight. This is in large part because we have so much history packed into a relatively short period. It does not suffice to attempt to remember that Kamehameha III was the one who did X, because in 1832 he held one set of attitudes, and in 1840 another. Major changes and shifts pile up one after the other across a rather short time period in Hawaii’s 19th century.

Honolulu as seen from Punchbowl, 1890.

There are most certainly numerous places throughout the book in which Dougherty lambasts prominent haole figures such as Charles Reed Bishop and the Judd family. Some of the most scathing critiques come towards the very end, where he details the way the Judd family controlled large swaths of primary source documents & archives, and thus the historiography of the kingdom, asserting that this has poisoned, so to speak, most histories of Hawaiʻi written up until recently – something the historiography, he claims, is only just now (as of his writing, in 1992) beginning to recover from. Dougherty’s treatment of Charles Reed Bishop was particularly illuminating for me, as I had been under the impression that Bishop established Bishop Museum, Kamehameha Schools, and all the rest in his role as husband of Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki, i.e. that he did so in the name of the royal family, for the benefit of the Hawaiian people. And as such, it long puzzled me why I had been told that so many Native Hawaiians, and locals otherwise, continue to see Bishop Museum as a colonialist institution. Dougherty relates, however, that Bishop had been willed the estate lands for the term of his life – not for the life of his heirs. So he merely anticipated his death by turning the management of these temporary land holdings over to a board of missionary/businessmen trustees who, even to this day, reap enormous profits from their philanthropic ministrations to a few Hawaiian children (Dougherty 176-177), and further, that “without exception, to this very day these institutions all actively perpetuate the missionary/business version of Hawaiian history” (177, emphasis added).

Right: Charles Reed Bishop, largest bank owner in Hawaii, on par with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Institutions he established continue to dominate Hawaiian society and economy.

What becomes abundantly clear throughout Dougherty’s narrative is that, at almost every turn, haole missionaries, and in particular businessmen, manipulated the government for their own personal economic and/or political gain, or for the benefits of the broader haole community. And, dishearteningly, that even those who appeared the most loyal, supportive, and beneficial to the government at times turned against the kingdom and were profoundly selfish, destructive, and injurious at other times, with only a very few exceptions (e.g., seemingly, Walter Murray Gibson). These businessmen-types manipulated the government for their own gain in numerous ways, and very often in the name of doing what was best for the Hawaiian kingdom, and for its economy, often claiming that the native rulers were incompetent, even dangerously so, endangering the well-being of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people. To name just one example of this, we see Claus Spreckels buying up tons of land on Maui, which he plans to plant with sugar cane. Through various schemes, he expropriates Crown Lands into becoming his own private property for his sugar plantation corporation – i.e. for his own personal profits. He secures water rights from the king, and puts Hawaiians to work – backbreaking, low-paying, manual labor – harvesting sugar cane. He claims he is doing this for the benefit of the Hawaiian economy; in the terms of 21st century US political discourse, he claims he is “a job creator.” However, it is clear that his real aims are not to selflessly benefit the Hawaiian people or the kingdom, but rather to selfishly line his own pockets. It’s unclear precisely how Spreckels ended up at the end of his life, but Dougherty is sure to point out that Charles Reed Bishop’s wealth, some portion of it from usurious banking practices and a 26-year monopoly on banking in Hawaiʻi (138) at the expense of basically everyone around him, including the kingdom’s own coffers, placed him in similar company with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.

Left: Claus Spreckels wearing many leis. Schemed to transform vast swaths of royal lands into his own private sugar plantations. I don’t think there is any mystery as to his motives.

However, two things unfortunately remain rather unclear in Dougherty’s account. The first, despite his numerous direct quotes from statements and letters by haole leaders, is just how genuine these haole leaders were in their feelings about their loyalty or allegiance to the kingdom, what they thought the kingdom meant or comprised, and in whether they genuinely felt they were benefiting the Hawaiian people. The haole leaders claim they are acting to benefit the economy, and the kingdom, and they claim that their loyalty and allegiance is to Hawaiʻi alone (and not to the United States or Great Britain). But, how much of this rhetoric is just rhetoric, deployed with consciously selfish and duplicitous intent, and how much of it is reflective of their genuine beliefs? To what extent, or in what ways, did they truly believe that this was for the benefit of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people, and to what extent a matter of bold-faced lying, blowing smoke in order to secure more power and wealth for themselves? Did they think of themselves as “Hawaiians,” and when they spoke of benefiting the Hawaiian people, were they talking about themselves? When they spoke of the need for haole advisers (i.e. themselves) to run the government, and convinced king after king that they brought a greater professional expertise and international knowledge that Native Hawaiian advisers would lack, were they being genuine, or were they consciously and intentionally being duplicitous? We get a powerful hint of some people’s true feelings at the very end of the book, in a quote by Reverend Sereno E. Bishop, who writes in 1896,

Is it not an absurdity for the aborigines … who are mentally and physically incapable of supporting, directing or defending a government, nevertheless to claim sovereign rights? It would seem that the forty millions of property interests held by foreigners must be delivered from native misrule (179).

Here we see haole rule justified, and native rule discredited, through a logic of boldfaced racism and the privileging of capitalist interests, which is strongly suggestive of the central logics of Orientalist thought (e.g. the white man’s burden, the civilizing effect of Western culture, the fundamental weakness, incompetence or stupidity of the non-Western races, etc.). However, in countless examples throughout the rest of the book, despite these countless quotes, the true attitudes and intentions of these historical actors remain unclear.

The funeral of King Kalākaua at ‘Iolani Palace, 1891.

The second aspect left disappointingly unclear is the attitudes and actions of the monarchs, especially Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani. In The Arts of Kingship, Stacy Kamehiro provides a wonderfully vivid description of the ways in which Kalākaua (and his chief adviser, Gibson) aimed to revive Hawaiian culture, traditions and customs, and modes of knowledge, and to establish the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a respected, sovereign member of the international community of nations. In Dougherty’s book, however, we see the monarchs’ policies chiefly through quotes from haole leaders criticizing them. When these haole leaders accuse Kalākaua or Liliʻuokalani of being incompetent, of endangering the economy, of threatening the rights & freedoms of the haole community, or of pursuing policies which are, essentially, racist, which policies exactly are they referring to? And to what ends were those policies aimed, for what reasons?

Still, To Steal a Kingdom remains a densely informative, and indeed refreshing, look at Hawaiian history. That he starts with Polynesian voyaging, and touches upon the cultures and histories of a number of other island groups rather than beginning with Captain Cook, or with the reign of Kalākaua, is refreshing, situating the history as a decidedly Hawaiian one (even if the vast majority of the rest of the book focuses upon haole actors and draws chiefly upon quotes from haole sources). And Dougherty’s account is certainly not a hagiography of the Hawaiian monarchs. While Dougherty’s narrative is, overall, one deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian cause, and powerfully critical of whites’ capitalist attitudes & actions – and, indeed, by the end of the book I was reeling with anger that this could have happened, and that this is so widely unknown – Dougherty does not always represent the monarchs in the most positive light. I have no doubt that many histories represent Kalākaua, and Liliʻuokalani in particular, in overwhelmingly positive ways, as fierce, determined, politically savvy, and wise leaders, as truly tragic heroes, tragic victims of the acts of a villainous haole community. In my limited time in Hawaiʻi, I certainly got the impression that there was a powerful sense of celebrating these figures, mythologizing them really, in a manner not entirely dissimilar with how mainstream mainland US K-12 education teaches us to regard the Founding Fathers of the United States: as larger than life supermen, some of the wisest, greatest leaders who ever walked the earth. Dougherty’s account, while disappointingly sparse on the details of the monarchs’ personalities, intentions, methods, and policies, nevertheless opens up the possibility that Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani were not supermen, but were, perhaps, leaders of more average ability, and perhaps even seriously flawed in terms of their vices, or otherwise. Kamehameha III, in fact, is represented as profoundly weak, as a “Little King” “more often drunk than sober” (96) who was more or less completely complacent to the whims of his haole advisers.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani outside the Hawaii State House, with ʻIolani Palace visible in the background. Photo my own.

Dougherty’s treatment of Kalākaua’s efforts to secure a pan-Pacific alliance or confederation as a ward against Western encroachments is also thought-provokingly unexpected. Where other accounts present this effort in a strongly positive way, as a consensual agreement between non-Western states, working together to help one another defend against the evils of imperialist conquest and colonialist exploitation, Dougherty represents Kalākaua as pursuing imperialistic aims himself, writing that Kalākaua, “not content to merely rule over the Kingdom of Hawaii, decided to expand his territory and become the sovereign ruler of the entire Pacific” (156). On this particular point, I am a little too attached to the more positive view. But, again, it does help us peel the wool from our eyes, helping us question our positions and interpretations, and to not blindly leap to defend, or extol, all Native Hawaiian leaders, decisions, actions, or practices. While most certainly wronged in one of the greatest injustices in American history, and while their haole advisors do seem to have been, almost to a man, utter scumbags of a most horrible sort, perhaps the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi were not the great, wise, upstanding leaders we might otherwise allow ourselves to believe they were.

All images except book cover & Liliʻuokalani statue are public domain images, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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(1) It’s kind of amazing how when you Google “Charles Reed Bishop,” someone who played a rather prominent role in the erosion of Hawaiian freedom, sovereignty, and well-being, while making for himself a personal fortune, you find tons of webpages celebrating him – mostly pages belonging to the institutions he founded – and then, when you finally find one that calls him “a criminal deviant, a PIRATE OF THE PACIFIC, pillager, parasite,” and you’re about to link to it, you find that page goes way overboard, calling him a “faggot,” and talking about New World Order conspiracies.

There’s certainly something to be said for the way wealthy and powerful institutions dominate the narrative through their prominence and their more authoritative-looking, more professional websites, and that just because a website is poorly designed, even poorly worded, the 2015 equivalent of a Geocities page, doesn’t mean this isn’t the voice of the people, the counter-narrative against those dominant narratives – in a sense, the corporate control of our society is a conspiracy, a thorough-going one so deeply embedded that we learn not to recognize it, or to question it. But, even so, the dichotomy is startling. Where are the more official pages, from the university, PBS, Hawaii Independent, or someone, telling the less hagiographic version of Bishop’s story? Perhaps I shall have to take the time at some point to write such biographies myself…

What with exams and everything, the links have really piled up. So, here we are, two (somewhat?) recent articles from around the Internet. I shall endeavor to keep my commentary short, but, we all know I will fail to do so.

To start off, we have a sort of masterpost by Ube Empress on “An Exploration of Orientalism & Asian Cultural Appropriation as Found in American Music (And Why Being a Non-Asian POC Doesn’t Excuse You).” In this lengthy and extensive post, Ube Empress covers everything from Geisha to Bindi – and I am so glad she does, because, surprise, not all cultures are the same! and not all appropriation is the same! – and then lists out a long list of celebrities (mainly in Western pop music), from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, who have arguably committed crimes of cultural appropriation in their music videos and performances.

There’s still a lot to be said here. But it’s a really good foundational post, from which we can springboard and ask further questions. If appropriation is all about “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” then whose permission is necessary? Who stands as representative of the culture, and arbiter of the appropriate? In some cases, it’s a bit easier, as there are traditional practitioners well-respected, well-established, or even officially licensed, as “teachers”, who can provide that permission. But, in other cases, if one group of POC friends gives permission, and another group of POC individuals say it’s offensive, are you in the right, or in the wrong, for having performed that thing? And if you are of that heritage yourself, and someone else of the same heritage says it’s inappropriate & offensive, that you should be ashamed of yourself, and/or that you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, who is in the right? Do you, as a member of that identity, have the right to perform that identity how you wish, based on what being of that heritage means to you? Or are the other people in the right? Who gets to play appropriation police?

I wish, too, that Ube Empress had gone further to say just a little more boldly, a little more explicitly, why being a Person of Color is not a transitive quality – why it’s not only whites who are horrible when they appropriate, and that being Latino or black doesn’t give you the right to appropriate elements of Asian or any other culture. Because it’s not about being a fellow minority, or sharing in having been oppressed. It’s about having proper respect for other cultures, and borrowing elements in ways that are respectful, knowledgeable, and appropriate within that culture. This is the same reason that Gananath Obeyesekere’s arguments that as a Sri Lankan he has some special insight into Hawaiian culture, as a fellow non-white/non-Westerner, are, frankly, bullshit. Every culture has different attitudes about what is sacred and what is not, what “sacred” means and how it works, what is and is not offensive, what is and is not deeply associated exclusively with particular purposes or occasions, and should not be performed outside of those contexts. A kimono is not a qipao is not a bindi is not a hula skirt, and being black or Latino does not mean you have any more intimate knowledge than the average white person as to the precise meanings and connotations of elements of particular cultures.

The comments on this article are quite interesting too (though, of course there’s also plenty of racist bullshit mixed in), as some people have expanded on the post, and even offered corrections. Nicki Minaj, of course, is not simply black, but of Trinidadian background, which is a particular thing, different from mainland US African-American background, and she’s apparently 1/4 Indian, which some argue in the comments makes her a fellow “Asian.” Yeah, no. You don’t get a free pass simply for being “Asian.” You cannot go on TV talk shows and talk about how Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation,1 and then go dress as a geisha in your music videos, followed by a sequence of a karate dojo with all (seemingly, apparently) black participants and no Japanese or Okinawans in sight, as if being 1/4 Indian gives you some special permission or authenticity in Japanese culture.

That said, though, life is complicated. Our identities, our lives, are complicated, and as I return to this post to edit it for the umpteenth time and prepare it for final “publication,” so to speak, I hesitate to even post it at all; I hesitate to contribute to a discourse that says we can (and should!) make assumptions and attack people without considering all the possibilities and asking all the right questions. Are there plenty of cases out there that are just straight-up gross examples of cultural appropriation, in which someone (and their production teams, costumers, choreographers, whomever) just blatantly took cultural elements out of context and used them just for their aesthetic, or worse, to play to certain stereotypes? YES. There absolutely, absolutely, are. And I do not mean to excuse or condone those acts one bit.

But, as I looked for additional photos with which to pepper this post, I came across the following two from Beyonce’s own Tumblr.

In the first, Beyonce is wearing a so-called “coolie hat,” and a yellow top that seems to recall elements of the aesthetic of Qing Dynasty robes. Plus, she’s making a very stereotypical gesture. Very easy to jump on this and just cry “appropriation.” I very nearly used this at the very top of this post, with a caption simply reading “Seriously, B? Really?” But, you know what, we don’t know anything about the context of this photo. Beyonce’s a world traveler – I could absolutely believe that this might have been taken in China, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, and that the local people right there could have been perfectly fine with it. We have no idea who gave her cultural “permission,” and we have no idea the context within which this took place. Maybe people did use that hand gesture with her, in that part of China, to show appreciation, and encouraged her to do the same. Maybe they didn’t.

Here’s another question. Plenty of tourist sites around the world give tourists the opportunity to “dress up” in traditional clothing. I’ve certainly done it once or twice, but I’ve also declined to walk around in public in kimono, outside of cosplay conventions + traditional festivals (when everyone else was also wearing yukata). If Beyonce were wearing something culturally authentic, as part of taking part in a demonstration or workshop, or even just as a touristy “dress up” thing, but totally authorized by the local tourist site, and with the clothes provided by the tourist site, would that be okay? Would it not? Given that the clothes she’s wearing in this picture are terribly inauthentic, but are clearly only inspired by Qing fashions, does that excuse it (how can it be appropriation if it’s not even all that close to the real thing)? Or does it make it worse? I don’t really know…

In the second picture, she’s wearing a hula skirt, and seemingly dancing the hula, or at least trying to. First thing I did was look on her biography on Wikipedia to see if she has any Polynesian ethnic background, or if she lived in the islands for any amount of time. Teen Vogue recently got chewed out on Twitter for using a light-skinned model with dreads, and talking to her about dreads. Well, surprise, the girl is half-Fijian, coming from a culture that has been wearing dreads for centuries. So, it pays to ask questions, and to not just jump to conclusions. In the second half of this post, I return to the point that a “black/white” dichotomy conception of race excludes, erases, the great diversity of other racial/ethnic identities that exist in the world, such as Fijian.

Returning to Beyonce’s photo, the leis, aloha shirts, and white slacks on the musicians in the background lead me to believe this is not just some backyard party, but that this is likely taking place in Hawaii (or another Pacific Island), and that these gentlemen are hired professional musicians. Thus, there is the possibility that there is an authentic kumu hula (hula instructor) present. Again, Beyonce is a professional musician & dancer, and a world traveler, and I really don’t think it out of the realm of possibility that she’s receiving proper formal hula lessons, even if only for a one-time workshop, and that she at least tried to be respectful, best as she knew how. Granted, she’s also extremely wealthy and I wouldn’t put it past her to have all kinds of lavish expensive parties (e.g. renting a beachhouse on Maui and then having a “Hawaiian” party). So, it could go either way. We don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue against Ube Empress at all. Quite the contrary, I’m sharing her post in order to promote it. She does a really good job of explaining out the intricacies and complexities of cultural appropriation – what it is, why it’s wrong, how it varies from case to case, because not every cultural element is equally sensitive, sacred, or meaningful – and calling out a long list of very prominent celebrities who I think are almost unquestionably guilty. Perhaps most importantly, she holds non-white celebrities to the same standards. Being black or Latina or 1/4 Asian Indian does not give you any extra claim, or rights, to other cultures, any more so than being white.

When cultural appropriation is taking place in an offensive way, it is offensive. Period. And it should be stopped. But, all I mean to say with these Beyonce pictures, and with the Teen Vogue Twitter link, is that culture and identity are complicated. Really complicated. Cultural appropriation is not as simple as “if it looks like a duck.” We need to ask questions, before we condemn someone. Who is the person doing it? What potential cultural authority or rightful claims might they have to these cultural elements? What is the context? Who might have given them permission? And then, if the answers to these questions are that the person does not have rightful claims to authority, and do not have permission, and if the act is offensive to the culture in question, because of the way the cultural element is used or because of the stereotypes it perpetuates, then it is cultural appropriation, and should be lambasted with all due piss and vinegar.

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Okay. So, let’s move on. On a somewhat related topic, we have an article from the Good Men Project by Warren Blumenfeld, on the In-Between “Racialized” Category of European-Heritage Jews. In this excerpt from a longer essay, published in the book Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, he discusses something I have touched upon before, when I asked Are Ashkenazi Jews White?.

I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what Blumenfeld has to say, except to quote some choice bits from his article, and invite you to read more if you are so inclined.

…the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. … As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either.

I think this speaks to a lot more than just the Jewish experience alone. Our society is incredibly diverse, ranging from Irish-, Italian-, and Anglo-Americans to blacks of slave ancestry, both from the mainland US and the very different circumstances of the Caribbean; blacks with no slave ancestry, coming more recently from Africa, and from very different parts of that massive continent; Arabs; Turks; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews; Persians; Tamils, Sinhalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi; Mexican, Guatemalan, Chilean; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Samoan, Chamorro, and Hawaiian; Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese; Haida, Lakota, and Muscogee; and so on and so forth. And yet, our discourse on race in this country, all too often, is very black and white (plus Latinos). Where do all of these people fit? Are all People of Color, in all their diversity, all essentially the same, a single category situated oppositionally against Whites?

Blumenfeld suggests a different model:

As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.

I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.

All of this, of course, is an ongoing conversation. I hope I have spurred some thought, or at least just provided some interesting articles. None of this is my complete or definitive word on the subject… and my own thoughts and attitudes on these exceptionally complex and touchy subjects are constantly shifting, too, as I read and think and learn more. Let us all give one another the benefit of the doubt, yes?

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(1) Okay, I admit, I’m stretching it a bit. I can’t seem to find a clip of Minaj really talking at any length about appropriation. But, still, the point remains the same. We could instead cite Azealia Banks, who has been quite vocal about appropriation of black music, of twerking, and so forth, and who then goes and wears bindis and the like all over the place.

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

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

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

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

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

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

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

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

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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

I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.

James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”

These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.

Right: Hone Heke cuts down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill at Kororāreka, in 1845. Public domain image from a 1908 book, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).

Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.

Left: A Maori carving of Taranga giving birth to the god Maui. The carving a gift to the East-West Center from the head of a Maori delegation to Washington DC. Photo my own.

Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.

“The Natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] Attacking Captain Wallis the First Discoverer of That Island”. Date, artist, unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.

I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).

Queen Oberea welcoming Captain Samuel Wallis. Engraving, 1827, as reproduced in Le Costume Ancien et Moderne ou Histoire by Giulio Ferrario. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).

Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.

To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.

Rock, 2010.

I recently had the pleasure of going to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, along with LM of Odorunara.com, and seeing an exhibition of Chiho Aoshima’s work. I can’t remember where I learned of Aoshima previously, but she’s definitely one of the bigger-name contemporary artists out of Japan today, and it was great to get to see this exhibit of her work, including three rooms of digital prints, sketchbook pages, and a large video installation entitled Takaamanohara (the High Plains of Heaven).

In many of the works I took photos of, the land itself is anthromoporphized, contemplating itself, contemplating the beauty of nature. We are perhaps witnessing regrowth, and perhaps witnessing a contemplation on the fate or future of natural beauty amidst continued urbanization and industrialization. In other works, skyscrapers are portrayed with happy cartoon faces, and we are made to feel for them when the city is inundated by a tsunami in the video piece. So I don’t think Aoshima is speaking against urbanization, but perhaps questioning how we can protect our way of life, our society, our country – both its urban environments (modern, advanced, society) and natural beauty – against natural and other disasters.

I find an interesting dichotomy in many of these pieces, as they do deal with death and destruction, with volcanoes and tsunami, but they deal with them in such a lively, colorful, cartoon fashion that it seems like no actual harm, injury, or even death is possible. Anthropomorphized airplanes play under blue skies and tell us to “RELAX!” (in big English letters). A naked figure plays atop a volcano and farts clouds into the wind in a piece entitled “Onara-chan igyô wo nasu” (roughly, “Lil’ Farty effects a great enterprise”). In a digital print at the beginning of the show, a girl admires a tree, with doves and rainbows in the background behind her, and it is not a tree, but two different cityscapes, urban skylines, which are reflected in her eyes. In another digital print, happy cartoon-faced skyscrapers hang out, as a phoenix flies past.

I suppose the theme becomes obvious – it is hard to fight it when we see such things as the contemplation of nature, and visions of cities reflected in that; when we see a cityscape honored by the presence of a phoenix – the ultimate symbol of rebirth, at least in Western mythologies – flying by.

And yet, there is plenty of death and destruction here, too. A long digital print which extends nearly from wall-to-wall of the first gallery features blood-red rain and an utterly desolated middle portion of the scene, with the vast majority of the figures in the image holding hands and dancing among the clouds, presumably the spirits of the dead. In the center, a scraggly greyish structure which one might have taken to be a warped post-apocalyptic skyscraper turns out to be a pile of gravestones, atop the large head of a cartoon figure. The immediate surroundings are littered with human skeletons and dead trees. In a small painting later in the show, we see a tree holding a bucket & cleaning a gravestone, and in another, an anthropomorphized gravestone dancing with two trees.

In the video piece, Takaamanohara, a set of cartoon-faced skyscrapers play happily on the far left, while across a small body of water, on the far right, a far greener scene plays out, also happily, with birds and rainbows and so forth. Then things get dark. A volcano at the far right, also cartoon-faced, innocent and cute, blows its top, pouring out lava and spewing dark clouds into the sky. The whole video turns from whites and blues and greens to blacks and reds. A tsunami siren sounds, and waves inundate the immobile skyscrapers, who cry out in anguish. Some go up in flames, and some topple. But then some are rebuilt, and the world eventually returns to blue skies, lush greenery, and birds and rainbows.



A piece entitled “Sensô nante yaritakunaindayo ~hontô” (“Don’t Wanna Wage War… Honestly”) seems at first an outlier, but in a sense it fits in with the theme, too, as Aoshima points towards a desire for a peaceful, beautiful, future, for Japan and for the world. While her anime style, use of Japanese language, and other elements very much point her out as a Japanese artist, Aoshima also includes a number of works that point to a more international outlook. In one, we see a girl busking with a guitar, under a sign which says Union Square clearly in English, and she sings, in Spanish, “Dicen que soy muy borracho” (“They say I am very drunk”). Is she commenting on 3/11 and particularly Japanese concerns, or is she speaking to broader concerns, for all mankind, the world over?

Given the title, “Rebirth of the World,” and the content, including tsunami in the video installation, it would be very easy to jump to the conclusion that Aoshima is yet another artist talking about, thinking about, reflecting on, 3/11 and life in a post-3/11 Japan. This has most certainly been the dominant theme in the last few years in commentary on contemporary art, and contemporary culture more broadly, and I do understand that for those who were in Japan at the time, and those more closely in touch with contemporary culture (e.g. anthropologists), this is a huge thing. But, is that necessarily what’s going on here?

Many of these pieces were made in 2010 or earlier. They take on new meanings for us now, in the wake of those terrible events. The earth-girl gazing at an islet in Rock might be taken to be crying, for Matsushima, or for any and every coastal site ravaged by the tsunami on that terrible day. But this piece was made in 2010, and the bits of blue just under her eyes might just be the seawater in which her face and arms are resting. What might Aoshima have meant by the work at that time, before the disasters?

I struggle with this installation for bizarre reasons. It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on. The theme is so obvious: Rebirth of the World. And yet, because it is so obvious, it makes me wonder what else is going on, what other themes, what deeper messages. And I cannot seem to quite find them. I’m not saying Aoshima’s work is shallow; or even if it is, that that’s a problem. These are beautiful and powerful pieces. I’m just not really sure what more to say, or think, about them…

It is a beautiful installation, though; they have repainted the walls to make it a decidedly, distinctly, Aoshima space, and a number of works are on display that, we are told, have never been shown before. If you have the chance, go check it out.

All photos my own. Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World is on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park until October 4.

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