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Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism’

That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.

I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?

Fashions by the Chinese designer Guo Pei (right), the House of Chanel (French), and other French designers, inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.

I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.

To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.

Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying

‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’

Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:

The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.

Qing Dynasty Imperal robes, and European fashions inspired by them.

“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.

As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.

the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)

(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)

The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.

As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).

Robe for the 18th c. Qianlong Emperor, and a 2011 fashion design by Chinese designer Laurence Xu.

Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.

I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.

They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.

Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):

Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.

The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.

But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.

Left: Pieces from Craig Green’s 2015 Ensemble.

I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?

Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION

In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.

As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.

The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.

What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?

If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.

Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.

But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.

I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.

Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.

All photos my own.

—————
(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.

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I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. – Kurt Vonnegut.

I do not know if it may just be the accidents of what I have and have not read – the echo chamber or confirmation bias effects – but, it has been very interesting in the last week or two to see a shift in the conversation, and I am very glad to see the conversation continuing. I hope that at least some of the protesters feel satisfied – they wanted a conversation, and they are getting one. Hopefully this can be a productive conversation, informing views on both/all sides, and representing some kind of genuine step forward, even if a very small one. I have certainly learned a lot, and further nuanced my views on such matters.

Here, I share a few of the articles and blog posts I have read in the last couple weeks, simply to share what perspectives have emerged. I attempted to inject as little as possible of my own commentary or positions, but I don’t think I was very successful at that.

One blogger, by the name of Keiko, on her blog Japanese-American in Boston, has provided by far the most detailed, informative description of the background of the “Kimono Wednesdays” activity that I have yet seen. It answers a lot of the questions I had had, beginning with who made the replica kimonos: they were commissioned by NHK, and made by traditional textile artisans in Kyoto, working for Takarazuka, a prominent and well-established theatre company in Japan which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

We are still seeing a number of posts emphasizing the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, and providing valuable insights into just how and why such things can be so hurtful to many Asian-Americans.

However, we are now also seeing many posts that stand in defense of cultural exchange, and critiquing the protestors, as well as the museum for retreating so quickly/easily. I have seen a great many really interesting FB posts and mailing list comments in the last week or so, but I will refrain from sharing them, because (1) I lost a previous draft of this comment, and simply cannot find all the relevant comments again, and (2) because most were shared in various private circumstances, and probably should not be re-shared without explicit permission from each and every one of the commenters I might seek to quote. So, there’s that. So, this addition will only include a sprinkling of some of the additional perspectives from the last week or two.

*Keiko of “Japanese-American in Boston” provides a thorough description of why she personally does not feel this is racist, “yellowface,” or cultural appropriation, and also discusses what would have needed to be different for this to be offensive to her, while also noting that there are a number of things the museum could have done better. In another, more recent post, she breaks down a number of Myths and Facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the Protests.

*Major art critic blog website Hyperallergic, in a post entitled The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been one of a number of voices recently emphasizing that the idea of getting a feel for the weight, the heft, the feel of a garment is not itself an act of “dressing up” as anyone, or any type, and that what was really key to altering the character of the event, and moving it into more problematic territory, was encouraging visitors to take photos of themselves in the kimono.

The Hyperallergic writer adds:

However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.

More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East.

Of course, it is important to remember that Japan engaged in such “cultural export” specifically within a context of desperately trying to prove their worth to Western notions of “modernity,” in order to avoid becoming colonized or otherwise exploited. I thank my friend Nick for reminding us of this; it is a point that is very much prominent in my mind when thinking of the Meiji period, in architecture, in politics, in imperialism, in court ritual, and in the World’s Fairs, as well as in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and so forth, but I am embarrassed to admit it didn’t occur to me to link that with textiles. So, the Hyperallergic commentary misses, a bit, on this point. But, still, this adds valuable nuance – not all Asian cultures are the same, and not all Asian-American experiences are the same. The kimono, Japan, Japaneseness, are particular, just like everything in the world is particular, and should not be painted with a broad brush, under umbrella notions of appropriation, racism, etc.

The Hyperallergic article concludes:

For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. …

… This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.

To be sure, the museum absolutely could have done better, in a great many ways, to contextualize the activity differently, to discuss Orientalism and its impacts and implications more explicitly. It seems well-established at this point that, in this particular case, they really didn’t think about it sufficiently before doing it. And I am still unclear as to who was involved (European art curators, Asian art curators, Education), and to what extent. But, at its core, I agree, and I have read many others – top experts, with decades of experience in Japan and in the field of Japanese art – saying essentially the same thing, that we need to work to engage with one another, to talk and exchange and learn about one another, in order to move forward with greater understanding, and not to shy away from such exchange (or encourage others to refrain from such engagement) at the slightest hint of offense; we should find ways to engage in cultural exchange and experience in respectful and productive ways, and not shut down that discussion by compartmentalizing culture away – especially when it comes to something like kimono, which is not sacred, which is not traditionally associated with only being allowed to be used by particular groups; hula and feather headdresses would be a different story.

Indeed, in fact, today as well there are a great many people in Japan and in the US – traditional textile makers, traditional dance experts, and so forth – for whom the kimono is the centerpiece of cultural outreach, encouraging foreigners to try on kimono and to engage in Japanese culture. And some of them have begun appearing in the gallery, staging small, quiet, counter-protests. It simply goes to show that neither Japanese nor Japanese-Americans are a monolith. One Japanese-American wrote in an op-ed piece recently, which I touched upon and linked to in my previous discussion, “To consider that the OK of one Japanese friend who likes your kimono doesn’t mean wholesale approval from all Japanese people, let alone Asian-Americans.” This is extremely valid and important, and indeed her entire op-ed piece is extremely thought-provoking, and sympathetic, and I encourage you to read it. However, these counter-protests, both in person, and on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere, clearly show that the reverse is true as well – just because one, or fifty, or a hundred Asian-Americans are offended, doesn’t mean that all Asian-Americans find it offensive.

As a friend pointed out, one of the really key elements of offensive, inappropriate, cultural appropriation is when someone is practicing something incorrectly, and mistakenly believing they are learning or experiencing the authentic. This is highly problematic, as it perpetuates misinformation and misunderstandings; it perpetuates a skewed, incorrect Western imagination or understanding of “the East,” of Asian cultures, and worst of all it perpetuates Westerners believing themselves to be correct when they are not – and then acting upon, or passing along, that mistaken knowledge. But, not all cultural exchange is incorrect cultural exchange. Here are experts in traditional dance, in traditional kimono-making and kimono-wearing, encouraging people to engage in this, to learn about it.

As Japanese sources – newspapers, blogs, individual commenters – continue to express their confusion at Asian-American protestors’ reactions, many protestors and critics have dismissed the Japanese viewpoint as deriving from ignorance of the Asian-American experience, and of the politics of race/ethnicity/identity in the United States. To be sure, there is that to a certain extent. I saw it myself, as Japanese newspapers reported that protestors were describing the kimono-wearing event as “racial discrimination” (人類差別) or as “imperialist” (帝国主義), which many protestors were, but which misses the point entirely. One wonders what the popular Japanese conceptions of “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation” are, if they mistake these accusations for being the same thing as “discrimination” or “imperialism.” No wonder they were confused – this is very clearly not a case of discrimination, or imperialism. Then again, one wonders what these protestors are thinking, to themselves also confuse Orientalist perpetuation of stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, with every brand of oppression under the sun, from imperialism to white supremacy. I have even seen some Tweets tagged with “#whitesupremacykills” or something to that effect, as if white people trying on a kimono for five minutes was actively killing anyone; as if this was problematic in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the Confederate flag, police violence against blacks, church burnings, and so forth.

Now, I would like to reiterate, as I did in my previous post on the subject, my sympathy for the protestors’ views and positions. These are extremely valid attitudes and emotions, stemming from as genuine/authentic a lived experience as could be, and I think these perspectives absolutely need to be considered in the conversation as it continues. However, what continues to annoy and frustrate me about the attitudes many are expressing is the complete disregard, and dismissal, of the authenticity and authority of cultural experts. A tenth-generation kimono maker from Kyoto may not have the lived experience of the particular ethnic/racial environment of the United States, but she’s not an idiot. She has grown up her entire life surrounded by the people who have been the center of kimono production in the world, for centuries, people who have centuries of inherited experience in thinking about cultural issues – how to make and wear kimono, how to respect traditions, how to maintain them, and also how to allow them to change, and how to encourage others to engage in that cultural experience respectfully and appropriately. If they can’t be said to have authenticity and authority to say that it’s okay for foreigners to wear kimono – that it’s not offensive to the tradition, that it’s not a violation of cultural context – then who can?

As a recent Japan Times piece indicates,

The reaction… from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono. … In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival.

Meanwhile, both in Japan and in the West, many people of Japanese descent, from fashion designers to everyday sartorialists on the street, wear kimono in all kinds of ways, mixing it up, bringing it very much into the postmodern contemporary world. Kimono are, quite simply, *not* exclusive to particular traditional contexts. Manami Okazaki, Yohji Yamamoto, and Hiromi Asai are among those fashion designers seeking to bring the kimono out of its culturally-specific context into being “a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”” This is a considerable step further, beyond what traditional arts practitioners, cultural exchange workshops, and the like are trying to do, and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about this. But, this too is a valid, genuine position, coming from a place of authenticity and authority, and should not be lightly dismissed. Speaking of Okazaki’s book Kimono Now, as well as interviews with Yamamoto, Asai, and others, the Japan Times goes on to say that

those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. … Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist. … “Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”

So, this is a complex issue, and I am glad to see the conversation continuing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

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

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

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

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

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

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

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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

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Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

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An example of “hotel hula,” performed not for a traditional or ritual purpose, but as a show for large crowds at Waikiki.

If you’re not already aware of it, Sociological Images is a wonderful blog, posting excellent, well-worded, well-thought-through comments on a variety of sociological issues, mainly gender/sexuality and racism/Orientalism. One recent post touches upon Orientalism and the male gaze as they manifest in the performance, consumption (watching), and development of hula; the post basically summarizes the three chief types of hula – traditional, contemporary, and hotel – and touches upon the impact of hula-for-tourism upon the image or understanding of hula more broadly, and upon the character, therefore, of the performance form. Another post, from a few months ago, talked about the use of the “hula girl” as a stereotypical image in the marketing of Hawaii as a tourist destination. I’ve barely said anything here – I definitely recommend clicking through and taking a look at these two brief articles.

Though focusing on feminist and Orientalism issues, both posts also touch upon or relate to issues of tradition and authenticity, and the difficulty of how to share traditional culture and make it visible and available to visitors, while at the same time maintaining the tradition. “Hotel hula” has developed into such a thing rather different from traditional hula, both in terms of its ritual significance, and its very sexualized & Orientalized image – this, in turn, has profoundly affected the attitudes and impressions of people outside Hawaii about what hula is.

A video from 1975, an example of the kind of “classic” image of tourist Hawaii that ties into how we continue to imagine the islands today.

Reading this, I thought of geisha as well; there are a number of places in Kyoto, and I would assume elsewhere as well, where one can go see geisha dances as a tourist. The more genuine, traditional context is to either hire a geisha to entertain as part of a very fancy/expensive private dinner party, or to attend Miyako Odori dance events; when I stayed in Kyoto three summers ago, I saw geisha performances in a hotel lobby, and at a culture museum. I think it’s great that these things are offered at a museum, as part of educating about the culture in a manner that isn’t purely static, and in a manner that seeks to be more inclusive, of not only objects and images, but of activities and performances as well. As for the hotel, well, I understand the desire, the demand – people come to Kyoto, and one of the chief things they associate with the city and desire to see is geisha dances, just like the hula performances in Hawaii.

But, who are these geisha who perform in such contexts? How are they, and their art, affected discursively by the context in which they perform? Even if the dances (and costume and makeup) themselves are perfectly identical to “genuine” traditional dances, nevertheless, when you’re performing for tourists, at a hotel or at a museum, that has a dramatic impact upon you as a performer, upon what it means to be a geisha. These dances take on a major part in the regular life of a young geiko or maiko, who performs at a hotel or museum X times a week, explaining her craft & lifestyle, getting her picture taken with one tourist after another, and who trains or prepares for such events, practicing her introductions and answers to questions, etc., as a museum staffer or tour guide would – a very different thing from other aspects of geisha training & everyday life.

Displays of geisha costume & dance, at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Miyako Messe Fureaikan).

So, again, what does it mean to be a geisha when a lifestyle that once focused almost exclusively on life within the geisha house, on dance practice & other training, and on entertaining guests in elite establishments now includes commuting to a hotel or museum & coordinating with that institution when & how often and which geiko will go there, spending X portion of one’s days preparing for or performing for tourists, and preparing presentations or explanations of the tradition for viewers? Perhaps most importantly, geisha are in these contexts put on display in a sense, as museum objects, in a sense, removed from their cultural context of the geisha house or the fancy restaurant… what does it feel like to be on display for tourists? What does it feel like to be a cultural commodity, and what does it mean for the art to have it experienced and understood in this profoundly diluted way?

These are major themes in post-colonial studies, and I am sure there is a lot of Theory and scholarship out there on the subject… I look forward to hopefully discussing these themes in a seminar or otherwise engaging with these questions further.

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Dr. Kominz made a comment last Saturday during the kabuki symposium about how the word “kabuki” is used all the time to refer to all kinds of things that are not kabuki.

He was talking about applying the word “kabuki” to performances that are slightly or vaguely Japanese-inspired, that use some kind of face makeup vaguely resembling kumadori, or that otherwise involve some kind of attempt at implying a kabuki influence or connection. That certainly does take place.

But, what immediately came to mind for me was the constant misuse of the word “kabuki” in news and news commentary to refer to actions or events that the commentator chooses to characterize as absurd political theatre. Absurd in whatever ways; over-the-top, excessively dramatic, unnecessarily complicated.. I guess.

I’m not even going to get into why this annoys me so. I tried, and deleted it, as I couldn’t really manage to put it into words clearly and it started just developing into a long rant.

Carla Blank, on the other hand, puts it strongly, clearly, and succinctly in her short opinion piece for Counterpunch magazine, entitled “When Kabuki is Not Kabuki“.

In short:

This is President Obama watching Kabuki.

This and this and this are *NOT* kabuki.

That is all.

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Every now and then, in my readings and class lectures, I am introduced to an artist whose work just catches my eye and grabs my attention.

Walter Spies (1895-1942) is one such artist. Born to German parents in Moscow, he made his way to the Dutch East Indies in 1923 and never returned to Europe. In Java, after expressing an interest in gamelan music (something which I must say I enjoy very much as well), he was made Master of the Sultan’s Music and came to live within the grounds of the palace and to direct the sultan’s gamelan. He developed a written notation for the gamelan music – whether he was the first to do so, or the first Westerner to do so, and whether his notation continues to be used today, I have no idea, but I wonder. In any case, he moved to Bali in 1927, where he would remain the rest of his life. After a brief time living in a rajah’s palace, he established his own home.

Spies engaged in a wide variety of artistic activities, including painting, composing, and photography, and gathered around him a large circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as becoming something of a local celebrity. He is described as being appreciated by both the colonial Dutch and local Balinese authorities, and was active in a number of enterprises, including serving as curator of a Bali Museum for a time, and organizing an artists’ collective with as many as 150 members.

Sadly, in the 1930s, there came a wave of crackdowns on homosexual activity, which was illegal in the Dutch colonies as it was in most parts of the (Western?) world at the time. The Balinese argued on his behalf, as did renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, that homosexuality was traditionally not considered a sin, crime, or abhorrence in their society, and the father of a boy with whom Spies had had relations likewise argued that he saw no problem with it. Still, in the end, Spies was imprisoned for some months. When the Netherlands fell to the Nazis, Dutch authorities in Indonesia rounded up and interned German nationals, including Spies, who was eventually placed on a ship to British Ceylon the Netherlands. (Why would the Dutch send free citizens/residents of the free Dutch East Indies back to Nazi-occupied Holland, I don’t understand. But nevertheless, it happened…) Spies never made it there, however, as the ship was sunk by the Japanese.

….

Spies’ paintings really strike me for their unique style and forms, not to mention the exotic subject matter of the Balinese context. Academic 19th century “mainstream” Orientalist paintings of the Arab world, as typified by the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme are stunningly gorgeous in their own way, but I would argue that they lack a personal touch. They are so carefully detailed and realistically depicted, that they lack to some extent evidence of the artist’s personality or creativity.

“Traumlandschaft” (1927)

Sadly, many of Spies’ paintings survive today only as black-and-white photos of the original works. On the other hand, perhaps one should say “luckily, black-and-white photos of many of Spies’ works which are otherwise lost, have survived.”

I’m not sure if this painting would reflect any particular Balinese myth or story, but the fantastic element is obvious, the incredibly tall, thin, form of a man extending up through the treetops and clouds, providing a sense of the magical which infuses many of Spies’ paintings and might be presumed to be an expression of the magic he experienced and enjoyed in life in Bali.

“Die Landschaft und ihre Kinder” (1939)

“The Travelling Salesman” (Date Unknown)

The dark greens and bright, pale, blues of many of Spies’ paintings creates a sense of the lush, verdant, environment, and a powerful sense of mystery and magic. I particularly like his figures, so extremely thin, with their broad hats, represented so similarly from work to work as to seem characters or caricatures.

In light of having seen numerous paintings of other tropes, such as Gerome’s of the Arab World, Chinese and Japanese paintings of their own respective landscapes, etc., this distinctly different scene of Balinese fashion, figures, and landscapes is all the more intriguing.

“Sumatran Landscape” (1941)

And then, sometimes Spies just does a straight-out stunning, picturesque, landscape largely absent of Orientalist elements.

—-

While Walter Spies was by no means ethnically Balinese himself, and did not paint in a style which can be considered natively or traditionally Balinese, the magical and unique style seen in his work, distinct from any I have ever seen used to represent Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, or European/Western subjects, as well as the actual content of his pieces, namely Balinese people and places, make his works feel distinctly Balinese. They inspire in me not an interest in Western painting, or even so much in Spies as an individual “master”, but in Bali, its people, its culture, and its landscapes, and in the romantic notion of “going bamboo” as Spies and so many others have.

All images courtesy of Geff Green’s wonderful Walter Spies Page. I am sure there is plenty else out there on Spies, particularly on blogs devoted to Balinese art, in catalogs produced for exhibitions of Spies’ work, etc. though I have not myself taken the time to go through them all. If you are interested, I invite you to pursue this… and to perhaps even come back here to share what you have found.

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