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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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