Objects tell Pacific peoples' stories
By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser
By Marie Carvalho
Pop artist Claes Oldenburg's wish for "an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all" still resonates, decades later.
Contemporary art hyper-self-conscious and commodified often spins in a discrete universe of biennials, auctions and visual language rife with insider references. Outsiders complain that they feel alien in this "art world."
That's a far cry from art's social origins, and the basic impulse of making that still drives artists. That impulse goes back to our cave-dwelling ancestors, who sculpted buffalo from mud and painted images of the hunt on stone. Theirs was an art born of ordinary survival.
Yet we recognize, even today, that there's nothing ordinary about those fabulous wild-horse flanks drawn on Lascaux's cave walls. Though we're missing pieces of the story what, exactly, does the man with the bird-like head signify? the art's beauty and ritualistic intentions are not lost on us.
The Honolulu Academy of Arts' blockbuster exhibition, "Life in the Pacific of the 1700s," allows viewers a similar glimpse into the pre-Western contact aesthetics and lives of Pacific peoples. More than 350 artifacts are assembled, utilitarian and sacred objects traded or given to Capt. James Cook and his men during his second and third voyages to the region.
Most from fishnet to floor mats fit Oldenburg's criteria: They grew up not knowing that they were art at all. That is their charm, and, perhaps, their lesson for us.
Here are, among others, jewelry of bone and teeth; a Tahitian mourning dress of opalescent shells, feathers and barkcloth; a Tongan breast plate fashioned from the shoulder blade of a sperm whale; bamboo nose flutes; and a fierce feather image believed to represent the Hawaiian god Kuka'ilimoku.
The objects are in uncommonly perfect condition, having been stored for centuries in a private collection in Germany, far from tropical humidity and insects that can wreak havoc on organic materials.
That irony alone raises timely and emotionally charged questions for indigenous peoples about who owns material culture, who should care for it, and what it says about our world.
Stephen Little, exhibition curator and academy director, made the unusual decision to group the objects by their uses versus their origins, demonstrating meaningful connections between the Pacific cultures that made them.
"It hammers home that Native Hawaiian culture was part of a much bigger universe of cultures. I think that we lose sight of that today," Little says.
The informational placards that usually hang on the wall next to artwork in museum shows were omitted, says Little, to "minimize curatorial voice and agenda." Instead, the objects tell their own stories: how their makers may have worked, played, fought and worshiped; what they valued enough to vest with beauty.
While the text-free strategy may quiet the curatorial voice, agenda is alive and well. Avoiding the imposition of "expert" analysis offers an alternative, more culturally sensitive agenda: public discussion, an aim well-served by the museum's decision to offer free admission during the show's entire run. That's a wise move in a region with strong oral traditions, given the tragic loss of cultural knowledge as generations pass.
For instance, of Maori earrings fashioned from human teeth, Little asks, "Whose teeth were used an ancestor's, or a bitter enemy's?"
Someone's cousin's best friend's auntie just might know the backstory.
The objects' arrangement by use also argues, perhaps less intentionally, for a reinterpretation of them as not only artifacts, but as art, too. For example, multiple textiles made from natural fibers and dyes serve up a visual buffet of deliberate style, color, pattern and texture.
German exhibition designer Heike Muhlhaus' sculptural choices similarly recast the artifacts. Her industrial design background is apparent in the show's superbly clean lines and sublime lighting. Tactile mats, for instance, lay flat in an inviting ground-level display; visitors can stroll an elevated walkway between the encased mats. Another long, clear case stunningly bisects one room, a row of fishhooks suspended within. Lit from below by blue light, the hooks levitate between distinct worlds: ocean and land, past and present, artifact and art.
Like much art, many of these artifacts employ beauty to convey power: accessories adorned with coveted red feathers; a symbolically carved war club; or a headband with intricate tortoiseshell latticework pierced using only a shark's tooth.
Others are simply utilitarian objects: fiber net, a cowry octopus lure. That they, too, share in the same careful craftsmanship suggests that beauty was once imbedded in the ordinary in a way that it's not today. (Think blue acrylic fishing nets or lurid, mass-produced plastic lures.)
Sure, quality handmade objects still exist; but they aren't common or cheap.
Early Polynesian artisans might be amazed how time has elevated these goods a used fishhook, a carved flyswatter into objets d'art. They might be less surprised that their own descendants view the objects, which are often animated by deeper spiritual meanings, as ancestors.
Are contemporary perspectives merely nostalgic? Perhaps. But these exquisitely made objects say otherwise: Beauty was once part of the cultural fabric, not an expensive footnote; art and meaning weren't always relegated to worlds separate from the everyday.
That shift can only signal a certain kind of impoverishment.
Marie Carvalho is a freelance writer covering art and literature.