Turning back the centuries
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
It couldn't have happened. But it did.
And, posits La'akea Suganuma, maybe it was meant to happen. Perhaps the first bits of Polynesian culture ever to leave the Pacific were meant to survive and to return, to inspire and teach the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of their makers.
These fishhooks and kapa, feather work and basketry, sacred objects and everyday things — given or traded during Capt. James Cook's exploratory voyages — traveled around the Horn of Africa in the damp and rough-hewn holds of Cook's ships, landing first in England, and then, as a gift of King George III in 1782, at Germany's University of Gottingen, where they have remained, famous among scientists and invisible to the public.
The Industrial Revolution happened. Two world wars. King George's family, the House of Hanover, fell. And then, one day a couple of years ago, in a story that is passing into legend, art lover Peter Ruthenberg walked into Honolulu Academy of Arts director Stephen Little's office with an out-of-print book detailing the Cook/Forster Collection. "Have you ever heard of this? And do you want this for the academy?" he asked. Little hadn't and he did, so Ruthenberg contacted Gottingen.
Now, with "Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook/Forster Collection of the George August University of Gottingen," which opens to the public tomorrow, more than 300 fragments of Pacific life — most of them crafted before Western contact, and most in such pristine condition as to bring tears to a curator's eyes — have crossed the globe again. (This time, however, by air, through Asia, in made-to-order plastic cases, with hovering escorts and no end of pageantry and expense.)
Suganuma, a Hawaiian cultural specialist, and Len Barton, a part-Maori teacher, just smiled as they sat talking in the Academy of Arts courtyard. Nod knowingly. Look off into the distance.
"It's magic in there," said Barton, gesturing behind him to the gallery where Fuchs Realisation, a prestigious art transport house, was setting up the academy's ambitious exhibition.
They didn't exactly say it was meant to be, but when you consider the number of pieces that had to click into place to make this happen, you tend, like Suganuma, Barton, Little and even installer Ernst Fuchs — who doesn't know a thing about Pacific culture — to get a little keyed up and teary-eyed.
A couple of weeks ago, after witnessing a stirring ceremony for the unveiling of a feathered head of the god Kuka'ilimoku, Fuchs, still trembling, said he'd been moving priceless artworks around the world for 27 years. He'd handled the image, considering how best to pack it (in a box with a stabilizing block that fits inside the hollow head). "This was different, a special moment in my life. It's was like I get showers on my neck," he said. Chicken skin, we call it, Herr Fuchs. Welcome to the Islands.
The word mana — spiritual power — comes up a lot.
"The mana is big, big with this show," said Little. There is, firstly, the fact that the pieces exist at all, a fact he attributes to their being housed in an academic institution, not a public museum.
There is the way this show — mounted by function rather than country of origin — confirms that Pacific islanders are calabash cousins. "When you see the fishhooks hanging side by side, it just demonstrates how interrelated and vibrant this universe of the Pacific was," said Little. (Maori, Tahitian, Tongan, Marquesan, Vanuatuan, Hawaiian and other cultures are represented.)
Lokahi is another word that comes up, meaning cooperation, but more significantly, everything being in sync. "These things were created at a time when there was lokahi — man, his spirit, the gods, nature, life itself. There was a constant communication between all of these forces. They knew nothing could survive without the other. I think that's lacking today," said Suganuma.
So does Little: "When a culture is in balance ... the works that are produced have an intensity and beauty that reflects that. ... These things have a spiritual integrity and an intellectual integrity which is overwhelmingly obvious to anyone who has eyes."
For a society as out of balance as they believe ours to be, there is a lesson here, they say.
The grandson of famed Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui and a master of Hawaiian martial arts, Suganuma shakes his head at the ironies. It was his involvement in a court case over artifacts removed from burial caves at Kawaihae that led the academy to ask for his help in assuring everything about the show was pono, or correct. "There's something very deep going on. Why are all these elements coming together?" said Suganuma, who flew to Germany with Barton to perform a blessing for protection before the artifacts were packed for travel.
Barton, who teaches at Roose-velt, just happened to be walking some students around the academy when he got drafted to help with the exhibition. Son of a Cambridge-trained part-Maori anthropologist and a University of Hawai'i graduate in Pacific and Asian studies, Barton's passionate hope is that Pacific-islander youths will open themselves to what these artifacts have to tell them.
"This was only a stone-bone-wood technology, but taken to the absolute apex of creativity," said Barton, who has seen just enough of the pieces to be in a permanent state of chicken-skin until the opening. "It shows ...," he pauses, searching for words that will convey the intensity of his meaning. "It shows what can be done if someone is paying attention like our ancestors did. It is very important for young people to see this."
His students think they need the latest computer, he said, "but the ancestors ... their computers were here!" he says, gesturing emphatically toward his head. Says Suganuma: "You look at somebody who could memorize and chant correctly 1,000 lines. What kind of mind is that? And if they could, does that mean we could?"
They're getting to the question that Little fervently hopes "Life in the Pacific of the 1700s" will raise for people of the 2000s: "What is the place and what is the relevance of these indigenous Pacific cultures today?"
"I don't see this question being asked on the big stage. For me, it's the big elephant in the room nobody wants to ask or answer," he said.
Suganuma and Barton say the pieces speak eloquently in and of themselves — so much so that few words have been used in the installation. Suganuma hopes that viewers will think about the layers of skill, knowledge, meaning and cultural context in each piece.
The show shouldn't be seen as merely a collection of beautiful things, said Suganuma: "It may be art now, but then, it was life."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.