Saturday, May 8, 2010

Museum Review: Oceanian Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

When I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year, I walked away feeling disoriented and a bit disappointed by their presentation of Oceanian art (See my review of that exhibit). Looking back, I now realize that my somewhat negative evaluation at the time stemmed partly from the fact that I was most interested in seeing Polynesian art (and secondly, Micronesian art) that day. The overwhelming supply of (admittedly beautiful) art from one small part of the island of New Guinea (Melanesian art) was just not what I was interested in seeing. I guess my own idiosyncratic interests made my review quite biased...(but part of my bias was also towards valuing Oceanian art on equal footing with European and Euro-American art because I feel that the current imbalance between white people's art and non-white people's art in the modern museum is one of the most pernicious of all museum traditions). 

I found much more to my liking during a number of recent visits to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In the interest of full exposure, I must admit that I also like much of what the Brooklyn Museum has beyond its Oceanian collection, particularly the American and Feminist art collections; I also simply think that the museum spaces are more comfortable, the objects more accessible, and the presentation more insightful than that at the Met; oh, and yes, my girlfriend is an intern there. Now, with all of my biases hung out like dirty laundry, I turn to an appraisal of the Brooklyn Museum's small but interesting collection of Oceanian art.

Polynesian Art
A map provides geographic orientation to "Polynesia."
The Polynesian Triangle includes Hawaiʻi to the north, Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the southwest, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the southeast, and just about everything in between.

The Brooklyn Museum's permanent exhibit of Oceanian art is located in a small room lodged between the elevators and the gift shop. This unusual location might seem like an insult to the art, but I actually have found that the location attracts a lot of traffic: people waiting for a friend, waiting to leave, waiting for an elevator, whatever, who look (perhaps not closely, but they do look) at the Oceanian art. One side of this small room is devoted to works from island Southeast Asia and the other side to works from Polynesia. I am concerned here only with the Polynesian collection.

Male figurine from Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga

According to the museum's curator, this remarkable object reflects the hybrid material culture of the people living in the nineteenth century Fijian-Samoan-Tongan geographical triangle. While Fiji is often characterized as "Melanesian" and Samoa and Tonga as "Polynesian," the truth is that for centuries people have been trading goods and knowledge between these three island groups. Not only that, but human migration and resulting multiculturalism (which then sometimes leads to cultural hybridity, as perhaps evidenced by this object) have also occurred for centuries. Tongans and Samoans living in Fiji for centuries have particularly influenced Fijian art and material culture, and I am sure that influential exchanges went the other way as well. How expressive, then, that this object likely held significance and meaning for a variety of different peoples back then (Fijians, Samoans, Tongans) and still does today (for Brooklyn Museum visitors who puzzle over it).


Detail of a Marquesan club (uʻu)

This might be the first time I have mentioned the Marquesas Islands in this blog. Today these islands are part of French Polynesia, and they have been, I assume, since the 1840s when France first took possession of these islands. But even earlier, another empire tried their hand at claiming the Marquesas: the United States of America. Yes, during the War of 1812 Americans made a tenuous claim to the Marquesas Islands, but annexation was never ratified. 

Map of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia

Why did the United States want the Marquesas? They were actively engaged in "sandalwooding" there around the time of the War of 1812: that's one reason. In fact, there was a very fast sandalwood harvesting boom in the 1810s in the Marquesas, but by the end of that decade the Americans had little need for the islands anymore: most of the best sandalwood had already been exploited.

Another (perhaps more relevant) fact to our discussion of Marquesan uʻu is that the Polynesians who first colonized Hawaiʻi during the period c300-600 CE were Marquesans. I often write about Hawaiian culture, so it is always important to remember the influence that early Marquesans had on forming that culture. Early Marquesans were incredibly adept canoeists and they may have also been the Polynesians who first visited South America (c800 CE) and brought back sweet potatoes to Oceania. In my opinion, their smoothly polished and intricately carved uʻu are without competition among Polynesian wood arts.


The museum curator suggests that this headdress was manufactured on the island of Ua Poa (see map above) and then was traded to Hiva Oa where the European scholar of Polynesian travel, Thor Heyerdahl, collected it in 1937. Heyerdahl is most famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition, which (once the movie about the expedition ever becomes available on Netflix [it is on my "saved" queue]) I will write about in a future blog post. (Of course, there is a book about the adventure, too, but I'd rather just watch the movie as I am already skeptical about the importance of Heyerdahl's work now that the Polynesian Voyaging Society is conducting more culturally significant journeys of the same kind out of Hawaiʻi.)

In Hawaiʻi, women's headdresses generally come in three different material forms: hala (pandanus leaves; no ornamentation or bright colors), flower lei (fragrant, colorful flowers, or sometimes even fake flowers from China, as Namahana wore in the 1820s!), and feather lei (perhaps the most prized of all, as the red and yellow feathers are laboriously picked high in the mountains and contain abundant mana). 

The availability of porpoise teeth on Ua Poa provided the Marquesans with their own unique material for constructing headdresses. I can only imagine that wearing a headdress made of porpoise teeth was a privilege of women from only the chiefly class, and that wearing such a headdress symbolized the transfer of mana from the many porpoises to the human consumer. How many teeth does a porpoise have? How were the porpoises harvested? Marquesan-porpoise relations will have to be the subject of future study by environmental historians.

Lizard figures (moko miro) from Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is best known for its large moai statues, perhaps thanks to that not-so-great film "Night at the Museum" with Ben Stiller. But these lizard figures at the Brooklyn Museum are just as interesting and incredibly enchanting. The swimming curvaciousness of the lizard bodies is particularly beautiful to me, not to mention the polished smoothness of the wood that reminds me of the Marquesan uʻu also on display. But what animal(s) inspire this mythical creature? Were there lizards in Rapa Nui during the nineteenth century, and if so, how the hell did they get there?!


I conclude this post with the object on display at the Brooklyn Museum that is most familiar to me: a Hawaiian lei niho palaoa. Many visual and textual representations of Hawaiian aliʻi (ruling class) women from the 1820s-period depict women wearing these necklaces. Made of a whale's tooth (perhaps from a beached whale, but increasingly in the nineteenth century from whale's teeth traded to Hawaiians by Europeans and Euro-Americans) and real braided human hair (lots of it), these necklaces had considerable mana. Not only did a privileged woman wear part of a whale on her chest (and whales were quite the distant, perhaps even mythical creature for Hawaiians until the 1820s and the advent of Euro-American whaling in the North Pacific) but also the hair of many humans wrapped her neck and infused her with mana.

But this object is particularly fascinating because of its history as a collected item and as a cultural ambassador to a European/Euro-American public. It was mislabeled by its collector as a "Sorceror's Necklace from Tahiti." But it was not a sorcerer's object, much less a Hawaiian kahuna (priest)'s object. And it was not Tahitian, although perhaps the collector or his audience at the time had more romantic visions of Tahiti than he/they did of Hawaiʻi...and thus the textual embellishment of the necklace.

Detail of lei niho palaoa showing a haole (foreigner) inscription stating:
"Sorcerer's Necklace from Tahiti"

You can learn more about the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Oceanian art online. You might want to start with this introduction by the curator of the collection.

There are 1,572 objects made by Pacific Islanders that are now held at the Brooklyn Museum on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Who knew there was so much of Oceania in New York?

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