Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Museum Review: Oceanic Art at the Peabody-Essex Museum

Imagine you are a sailor circa 1800. You have been away from Salem, Massachusetts, your home, for years. Since the mid-1780s - since reports came back from James Cook's final voyage to the Pacific - ships from Salem have been traveling around the Cape to the Pacific searching for furs to sell to the Chinese at Canton (Guangzhou). Along your trip you visited the native peoples of the Northwest Coast of America. You surprisingly found some Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) living and working there. They labor there on behalf of other Salem ships that have plied this watery highway for years now, sending labor and salt (for curing animal skins) from Hawaiʻi northeastward in exchange for furs and salmon from the Northwest Coast. You also visited Hawaiʻi where that salmon from the Northwest Coast was made up into lomilomi salmon, perhaps the first instance of "Pacific Rim fusion" cuisine long before it became trendy in the 1990s! You re-provision in Hawaiʻi between runs to the Northwest Coast and before making the final voyage to Canton, China, with your cargo.

But all this is in the past now. It has been three years and you are finally returning home. Like in the photograph below, you've spotted Derby Wharf and the Salem shore, and you can't wait to run into the arms of your loved ones.

View of Salem from the tip of Derby Wharf. Docked at the wharf is a tall ship like your own, the Friendship. The light pink building on the wharf is a warehouse. There would have been many more of these ships and warehouses back in 1800. The ornate building straight ahead is the U.S. Custom House.

As much as you'd like to run into your loved one's arms though, work isn't over until all the cargo is unloaded from the ship. And of course the cargo must be registered at the U.S. Custom House (see photo above) in order to keep the federal government running.

The Friendship of Salem

Most of the cargo you brought to Salem will probably continue on its way to major ports like Boston or New York or Philadelphia. It may consist primarily of "China goods" such as teas, silks, porcelains, &c. But your captain collected a lot of other "personal" goods along the way: luxury or novelty objects of interest from the many indigenous cultures encountered. At times these objects were collected with some modicum of fairness: something was traded for something else. Other of these objects were just outright "stolen." But that, of course, remains up to interpretation. So...we need to go somewhere we can further interpret these objects, their genealogies, and their continuing signification.

East India Marine Hall, Peabody-Essex Museum. Here is where the objects of centuries of global exploration and exploitation have been stored.

This post focuses on the Peabody-Essex Museum's Oceanic Art collection. In addition, the museum houses world-class collections of Asian art and American maritime art. They also house an amazing Qing-era domicile from Anhui Province, China that was fully reassembled at the museum.

According to the museum's website, their collections include over 20,000 objects from Oceania. That is an amazing collection, and it is in startling contrast to the one room devoted to this region in the museum, housing perhaps only 50 objects. Almost every object on display here is of Polynesian origin, traditionally defined by the Polynesian triangle which encompasses all islands between Hawaiʻi to the North, Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the West, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the East. Previous museums I have reviewed, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and American Museum of Natural History, displayed Polynesian objects as only one part of a larger representation on the diversity of Oceanian art. Elsewhere, in fact, I have bemoaned the lack of attention given to Polynesian objects. So I am not complaining here! I just find it interesting that PEM put out exactly what I - so idiosyncratically - wanted to see! And left out so much.


Let's start at the endpoint of Polynesian voyaging/migration (not including the diaspora-making travels of migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries that I am also so interested in!): Aotearoa (New Zealand), the last islands colonized by Polynesian migrants before the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific.

Well, no one can disagree that from c1200 CE when the first Māori arrived, until the late 1700s when Captain Cook arrived, that the people of Aotearoa developed their own unique visual iconography and skills as master woodworkers. Take for example the door panel below with its two intricately carved figures. Their heads are cocked to the side; tongues out; three-fingered hands resting on stomachs. I don't know what these figures signify, but my best guess is that they are placed on the door panel to threaten trespassers. The stance and use of the tongue remind me of some of the Māori haka (dance) I have seen on video, and I wonder if there is some connection...

Epa (house panel) from Aotearoa

Wooden canoe model, early/mid 19th-century, Aotearoa

Rapa Nui

Moving east to another geographical extremity of the "prehistoric" (bad term) distribution of Polynesian peoples, PEM displayed one object from Rapa Nui (Easter Island): this unique statue.

Moai kavakava (figure with ribs), early 19th century, Rapa Nui

This moai kavakava is an interesting figure. Its name - including kavakava, meaning "ribs" - draws the viewer's attention to the emaciated form of the figure's body. Could it be a representation of famine or hunger? We know Rapanui went through horrible periods of famine. Could they have developed this icon in response to such trauma? I'm afraid that's probably too easy of an answer, and worse, such an interpretation continues to lock the Rapanui into a lopsided history, from the toppling of the large stone moai to the disease, kidnapping, and colonization of the 19th century, that too often overemphasizes the horror of Rapanui civilization and fails to find the goodness there. But the emaciated figure is worrisome, and it still easily implants itself into my thoughts.

Almalene Kuʻuipo Gray-Parker, Moai Kava Kava, 2001, Hawaiʻi

One thing I love about PEM's Oceanic Art collection is their inclusion of contemporary works by Oceanian artists. Rather that letting only the exploits of Salem's wealthiest merchant-collectors speak through the objects they acquired, PEM's inclusion of contemporary works from the region allows for the cross-cultural/trans-regional conversation to continue, rather than ending on the beaches where it began two hundreds years ago. Almalene Kuʻuipo Gray-Parker's piece Moai Kava Kava speaks directly with the two hundred year old Rapa Nui figure also on display (see previous photo above). Gray-Parker used natural fibers, bone, human hair, and granite to create this moai kavakava, materials that were commonly used by Hawaiian artists in the early nineteenth century. I find it fascinating that Gray-Parker focused on the moai's head, rather than the body with emaciated ribs. Although the name still conveys the importance of the ribs, Gray-Parker personalizes the moai by bringing attention to the figure's face, with its elongated ears, and wispy beard.


Before heading up to Hawaiʻi, let's stop at the ancestral home of the very first Hawaiians, the Marquesas Islands.

Head and ear ornaments, 19th-century, Marquesas Islands.

I was immediately attracted to the porpoise-teeth crown (in the foreground of the photo). I had seen a similar Marquesan head ornament at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and I still find it fascinating that all those porpoise teeth were harvested and utilized in this special way. The headbands and earpieces on display here are made not only of porpoise teeth, but also tortoise shell, coconut fiber, bone, tapa cloth. But when I looked a bit closer at these objects I saw other elements in the designs: beads, buttons, &c - namely, objects of European or Euro-American origin.

So it is not just that Salem's ship captains were bringing back "authentic" representations of foreign cultures, but what they were really bringing back were contemporary reflections upon the altered state of material, ecological, and cultural change (and exchange). These objects are maps of discovery, inscribed with signification by those on both sides of the beach. There is a give-and-take embodied in these objects. Thus it is even more remarkable to find these things - like the shirt buttons below - back in Salem, re-appropriated and re-signified by a foreign author.

Paʻe kaha, 19th century, Marquesas Islands.
This headdress is made of shirt buttons, shell, tortoise shell, and natural fibers.

On our way to Hawaiʻi, we can follow the poi pounders below as our guide. The cultural similarities between Marquesan, Tahitian, and Hawaiian stonework - as well as ethnobotany - are striking. But it should be no surprise as breadfruit and taro were carried from island to island as part of the life- (and culture-) sustaining portmanteau biota accompanying the Polynesian voyagers on their journeys.

Pohaku kuʻi poi (poi pounders),
(front to back) from Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, and the Marquesas.


After cooked taro (kalo) (or breadfruit) was mashed with the pohaku kuʻi poi above, it would eventually reach a consistency like pudding. That poi would be stored and served in calabash gourds or in beautifully carved bowls like the one below.

ʻUmeke pauhala, bowl made of kou wood, late 18th/early 19th century, Hawaiʻi.
In the background are ʻulu maika gaming stones, also from Hawaiʻi.

Lei o mano, early 19th century, Hawaiʻi.

The lei o mano above - literally, "a shark's lei" (but you wouldn't want to wear this around your neck!) - is a rare early 19th century Hawaiian weapon. The handle and structure are made of wood and of course the exterior is lined with shark's teeth. This particular object was collected by the New England missionaries Asa and Lucy Thurston. The Thurstons arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1820 as part of the first group of Christian missionaries to ever visit the islands.

Kupeʻe hoaka (bracelet), late 18th century, Hawaiʻi.

One of the last objects I saw before leaving the gallery was this amazing bracelet from the early contact period in Hawaiʻi. The object was collected circa 1800. It is made almost entirely of boar's (puaʻa) tusks. (Fiber binds the bracelet together.) The original Hawaiian migrants (from the Marquesas and later from Tahiti) brought pigs with them to the islands. There are still wild pigs on Kauaʻi today. We saw firsthand the damage they did in one particular forest ripping up the soil cover while looking for nuts, insects, or whatever it is they were rooting around for.

This is really a stunningly beautiful bracelet, and of a make and design that I have never seen before. I imagine it belonged to a young aliʻi wahine ("princess").

(heiau statue), early 19th century, Hawaiʻi

is the Hawaiian god of war. This is a sacred statue...such that I felt a bit uncomfortable taking a photograph of it...but I did. This statue was the gift of John Prince in 1846, but how he came into possession of it is unknown to me. It was built for King Kamehameha I (aka Kamehameha the Great), therefore sometime before his death in 1819. The statue was built for a heiau, the traditional Hawaiian religious space. I don't know much about heiau because I regretfully did not visit any during my trip to the islands.

The Kū figure above is made of breadfruit wood. It stands about 6 feet tall in a room almost completely to itself. The museum has provided a nearby alcove where Native Hawaiians (and others who are so moved) can leave lei or other objects for Kū.

On the other side of this room are the objects shown below.

Bernice A. Keolamauloa ʻŌnalanī Akamine, Kaua, We, the Two of Us, 2000, Hawaiʻi

At first, I did not know what to make of these objects. They looked like chunks of rock that had fallen from outer space. Upon closer inspection, I thought that these objects looked remarkably like cooled lava. They seem indelibly Hawaiian in origin. In fact, these objects by Hawaiian artist Bernice Akamine are made of glass and sand mostly. The word kāua means "we, us." Therefore the title is really driving home a sense of inescapable bond and togetherness. But between whom? Is it between the two objects on display? Or is the "we" reflective of the bond between object and viewer? Or is there some relation with Kū on the other side of the room? Does it matter that kaua, pronounced differently, can also mean "to make war"?

Leaving Salem

We had a great time in Salem. I only wish I had devoted more time to the Peabody-Essex Museum. For anyone interested in investigating the relationship between the early American republic and the wider world - a topic often glossed over in narrative histories of the United States, but not so easily forgotten in the Pacific Islands - definitely make a trip to Salem. I can also recommend staying at Morning Glory B&B where we made ourselves at home for the duration of our stay. Happy travels!