Half a Million Feathers

Peter Campbell

  • Oceanic Art by Nicholas Thomas
    Thames and Hudson, 216 pp, £6.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 500 20281 8

Some art is distinguishable from non-art only by the kind of attention it gets. In a museum of modern art anything which is not already an item in the collection, from the light bulbs to the urinals, is on the verge of becoming one. Similarly, it was a change in the quality of attention which transformed ethnographers’ collections of ‘material culture’ – masks, weapons, textiles, pots – into ‘tribal art’: a transformation made easier, perhaps even caused, by new Modernist definitions of art. Once it had taken place there was free hybridisation between Western and tribal art.

Artefacts from the Pacific islands first came to Europe in the second half of the 18th century. The cabinet of curiosities, a triumph of omnivorousness in which tools, toys, relics, souvenirs and natural history specimens were gathered together promiscuously, had long had its day, and Oceanic artefacts, like plants and animals, were now collected with classification in mind. Eventually, when museum departments were established, everything was shared out. Natural history took the minerals, narwhal tusks and belemnites. Ethnology got the Oceanic art, along with the masks and moccasins. People still wanted (and still do want) to look at things which are rare and strange, but the justification for the new collections was pedagogic.

At the same time, changes were taking place in art museums. There was more to see and more people to see it. Works were displayed so as to illustrate the character of national schools and an evolution of styles in which primitive representations gave way to more realistic depictions of nature. The justification which Eastlake, the great Victorian director of the National Gallery, put forward for buying early Italian pictures for the gallery was historical rather than aesthetic. But the material culture of Africa, Pre-Columbian America and the Pacific lay beyond even his horizon.

By the first years of this century, the lines of development which the museum honoured seemed to have been exhausted, and a redefinition of frontiers opened the way to an art of flat patterns, unmodulated colour and expressive distortion. Artists ceased to heed the universal, if ill-defined, advice of previous generations – ‘learn from nature’ – and turned to new sources of inspiration: machinery, photographs and, most fruitfully, tribal artefacts. Artists bought these in flea-markets and looked at them in ethnographic collections. People who collected modern painting and sculpture began to collect tribal pieces as well. The Midas touch of the artist/collector transmuted them into the gold of art, and, like Midas’ daughter, they suffered a kind of death. It was hard to pay attention to the ordinary function of things which had acquired stunning power as works of art. Which is why Nicholas Thomas’s Oceanic Art, despite its ethnographical bias, appears in a World of Art series and why questions of what is and is not art keep intruding.

As Thomas points out, over-confident label-writers and catalogue-makers are liable to impose meanings on objects which were as mysterious to the people who made and used them as they are to us. The transformation of ethnographic evidence into art meant that these objects could be enigmatic in the way modern art itself is enigmatic. It can help not to know that a Brancusi-like object is in fact a bow, or a wooden throne-like one an anvil for beating bark cloth on. Ignorance can disorientate usefully, just as turning a painting upside down can make its composition clearer. In the end, however, cultural good manners require that you turn the picture the right way up again, and this is what Nicholas Thomas does in Oceanic Art. Any loss of mystery and potency is made up for by an increase in understanding. Some objects become a little less wonderful, all become much more interesting. Modern art’s love affair with tribal art went too far in encouraging critics to take the line that, if to look was rewarding, this proved that looking alone was enough. In Thomas’s book aesthetics and ethnography support one another.

Once you take account of factors other than raw aesthetic effect you must have a strategy of interpretation. Thomas points out that ‘although rituals and genealogies often create intimate bonds between people and their land ... Pacific cultures are not pervaded by harmony and spiritual interconnectedness with the environment, as a superficial New Age image of tribal societies might suggest.’ He acknowledges that there is common ground in all aesthetic response: ‘The meanings and effects of Oceanic art are not wholly alien to those of other artistic systems, in part because there seem to be psychological universals that influence art everywhere.’ And while he agrees that the concept of ‘art’ may be problematic, this is

not so much because it marks off a domain of intensified aesthetic power and value, but because of the way in which the domain is defined. For the Western viewer, ‘Oceanic art’ is associated above all with objects in museums, and although much indigenous energy indeed went into the carving, weaving and painting of material things, this conception is far too narrow.

There is also body painting, sand drawing and other ephemeral arts. There is the ordering of gardens, the spatial arrangement of dance grounds, even the breeding of pigs. In one community in northern Vanuatu the most highly valued animals were selectively bred hermaphrodites. Thomas observes that while hierarchy and genealogy are important, in Oceanic art gender is the universal theme.

He attacks on a broad front. His table of contents reads: ‘Ancestors and Architecture; The Art of War; The Art of the Body; Maternal Symbolism and Male Cults; Bark Cloth; Exchange and Sanctity; Feathers, Divinity and Chiefly Power; Narrative Art and Tourism; National Independence, Indigenous Minorities and Migrants’. A book about British art which covered the same ground might include Gothic architecture, HMS Victory and Belfast street murals, with asides on the commercial iconography of the carrier bag, the uses of visual quotation in art polemic and the cultural significance of the Union flag: a breadth to make you think harder about how art now works here and once worked there. Take portraits. Ours – from the wallet snapshot to processions of ancestors in long galleries and chairmen in a boardroom – are likenesses. They enable us to remember or imagine a person. In the islands it is not necessarily like that. The idea of representation is less appropriate than that of creating a presence. And even if an ancestor is represented the purpose of the work may not be commemorative: ‘The figure may in fact be produced in order to be destroyed ... allowing kin to effect some closure – to forget rather than to remember.’ This, says Thomas, is why certain mortuary forms are found extensively in European collections: if not destroyed, they were sold once their ritual function had been fulfilled.

I was pleased to find an example of the kind of complexity Thomas is good at untangling in a recent issue of New Zealand News UK, a freesheet you see in bins outside travel agents. It carried a picture of a Maori activist, Rangi McLean, his face tattooed all over in the kind of traditional design recorded by 18th-century explorers and 19th and 20th-century photographers. He is raising one of those dainty little glasses they drink beer from out there, toasting a change of heart, the management of Freemans Bar in South Auckland having qualified its ban on facial tattoos. Maori rights to the ‘traditional and cultural wearing of the moko’ (tattoo) are now recognised. The manager denied racism, but banned aggressive tattoo messages. How would you feel, he asked, ‘dining opposite someone with gang swastikas or foul language tattooed on them’? In future, Freemans will apply the new rule ‘when appropriate’. McLean had challenged the pub-keeper on behalf of a traditionally tattooed woman who had been turned away from the bar, but the arguments are complicated and Thomas puts them in context:

In New Zealand Maori gangs became especially significant in the Seventies, and embodied a disorderly and threatening kind of urban indigenous cultural renaissance that the dominant society found hard to cope with. Their tattoos, frequently done in prison, drew on black power and bikie motifs, but were also loosely influenced by the lines of facial moko, in many cases angering Maori with more traditional and politically mainstream inclinations, who objected that the tattoos were done improperly and tapu restrictions flouted. Interviewed gang members generally find it difficult to articulate their justifications for the practice, but insist that the tattoos stand for who they are and how they present themselves. Beyond these subcultures, a reinvigorated Maori culture has grown and diversified, and moko in a more traditional style are being revived, though produced with an electric needle rather than the traditional chisel. In the case of men these are often done round the buttocks and thighs rather than on the face, therefore functioning like Samoan tattooing and the hidden tattoos of the old European aristocracy, as a partially private sign that need not compromise respectable appearances in high-status occupations. It is hard to avoid the view that, despite their slipshod unruliness and the Western origin of many designs, gang tattooing conforms more closely to the practice’s earlier logic – in armouring the body and creating awe and fear among beholders.

Maori tattooing is clearly not something visual analysis alone can explain. It is typical of Thomas’s approach to remind us that the incised lines to be seen in old photographs of tattooed Maori chiefs are evidence of an ordeal – chiselled scars which become part of the structure of the face (modern electric-needle tattoo is more like applied decoration). Again, typically, he is as interested in modern phenomena – in the resurgence of aggressive tattooing – as in the ancient art and its tribal roots. He is not interested only in tribal arts which can demonstrate a pre-European-contact purity.

The attractions of a pre-contact world, even a mythical one, remain powerful, however. The way to avoid sentimentality is to see just how the meeting between Oceanic and Western cultures took place. In an account of the large collective houses, known as bai, built by the Palauans in Belau (the westernmost archipelago of the Caroline Islands, formerly the Palau or Pelew Islands), Thomas describes the effects of several kinds of foreign contact. First were the crew of the Antelope, wrecked there in 1783, who built a boat and made their escape but left behind a substantial number of iron tools. As a consequence, it is thought, bai became more elaborate. From 1908 to 1910 about one hundred and fifty bai, which were subsequently lost to typhoons and war, were recorded by two German ethnologists, Augustin and Elisabeth Kramer. Palauans traditionally put their graphic talents to use in decorating the gable ends of bai, as the Kramers’ photographers reveal – in strip cartoon-like sequences of scenes of war, mythology and everyday life (including modern cranes and steamships).

Sections of these decorations were later cut out and became collectable items. In the Thirties a Japanese artist encouraged the Palauans to reproduce details of the painted carvings as panels which could be sold to tourists. At first the emphasis was on ‘authentic’ (Thomas’s quotation marks) replicas. Then the incised lines of the earlier panels were replaced with relief carving, or even carving in the round – in response, so Thomas surmises, to ‘visitors’ expectations that indigenous art would take the form of carving rather than painting’. The influence of American comic strips begins to be perceptible, while ‘exaggerated penises, particularly in the context of narratives concerning seduction, warfare and rape, are common and there seems to have been a fortuitous match between the predilections of military and tourist buyers and an erotic element in the original iconography, which was elaborated on demand.’ Cargo ships and white men with bottles and pipes disappear; the market demands that indigenous art speak of indigenous things. Thomas uses the Palauan example in convincing support of the thesis that the ‘resilience and vigour of indigenous and post-colonial cultures is simply too conspicuous for the “fatal impact” view to be sustained’.

In our society the value of works of art is clearly defined in terms of money, which, at least since Whistler won his farthing from Ruskin, is generally understood to relate to spiritual values and to have nothing to do with the time a piece took to make or the materials it contains. In the cultures of the Pacific islands the value of sacred and precious things was closer to the one that prevailed in Europe before the notion of artistic genius made labour, materials and even skill insignificant as factors determining the price of works of art. This could result in objects as gross in their annexation of resources as the toys of a Western aristocracy. The capes made for chiefly Hawaiians embody

a quantity of labour that is simply extraordinary, not merely in Pacific terms but in any frame of comparison. Most were made from the very small tuft feathers of a few species of forest bird that produced a beautiful even velvet texture. Some species were trapped by specialist hunters, selectively plucked and released; others had to be killed. Larger capes might contain up to half a million feathers extracted from between eighty and ninety thousand birds. Nothing like these cloaks could have been produced in any other Oceanic society, because nowhere else did chiefs have the power to enforce such onerous demands upon their subjects.

The capes began, like Western body armour, as physical protection in battle (lost when firearms appeared) and, like body armour, had a heraldic function as well. They also gave spiritual protection by identifying chiefs with the founding gods, whose bodies were believed to have been covered with feathers. Hawaiian feather work, even in a dusty glass case, is astonishing. Other objects become impressive only when you know how they were used. Bark cloth, for example, on the face of it among the more utilitarian productions of Pacific island cultures, is rich in social meanings and symbolic uses. A drawing made by a late 19th-century ethnologist shows a Fijian chief trussed up in hundreds of meters of the stuff during a ceremonial exchange of gifts. He if surrounded by great loops of cloth, like some spectacular bird displaying on its lek. The effect must have been even more dramatic when the cloth, which was neither sewn nor knotted, fell away at the un-tucking of a crucial fold. Sheer quantity also had its meanings. Status among some aristocratic Tahitian households was expressed by the amount of fine muslin-like white bark cloth they had stored away.

Patterns, some traditional but some borrowed from American quilt designs (brought by missionaries) or woven mats, are evidence of other connections. In at least one case the source was records made by ethnologists. Thomas illustrates a piece of bark cloth, made about 1984, from the Marquesas. Traditionally, Marquesan tapa was plain, but this piece is decorated with patterns based on tattooing designs drawn from a German ethnological publication of the Twenties, a few copies of which circulate among tapa-makers. Thomas regards these designs not as ersatz, tourist-trade productions, but as true expressions of local attitudes and feelings which are ‘likely to become increasingly important as identities and ethnicities in French Polynesia are affirmed in the wake of a long period of colonisation that sought to impose cultural unity’.

In fact, any notion of a static art of traditional forms must be abandoned. Thomas shows why exchange and cultural borrowing should not be equated with corruption. Again and again the illustrations in Oceanic Art emphasise not just what is made, but how it is sold or swapped. There is a picture of a boy on Rapanui in the Thirties cradling wooden figures which he is offering for sale to a young man in naval whites. The two represent the kind of commercialism which is supposed to put traditions under stress: but how do you distinguish stress from stimulus? Commercialism also encourages people to spend time making things. Another illustration, a carving of the deity Maui by the Maori carver Tene Waitere, was produced in 1898-9 for a hotel and sold only a few years later to the Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde. The figure is a remarkable and innovative piece of carving that shows the influence of European art – for example, it has Maui in three-quarter rather than frontal view. It would not exist but for the tourist trade.

While his early chapters make one reflect on how museums influence the way we look at objects, Thomas’s last chapter makes one reflect on how museums (and other instruments of mass culture) influence the people who create such objects, inasmuch as cultural change can redefine carvers, tattooists and weavers as artists in much the same way that tribal artefacts in European collections were redefined as art. One effect of this has been to raise the status of local traditions and for artists to fill niches defined in Western – or perhaps one should merely say modern – terms. House-builders and decorators become painters and sculptors, and are called on to express ‘the cultural vitality of a “new nation” ’ in decorations for government buildings. Thomas believes that, despite the differences between art made for village ceremonies and art made for national or international audiences, ‘the project of making the nation visible’ – the new task Oceanic art has taken on (or had thrust upon it) – is not so different from the old one: ‘the evocation of collectivities of men’.

Different or not, to achieve this requires considerable style-changes. The new art in Thomas’s book which works best – paintings and drawings by Mathias Kauage from Papua New Guinea, for example – is eclectic in its content, but confident, even conservative, in style. Kauage digests Western subject-matter brilliantly. His buses, aeroplanes and uniforms bring to mind both the transformations of European Modernists (Léger, say) and children’s drawings. But they are stranger than the former and more complex and assured than the latter. Their stylistic roots seem firmly set in Papua New Guinea traditions.

Is a preference for work like Kauage’s suspect? Does it show a condescending desire to perpetuate ‘naive’ or ‘primitive’ styles, despite the fact that all artists are (or easily can be) part of an international freemasonry, aware of what is written in the international art journals and hoping for the same kind of recognition in the same arenas – hoping, indeed, to be reproduced in a book like this one? Maybe. But the (apparent) unselfconsciousness of Kauage’s images sets them apart from the world of museum artists and their museum audiences who are everywhere increasingly involved in making and responding to riddles, puzzles and political statements. These are not works which make you see differently. Having spent time with them you do not walk out into a world which for a moment seems to have been shaped by the pictures you have looked at. They try, rather, to make you think differently about yourself or about the state of the world. They are often a little shocking, a little disgusting, calculatedly irritating or allusive and ironic. In the work of this kind that Thomas illustrates, the colonial past – not unnaturally – tends to fill the niche occupied by issues of race and gender in Europe and America. Jim Vivieaere’s 6 Tahitians, 2 in Leningrad, 4 in Papeete, consists of a reproduction of a Gauguin painting and a colonial postcard, both stuck onto a support of indigenous woven material; in a series of paintings by Robyn Kahukiwa, contemporary Maori women are juxtaposed with images drawn from colonial studio photographs. The way in which these artists make their point has much to do with current international styles and little, save for the subject-matter itself, with the tribal art of the Pacific.

Europe borrowed from tribal art: Oceanic artists now return the compliment. But the loan can be taken in more than one currency. As well as showing work by artists who have taken the internationalist shilling, Thomas has illustrations which suggest more self-confident exchanges. There is one of Kaipel Ka standing beside a shield he has made – ‘used in contemporary fighting in the Papua New Guinea Highlands’, according to the caption. It is decorated with the logo of ‘South Pacific Export Lager’. Kaipel Ka looks wonderfully relaxed – amused and unselfconscious. In his case commercial graphics seem to have had the style-enlarging function that tribal art previously had in Europe. It seems a more than fair exchange.