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Necklace (wasekaseka/waseisei), Fiji, early to mid-Nine-
teenth Century. Sperm whale ivory and coir, 2½ by 16-3/8
by 9-7/8 inches. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropol-
“Levuka in Ovalau, Fiji, 19th September 1875” by Constance Gordon Cumming. Watercolor, ogy, University of Cambridge: 1931.203, collected by
ArFt AnIdJLiIfe In The PacificversityofCambridge.
19-3/16 by 28 inches. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge: Alfred Maudslay 1875-80. Photo reproduced by permis-
1998.55. Photo reproduced by permission of the Museum Archaeology and Anthropology, Uni- sion of Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Uni-
versity of Cambridge.
( continued from page 1C ) exhibition, making this by far the most extensive presen- philosophical separation between sacred and secular
The stamps are his.” And so they were. You can imag- tation of Fijian art ever mounted in the United States. realms — that dips into reality as a brush dips into
ine the look on my mother’s face—and the line of inter- The excellent accompanying catalog, written by Steven paint, that makes use of reality without claiming to rep-
rogation — when appeared in the deli with two bags Hooper, professor of visual arts and director of the Sains- resent any reality other than that of the artist.
full of stamp albums. When I got home, the first stamps bury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and
that really caught my eye were some bright, beautiful the Americas at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, A single instance of the differences between Fijian
1930s stamps from Fiji. Since then, Fiji has always had is an indispensable aid in coming to grips with the com- and English, as Hooper writes in the catalog, high-
an association for me as an El Dorado of sorts, a para- plexities of Fijian history, society and culture and in plac- lights the difficulties: “The single English word ‘you,’
dise so remote from my experience that I could scarcely ing the objects on view in proper context. which is indiscriminate in Fijian, is rendered by four
imagine it. different terms which indicate singular, dual, few and
The title of the exhibition creates a linguistic division numerous (koiko, kemudrau, kemudou, kemuni).
“Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific,” on exhibition at the between “Art and Life,” which raises immediate ques- There are dual, few and numerous terms for ‘them,’ as
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), goes a tions and demonstrates the difficulty for us, raised in well as separate inclusive and exclusive terms for ‘us’
long way toward dispelling my notions of exoticism in the Euro-American tradition, to apprehend a society in (two people, including or excluding the interlocutor, a
regard to Fiji, though I must admit, it makes me want to which art is inseparable from life, in which, in many few people, and so on). The linguist George Milner
travel there all the more. More than 280 objects drawn ways, art is life, and, conversely, life is art. explained to me years ago, only half in jest, that Fijian,
from the Fiji Museum, the British Museum, the Museum with its highly complex pronouns but lack of complex-
of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the In fact, in the Fijian language — as in many, maybe ity in tense (a simple past, present and future) was the
Smithsonian and fine pri- even most languages around the world — there is no diametric opposite of English, which had impoverished
vate collections, are word that means “art” as we mean art. By art, in West- pronouns but complex tenses (past perfect, pluperfect,
featured in the ern terms, I am thinking of art as a reality of its own, an etc). He associated this with the differing concerns of
aesthetic reality detached from and running alongside the two cultures — that Fijians were intensely inter-
the reality we inhabit, an art — born of leisure, and of a
Turtle-shaped bowl (dari vonu), Fiji, probably Kabara Island, southern Lau, mid-Nineteenth
Century. Wood and hibiscus fiber, 6¾ by 15½ by 25¼ inches. Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology, University of Cambridge: 1937.321, belonged to Ratu Seru Cakobau; given
by him to Colonel R.W. Stewart, Royal Engineers, 1870s. Photo reproduced by permission
of Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
Spiritual observance in the early Nineteenth Century focused mainly on divine ancestors, to whom temples were dedicated rather than a lineage of creator
gods. In Fiji there was a direct correlation between divine power and the phenomena that affected human life, such as rain, drought, crop fertility and, espe-
cially, illness. Model or portable temples, such as those seen in this section, duplicate the architecture of full-scale temples and were probably kept in the main
bure kalou, and possibly taken as portable shrines on canoe voyages. They are made of great lengths of handmade coconut husk cordage and their elaborate
construction was a form of sacrifice and skilled sacred work. Installation photograph, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo ©Museum Associates/LACMA.
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Priest’s Yaqona Dish, Duck Form (ibuburau ni
bete), Fiji, early Nineteenth Century. Wood and
shell. Fiji Museum, Suva: 55.40, collected by Rev-
erend James Royce at Noco, Viti Levu, 1857-61,
given to him by the Tui Noco and his priest follow-
ing their conversion to Christianity. Photo ©Trust-
ees of the Fiji Museum.
Missile Club (iula tavatava), Fiji, early to mid- Warfare was frequent in Fiji until the mid-Nineteenth Century; the country continues to maintain a
Nineteenth Century. Wood and sperm whale proud martial tradition. More than weapons, Fijian clubs and spears were important ritual objects
ivory, 18¾ inches long. Fiji Museum, Suva: 78.670, and expressions of supreme carving and military skill. The clubs included in this exhibition demon-
collected by Reverend James Royce 1857-61; strate the great variety of forms made in Fiji. Although most were effective weapons for hand-to-hand
given to him by Ratu Seru Cakobau, Vunivalu of combat, some are relatively unwieldy, even for powerful Fijian warriors; their appearance and form
Bau. Photo ©Trustees of the Fiji Museum. was often considered more important than their technical efficiency. Very little is known about the
specific makers of these clubs and what the different forms represent or signify, but large numbers
have survived in collections, partly because of their durability and partly because of Nineteenth Cen-
tury European interest in collecting weapons. It is difficult to assign particular club forms to regions
of Fiji because clubs, like many other objects, were exchange valuables that circulated widely within
Fiji and beyond, including to Tonga and eventually to Europe and America. Installation photograph,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo ©Museum Associates/LACMA.
ested in social relations, in who was involved in some- Breastplate (civavonovono), Fiji, early to mid- Barkcloth (masi bolabola), Fiji, probably
thing, but were not so obsessed with time.” Nineteenth Century. Sperm whale ivory and Cakaudrove, mid-Nineteenth Century. Paper
black pearl shell, 9¼ inches diameter. Lent by mulberry inner bark and pigment, 31 by 100
If art in the Western World is obsessed with anything, it Mark and Carolyn Blackburn. Photo courtesy of inches. Lent by Mark and Carolyn Blackburn,
is obsessed with time — with individual and collective the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection, collected by Reverend Joseph Waterhouse while
memory, with history, with death. In Fiji, the bedrock of Honolulu, Hawai’i. stationed in Fiji, 1850s. Photo courtesy of the
culture is vanua or land, an idea embracing physical land alone boggles the imagination and the inlays of whale Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection, Hono-
— earth, soil and its bounties — bounded territory, and, bone: stars, moons and sun, suggest the chief’s marine lulu, Hawai’i.
most importantly, custom or traditional actions. Vanua origins, the night sky over the sea, but in form they seem write this article and took a look at those Fiji stamps. They
“has intense emotional force for Fijians...The vanua con- astonishingly proto-modern, as if the makers of the piece put me in mind of a story I read as a kid in Robert Arthur’s
tains the actuality of one’s past and the potentiality of had looked at Matisse or Picasso — instead of the other Ghosts and More Ghosts. In the story, two guys find some
one’s future. It is an extension of the concept of self.” way around. A breastplate of this quality was worn by gorgeous stamps from a tropical country called El Dorado.
chief Ratu Tanoa when the Wilkes Expedition (known as Only there is no El Dorado. They use one to send a letter to
Through elaborate feasts and rituals, important events the Ex. Ex.) visited Fiji in 1840 and then, in turn, was a fictitious address. The letter flies out the window and
are commemorated — funerals, marriages, birthdays — given by his son, Ratu Cakobau, to Sir Arthur Gordon, vanishes, only to return in a minute postmarked “Address-
and relations between families, clans and peoples are Fiji’s new British Governor, in 1875. When you learn ee not known.” Something like that. Then they attach a
cemented or renewed. At these feasts, the chief, who is that the breastplate appears in a painting by one of Wil- stamp to the collar on a rheumy old cat. The cat flies out
always seen as a creature of the sea, receives abundant kes’s artist-scientists, Alfred Agate, in 1840, and appears the window and returns a minute later — but renewed and
gifts. Beautifully woven barkcloth mats and clothing are again in a painting by Constance Gordon-Cumming in full of life. Seeing this, the narrator’s friend says, “That’s it.
presented. Yaqona, a drink made from the roots of a pep- 1876, and you learn that other similar breastplates such I’m going,” affixes some stamps to his shirt, and flies out
per plant and served in wonderfully wrought wooden as the one pictured were highly prized yet freely given the window. Some days later, the narrator gets a postcard
bowls, is shared. These are considered female products when the occasion called for a tabua of such value, you from his friend: postmark El Dorado. The postcard
of the landspeople. Food — things grown, gathered and get a glimpse into a culture that values art in a different describes an island paradise. I noticed my Fiji stamps are
hunted — are male offerings. Shields made from shell way. Inherent in the work is the natural origin and value still in mint condition — unused, uncanceled. I wonder...
and whale bone, clubs and spears carved from wood and of the work’s raw materials, the craftsman’s lineage and
decorated, these are chiefly products made by men who fealty to the chief, to nature and to the gods, all of which
are often the same craftsmen responsible for construct- are expressed in the craftsmanship. Then there’s the
ing the magnificent ocean-going sailing vessels, the larg- history of the work’s presentation and ownership —
est of which are called drua. where it’s been, when it’s been worn, the ceremonial
vanua enacted around it, its transactional history of
Hooper writes, “A logical extension of the association of having been given and received. All of this must be seen
chiefs with the sea and with sea products, such as whale as possessing an unbroken spiritual value.
teeth and various species of shells, is that chiefs’ bodies Unlike other indigenous peoples who came under colo-
should be adorned with these materials. At one level of nial rule, the complexity and sophistication of Fijian
analysis they are equivalent substances, embodiments society acted as something of an insulator against the
of divinity — this is what gives the tabua its power and worst excesses of occupation and exploitation. Fiji has
significance — so ivory and shell regalia can be seen as preserved more of her culture than most. Christianity,
extensions of the chiefly body, splendid to behold.” which is practiced by most Fijians, is, to this day, mixed
with traditional beliefs and rituals. Fijians have proven
Whale teeth, or tabua, carved and worn as pendants remarkably adaptable in other areas as well, transform-
and sometimes smoked to give them a reddish appear- ing the beauty of their weaving into inspiration for a
ance, are gifts of special importance and value. But, as burgeoning fashion industry.
Hooper writes, the life of a chief is a life of sacrifice. I pulled out the old stamp album as I was preparing to
Chiefs are installed and can be removed, especially if
they are seen as miserly. Chiefs “are expected to deliver
abundance, and although a regular stream of feasts and
valuables may come their way, these should all as quick-
ly be redistributed in obligatory expressions of largesse.”
Hooper goes on, “the qualities that most define a chief
are generosity towards the people, loving the people and
making sure they have enough to eat.”
When we look at the indigenous objects in the exhibi-
tion — there are also crucial pieces of colonial origin —
we can marvel at the craftsmanship and apply our stan-
dards of beauty to them — admiring their forms, design,
composition, intricacy and so on — but I’m not at all
sure these aesthetic categories mean much in Fijian
terms. Imagine talking about Michelangelo’s “Pietà”
without making any reference to Christ and Mary and
you get some idea of what I am thinking about.
Consider the breastplate made of deep purple pearl
shell surrounded by polished sections of whale bone
deftly fit together with coir braid. The size of the shell
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