Books

Polynesia

Naïve art

A gorgeous, troubling book documents the Blackburn collection.
Polynesia / Polynesia
Adrienne Kaeppler
University of Hawaii, 2010

410 pages, $100

What does it mean to collect things? If we are looking at a collection of objects, may we ask its owner where they came from, and how he or she came to possess them? May we ask how much was paid, and to whom? How is it different to gather objects of historical and cultural value into private hands? How are these questions affected by the passage of time, by the smoothing wash of loss and history and forgetting? And what happens when we remember again?

These are among the many questions raised by the publication of Polynesia, an extraordinarily beautiful new book documenting and displaying one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Polynesian art. Unfortunately, the book’s extensive text leaves these questions not merely unresolved, but almost entirely unaddressed.

The collection on display here is the property of Mark and Carolyn Blackburn, and the result of Mark Blackburn’s lifelong interest in Polynesian art and craft–it has been both his life and his work. In his introduction, Blackburn writes that the roots of his interest in Polynesia began with an account of Captain Cook’s voyages. Soon after, he traveled to Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand, “where I came under the spell of the islands.”

Blackburn goes on to discuss his great admiration of Polynesian seafaring. “It took great skill and seamanship to travel on these early voyages of discovery, where a ship and its crew could easily be lost to weather or reef groundings. It took men of great courage and fortitude to accomplish these early voyages.” Scratch that–it was the trips into Polynesian that captured Blackburn’s imagination. The original voyages of discovery themselves, those of the great and unknown navigators who led the settlement of Polynesia, are left unremarked upon.

If this seems an awfully, um, odd way to begin a book about Polynesia, well, it is. But it is in this case an appropriate one, as the rest of the book’s extensive text follows Blackburn’s lead.

Written by Adrienne Kaeppler, the Smithsonian Institution’s curator of oceanic enthnology and one of the world’s foremost outsider experts on Polynesian culture, the book’s text is learned and informative–even readers with a wide knowledge of cultural practices throughout the region will surely find a great deal here that is new. Kaeppler treats even the smallest island groups with great care.

It takes nothing away from Kaeppler’s narrative, of course, to say that few will be buying this book for the essays. As a physical object, Polynesia is surpassingly beautiful. Blackburn’s collection is truly stunning to behold in its entireity, and the design, in clothcover and rich, lustrous color by the outstanding local designer Barbara Pope, is gorgeous.

We discover religious artifacts from throughout Polynesia, beautifully rendered ‘umeke and whale ivory jewelry in every imaginable form, along with drawings by passing explorers, fierce weaponry and, in the case of Hawaii, lei hulu of breathtaking beauty. Kamehameha’s spittoon, David Kalakaua’s covered bowls, even Kaiulani’s kapa. It’s all pretty incredible, and everyone involved must surely take a bow.

If only the whole thing weren’t so troubling.

It’s 2010. It seems like most people involved in culture and the arts are aware of the questions raised over the past five decades by critiques rooted in postcolonialism, ethnic studies, Marxism and art theory itself. For some reason, Polynesia is not. Despite its great beauty, to read in this book is to step entirely outside the intellectual and political history of the past half-century. There is almost nothing in these 400-odd pages to suggest that either Blackburn or Kaeppler has spent time considering the implications of a collection such as this one, and how it came about, and what these objects mean to their cultures of origin, and where we go from here. That’s not to suggest that they haven’t wrestled with these issues–indeed, it would be shocking if Kaeppler in particular, on the way to become one of the world’s leading outsider experts on Polynesian culture, had not engaged deeply with them. But none of it makes it into this book. And that’s equally shocking.

There’s a kapu stick in this book. It was an object used by kahuna to mark people and things as forbidden in 18th century Hawaii. Kaeppler writes that it may be the only one of its kind left in the world. Isn’t it natural to wonder whether there are any cultural issues at stake here in the 20th century surrounding the fact that this object is in the private possession of an American collector? That’s not to answer the question, but to ask it.

Maybe it’s a poor example. Of course every object cannot be held up to that level of scrutiny, and that is obviously not the purpose of what amounts to the authorized collecting biography of Mark Blackburn, authored by a representative of the institution that would love to one day take possession of that collection.

Still. The word “colonization” appears all of once in this book. Or at least once that I read, and I read a lot. I looked in the book’s index, but the index is an index of collectors. Doesn’t that seem weird? Can an outsider’s–an American’s–collection of native Polynesian art really still be presented outside of context? Yes, the context of the original makers is present, at least in an ethnographic sense. But where is the discussion of the politics of collecting these things, not to mention the implications of Blackburn’s falling “under the spell of the islands?” Why is the only map of Polynesia contained in Polynesia an uninformed, wildly inaccurate map from ye olden tymes?

The answer, I’m afraid, is this: this is not Polynesia. This is Polynesia, and however beautiful, it is also naïve. Naïve to the problems and questions raised by collections of this kind, and naïve to the history that gave rise to the Blackburn collection.

One can imagine this book discovered, some centuries hence, by intellectuals of another culture. It’s easy to imagine them reading Polynesia as an artifact of our own time–gorgeous, decadent, and blissfully unaware of the storms that had gathered around it.