Ghettoization of Ethnic Art at the Bowers Museum

The Ito Jakuchu exhibit, showcasing the artwork of the same-named Japanese artist, and the Spirit and Headhunters exhibit, displaying the tools and weapons of various Pacific Islanders, at the Bowers Museum are interesting exhibits to examine anthropologically. Both recreate existing social and cultural constructions surrounding Japanese and Pacific Islanders. The exhibits reproduce an idealized view of art in both exhibitions. By comparing the two exhibits, we can see clearly how the contrasting treatment of the art from both exhibits reflects the perceived difference between art and artifact, the idealization of art as works requiring creative “genius”, and the ghettoization and essentialization of “ethnic” art and consequent ethnocentrism.

The Spirit and Headhunters exhibit follows existing models of how “primitive art” is treated in museums, despite not being recognized as such. The exhibit consists almost entirely of tools or weapons, with the only visual art being large photographs on the walls of “native” Pacific Islanders. Even these large photographs are obviously taken by non-natives with the power to take pictures of Pacific Islanders with or without their consent. They are presented without any accompanying label with information on where or when the picture was taken, nor by whom the picture was taken, presenting them in such a way as to invite the museum guest to passively accept these images as fact rather than as art. The lack of visual artworks in itself emphasizes the presentation by the Bowers Museum of the art objects as “artifact” rather than as art (Danto). This is strengthened by the presentation of the objects with an accompanying placard describing their original use. Rather than talking about the objects’ artistic composition or even giving the objects their own titles, the museum chose to discuss the objects’ practical use and former cultural significance, reflecting museums’ usual treatment of “primitive art” as “having functional roles in their producing societies that had nothing to do with the categories established by Western art history” (Morphy and Perkins).

The only object with a given title is the “‘Cannibal’ fork”, which is sensationalistic at best and offensive at worst. This particular object’s treatment is also reflective of how the entire exhibit presents the Pacific Island cultures as savage or primitive. The placard indicates that the originating culture’s chiefs used forks rather than forks to eat their food, “including human flesh consumed during ritual feasts”, and goes on to say that “humans were eaten along with fish, turtles, birds and pigs”. The focus on the consumption of human flesh creates a picture of a primitive, cannibalistic culture. This is exacerbated by the other items in the exhibit similarly sensationalized, such as a necklace made of human finger bones, decorated human skulls and pictures of skulls.

Compare all of this to the Ito Jakuchu exhibit. Walking into the exhibit, one can already tell that these works are more highly respected and valued than those in the other exhibit by the security present in the Ito Jakuchu exhibit. At the time that I went, there were at least two security guards and several museum guides in this exhibit, which was actually smaller than the Spirit and Headhunters exhibit, yet the Spirit and Headhunters exhibit had no security and only one harmless elder female museum guide. There are also laser sensors around the artworks in the Jakuchu exhibit to prevent visitors from getting too close, whereas the only thing preventing visitors from touching the items in the Headhunters exhibit are a couple of poorly placed signs politely asking visitors not to touch the objects.

The Jakuchu exhibit layout and aesthetic presentation also differs significantly from that of the Headhunters exhibit. First, the soundtracks for the exhibits are like night and day. The Headhunters exhibit soundtrack consists solely of “jungle” noises (monkeys chattering, birds chirping, etc.), with nothing even closely relating cultural music. The Jakuchu exhibit, on the other hand, has a soundtrack with music made on shakuhachi and shamisen. While this essentializes the culture as much as the other soundtrack does, at least it presents an actual aspect of culture as opposed to a Western perception of what Pacific Islanders hear, implying that they do not produce music with which a soundtrack can be made. Second, the Jakuchu exhibit was much neater and better planned out than the Headhunters exhibit, which was much darker and looked cluttered and a bit chaotic with things in the middle of the room and some things hanging from the ceiling for no apparent reason. This presentation of the Headhunters exhibit implied that the museum intended to create an atmosphere of a primitive culture.

This is extended in the presentation of the items themselves in both exhibits. Every item in the Jakuchu exhibit is marked with the exact year or an approximate range of years during which the piece was made, as opposed to the extremely vague “17th-18th century” or “20th century” for items in the Headhunters exhibit, reproducing the cultural perception that there is a “timelessness” of “primitive” societies, that they remain static throughout time unless affected by Westerners. This was exacerbated by one museum guide’s comment that “obviously Westerners have influenced [the Pacific Islanders]”, exemplifying the reproduction of an existing cultural trope of the “noble savage” and accompanying ideology. The Jakuchu exhibit displays the same idealization of a “pure” culture unaffected by Westerners, except in a different light. On one wall, a sign laments the opening of Japan’s borders, after which the Japanese “entered a new period of Western advancement. Consequently, artists adopted Western techniques and materials, abandoning their own unparalleled, beautiful traditions”. This, more clearly than anything, shows the essentialization and idealization of non-Western cultures present in the museum.

One can see that the works in the Jakuchu exhibit are displayed in a different way than those in the Headhunters exhibit through the rhetoric used in the placards next to the works. Whereas the placards in the Headhunters exhibit describe matter-of-factly and scientifically the use of each item, the placards in the Jakuchu exhibit include words and phrases such as “ingenuity”, “inventive”, “extraordinary skills”, and “unparalleled talent”. This rhetoric clearly signifies the works in the Jakuchu exhibit as art rather than artifact and separate them from “primitive art”. It also reflects our general society’s habit of placing art on a pedestal where individual “creativity” and “ingenuity” are valued disproportionately.

Additionally, the placards in the Jakuchu exhibition compliment the individual artist while those in the Headhunters exhibit did not even credit individual artists. Almost every object in the Headhunters exhibit is attributed to an ethnic group rather than to a single artist. This emphasis on ethnic group reflects an implication that the Western “discovery” of these objects is as important (perhaps more so) as the object’s maker (MacGaffey). Rather than an individual’s signature, “ethnic group is the signature, defining its origin, guaranteeing its authenticity” (MacGaffey), discounting the individual artists’ concept and work in the Pacific Islands. The more highly esteemed Japanese art (not artifact) escapes this fate because it is essentialized in a different way where Jakuchu is praised indiscriminately as an exemplar of “Japanese techniques”.
We can continue to discuss the ways in which the rhetoric used essentializes Japanese and Pacific Islander cultures in different ways. First of all, the Headhunters exhibit lumped Pacific Islander cultures all together rhetorically in a way that made them seem like one monolithic culture. The other exhibit only included Japanese artwork, while there was yet another exhibit in the museum dedicated to Chinese items, creating tangible boundaries between Asian cultures where there were none with Pacific Island cultures. However, the Jakuchu exhibit essentializes Japanese culture by presenting Jakuchu’s works rhetorically as representative of all Japanese art and culture.

Secondly, the Headhunters exhibit used descriptors like “primordial”, “ritual” and “tribal” while the Jakuchu exhibit included words like “sophisticated” and “culture”. This further exemplifies the way the Headhunters exhibit presents Pacific Island cultures as unevolved and Japanese culture as more advanced. This is even better seen in the sign titled “Epilogue” in the Headhunters exhibit, which basically states that the entire purpose of the whole exhibit is to see how the Pacific Islander artifacts “symbolically connect us to the world beyond this one—a place where the primordial in us all calls to”. This hearkens back to the modernist view of primitive art as “exemplars of a universal aesthetic… primitive art expressed the fundamental, primeval psychic energy of man…” (Morphy and Perkins). This was really the only analysis of the artifacts in that exhibit. As aforementioned, the work was not critically examined in terms of composition, contrasting with the Jakuchu exhibit where every single artwork was critically examined with a view of artistic techniques in mind. This, along with the fact that everything, including the netsuke, was presented as art rather than as artifact except for the brushes on display, again evokes the idea of an evolutionist scale of artwork and artifacts where the Pacific Islanders’ works are at the beginning end of the spectrum with the Japanese works farther along on the spectrum.

The exhibits both present an idealized view of art in different ways. In the Spirit and Headhunters exhibit, we see the trope of the “noble savage” with all his quaint tools on display, while the Ito Jakuchu exhibit presents an orientalized ideal of the Japanese artist with “beautiful” pieces. In the Ito Jakuchu exhibit, the individual artist is put on a pedestal and praised for exceeding skill and creativity while the Spirit and Headhunters exhibit uses the ethnic group as the marker of a collective sort of genius. Both exhibits are prime examples of the ghettoization and essentialization of “ethnic” art and consequent ethnocentrism, complete with lack of reflexivity. The exhibits were interesting to examine anthropologically, but as fair representations of artwork or culture they fell far short of the bar.

Eileen Regullano (2012)

Majors: Piano Performance/Keyboard Collaborative Arts. Minor: Anthropology.

Biography: Eileen Regullano is a senior Piano Performance and Keyboard Collaborative Arts double major with a minor in Anthropology. She enjoys music, anthropology, reading, writing, video games, and food.

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