Indigenous Art Term Paper

Pages: 8 (2497 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 12  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Art  (general)

¶ … False Claims of Cultural Ownership

Speaking from the perspective of a native Maori, I protest political efforts being made by some individuals to return Maori artwork currently in the possession of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Consider the Poutoknmanawa post figure, purportedly produced around 1840. Certainly, it is a remarkably piece of my own cultural heritage -- but does that mean that it should be requisitioned by the government of New Zealand? Or even by the tribal leaders of the Maori people? In fact, when we consider the provenance of the piece, it becomes apparent that the Maori people can no longer lay singular claim to its cultural significance. Even if we could, an attempt to rigidly hold on to material relics of our cultural past is a stagnant perspective, one that undermines the dynamic vitality of modern Maori culture.

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The Poutoknmanawa was given as a gift to the Archbishop William Williams in 1870. This fact alone should silence most claims for the object's return. After all, it was freely given as a show of respect to an important member of the West. The figure then passed to Williams' grandson who took it to England. It was kept in the Williams family until 1979 when it was sold, slowly passing hands until it was given to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2001. For more than one hundred years, the Poutoknmanawa was a part of the cultural history of the Williams family and was an intimate part of their lives and their traditions. Indeed, we could argue that this was the original intent of the Maori who gave the post figure to the Archbishop in the first place -- they wanted to honor him and his descendants with a powerful piece of Maori culture and art. If the figure has now made it into the public domain, so much the better -- it illustrates the historical fusion of Western and Maori culture.

Paper #2: Wherein Lies the Responsibility of Tribal Art Preservation?

Term Paper on Indigenous Art Assignment

Preservation of tribal artwork would seem to be a noble endeavor, but there are complications to the seemingly straightforward proposition. In the few areas of the world that still contain tribal and indigenous populations -- such as Papua New Guinea -- there has been a push in the West to preserve as much of the tribal culture and art as at all possible. After all, with Westernization quickly helping these cultures vanish and new modes of cultural expression replacing older ones, it seems only natural to want to hold onto a little bit of the artwork that came before. But this impulse carries with it certain complications that are not easily resolved. Who's responsibility is it to ensure that these tribal works of art are preserved? Should the burden fall to the tribal people themselves, a national government, international agencies, art institutions, or even private individuals? How can indigenous people be compensated for preservation efforts, or should they be compensated at all? A closer examination of the issues surrounding the preservation of tribal art reveals that such efforts are misguided attempts to control and manipulate cultural productions by removing artistic productions out of their cultural context and turning them into products that can be consumed by Western audiences.

To begin with, however, it is important to recognize that in many cases the context of the art being produced in tribal societies makes it particularly susceptible to degradation and destruction. Many of the remaining tribal societies in the world survive in tropical areas, such as the Amazonian rain forests or the jungles of Indonesia. Unfortunately for those with a bent towards artistic preservation, the conditions that prevail in these climatic locales are not ideal for the preservation of much of anything. Karl and Andrew Lehmann report on this issue during a two-month foray into tribal societies in Papua New Guinea. They explain:

Due to relentless humidity, fungi and insects in the lowlands of New Guinea, carvings in the villages quickly decay, usually within just a few years. In the past many were also burned by overzealous missionaries [...]. Many more are lost to accidental fires; the tall spirit houses suffer frequent lightning strikes. Only those pieces that have been collected and brought out of the jungle will be preserved as fine examples of this art form.

For the Lehmanns, it is evident that serious art historians, scholars, and influential individuals in the West must make moves now to remove these artistic productions from the jungle in order to prevent further decay. The permenance of the cultural artifacts that still exist in many tribal societies is irksome to the modern, Western mind. Only active intervention can hope to preserve that which is threatened with eternal destruction.

In his inestimable "The Responsible and the Irresponsible: Observations on the Destruction and Preservation of Indonesian Art," Jean-Paul Barbier examines some of the more significant issues that arise when Western aesthetic values are imposed on indigenous cultures. He explains, "[T]he intervention of a will external to the village and alien to the cultural context that gave birth to the work to be protected is questionable." In other words, Barbier cautions that it will be difficult to pull off a successful program of artistic preservation working outside the context in which the artwork was originally produced. Most examples of indigenous, tribal art are firmly situated within a specific cultural context. The traveling Westerner sees a remarkable example of primitive carving skills, but for the tribal society that piece of "art" is just another bowl or walking stick or religious icon. It takes a foreign aesthetic to utterly remove these cultural artifacts from their contextual situation and proclaim them to be examples of tribal art in need of protection.

All of this begs the question: whose responsibility is it to make sure that tribal art is preserved in the face of cultural assimilation, environmental degradation, and black market sales? Should the indigenous people themselves retain control over their own artistic productions even if that means relegating some pieces to the trash bin of history? Should the gears of national and international bureaucracies be put into motion in order to dictate the definition of art and assign property ownership to it so that indigenous art can be protected as part of a nation's cultural heritage? This is not an easy question to resolve, and yet it is one that plagues any art historian who studies tribal or indigenous art forms. The production of those artistic creations is highly dependent on the continued perseverance of the cultures in which they were created. But considering that no culture or society will last indefinitely, it becomes a simply matter to deduce that it must fall on someone's shoulders to preserve what can be preserved of these cultures' artwork before it is gone forever. The question remains: whose responsibility is that?

Let's consider again the example from Karl and Andrew Lehmann. During their two-month stay in Papua New Guinea, the pair traveled through twenty separate villages, observing and cataloguing existing tribal art. In just one region of the forests through which they traveled -- the Sepik Basin -- the Lehmanns provide rough details on a variety of indigenous cultural productions. Most of these listed have religious or ceremonial functions within the tribal societies that they were discovered. Of the many different types, the masks that were produced were perhaps the most varied. The types of masks produced in the Sepik Basin include ancestral masks (meant to bring the positive aspects of ancestral spirits into the clan), mwai masks (that represent the mythical siblings of the clan), savi masks (used as protection against black magic), dance masks (used to evoke certain spirits during ritualistic dances), and canoe prow masks (as an added measure against spear and arrow attacks). What's important to note at this point is that these masks represent only one part of the cultural/artistic traditions of just one group of tribal peoples in just one part of the Papua New Guinea jungles. The incredible variety of potential artistic productions is literally staggering.

What's perhaps more significant to note is the fact that all of these artistic productions were created with a specific cultural purpose in mind. In the West, there is the tendency -- perhaps due to affluence, perhaps due to a general cultural disassociation -- to perceive art as wholly form, not necessarily with any function. For tribal societies, such as the ones reported by Lehmann and Lehmann, artistic productions are tools first and art second. Each has a specific function and purpose to fulfill in the cultural setting. In the case of these masks, the functions were largely religious and spiritual, though interestingly enough the canoe masks are actually meant to shield occupants from some attacks. Though artistry can certainly be applied to functional objects in the West, this constitutes a very different process wherein ordinary objects are imbued with artistic flair but are limited in usage. The modern equivalent of the Western infatuation with tribal… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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