4 November 2013

Exhibition Review

Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji at The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), University of Cambridge
7 June 2013 to 19 April 2014.

Exhibition welcome 

The exhibition Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji is one of the outputs of the AHRC-funded research project Fijian Art: political power, sacred value, social transformation and collecting since the 18th century, and is co-curated by Anita Herle (Senior Curator of Anthropology at MAA) and Lucie Carreau (Post-doctoral Research Associate).

The Fijian collections at MAA are significant, not only for the singularity and quality of the objects, but in the fact that they include the founding collections of the museum made between 1874 and 1877 by Baron Anatole von Hügel and the first British Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon.

The exhibition is held in the Li Ka Shing Gallery on the ground floor of MAA. Many people of Fijian descent attended the opening of the exhibition and this participation demonstrated the collaborative aims of the exhibition and the contemporary relationship between Cambridge and Fiji.  The pillars in the gallery had been decorated with Fijian barkcloth (masi) and bound with coir cord (magimagi), a traditional process known as lalawa used in Fijian architecture which was carried out by invited members of the Fijian community in the UK. Lalawa’s purpose is not solely decorative as it embodies a spiritual dimension and transformed the physical space of the museum into a spiritual place which was a fitting setting to display the high-status objects in the exhibition and one which created a material and physical dialogue between Fiji and Cambridge.

The title of the exhibition is clearly visible and on a shelf underneath is a model of a Fijian double-hulled canoe (drua). Adjacent to this is an introductory text panel which explained the aim of the exhibition, which was to explore the power of Fijian objects in the past and the present, and this framed the narrative of the exhibition. The text emphasises that the objects were mediators in relationships between powerful chieftainships as well as between Fijian chiefs, British governors and others, highlighting their power. A map of the Western Pacific islands allows visitors to locate the islands of Fiji and its geographical proximity to the islands of Tonga and Samoa with which Fiji had long-established relations.

The exhibition is designed chronologically although this is occasionally interrupted with contemporary objects, and the flow of the exhibition is in an anti-clockwise direction. The objects are displayed in a white-walled gallery and spot-lit against a darker background to show their aesthetic and artistic qualities which serves to redefine and reappraise them from ethnographic to art object without losing the complexity of their history and context.

Display of a number of objects carved in whale ivory including whale teeth presentation ornaments, tabua

A text panel introduces Fiji as a ‘Sea of Islands’ and explains the importance of travel, the skills involved in boatbuilding, networks of exchange, and the interconnectedness of islands in Western Polynesia which allowed the exchange of knowledge, objects, traditions and skills. Many of the objects were made from shell and whale ivory, a very valuable and high status material in Fiji. The displays include artefacts which range from very prestigious breast ornaments demonstrating high levels of craftsmanship, to whale ivory sculptures, to fish-hooks, wooden headrests and fishing baskets, exemplifying everyday functional objects. Whale teeth presentation objects (tabua), one of the most valuable objects in Fijian life in the past as well as in the present, reappear throughout the exhibition as a reflection of their importance to Fijians, as presentation gifts to the British, and for European collectors such as von Hügel.

There are some fine examples of barkcloth (masi) along with the tools used in its production. The turtle is represented through a range of objects from carved wooden yaqona bowls, pottery and whale ivory ornaments, foregrounding its value in Fijian life. A good range of chiefly clubs are exhibited, not only as efficient weapons, but also as status symbols and as vehicles which connected warriors to ancestor spirits. Items of personal adornment include whale ivory ear ornaments, and several whale ivory necklaces including a very striking necklace which featured eighteen fish pendants carved in sperm whale ivory which, according to the exhibition catalogue, is without equivalent in museum collections from Fiji. It was particularly interesting to see a pendant (bulikula) made with a rare golden cowrie shell which would have only been worn by a priest or chief.

An area is dedicated to objects presented at a solevu, the ceremonial gathering of large groups of people for presentations, a very important occasion in Fijian life, then and now.  An interesting aspect of this is the inclusion of contemporary objects alongside historical ones and coloured photographs of recent solevu demonstrating the cultural continuity of this Fijian practice. The religious aspects of Fijian life are represented by a section on priests and chiefs and objects include model spirit houses, carved ancestor figures that were kept in spirit houses, and a shell trumpet for communicating with the Gods.

Missionaries had already had an impact on Fijian life and culture by the time von Hügel and Sir Hamilton-Gordon arrived. The exhibition is refreshingly open and transparent about this Western impact. For example, an exhibit of a wonderful Fijian grass skirt (liku) has a label which acknowledges that the conversion of Fijians to Christianity and the encouragement from missionaries to adopt European clothing, led to the decline and disappearance of the liku as clothing.

A section on ‘Chiefs and Governors’ introduces the arrival of the British in 1874 and the subsequent ‘Relationships’ that developed. An area on ‘Collectors’ is mainly dedicated to von Hügel who is represented by his painted portrait along with some of his significant objects, which was unsurprising given that it was his collection that formed the museum. It was good to see the inclusion of the traveller and artist Constance Gordon Cumming who was very much a part of the Government House entourage and who also had the ‘collecting bug’.

The final section ‘New Discoveries’ outlines the continuing relationship between Fiji and Cambridge such as collaborative research for teaching and developing relations with a variety of communities and audiences and emphasised that the historical objects in the collections still have significant cultural value in Fiji today. I would have welcomed more objects in this section to make an impact and to create the opportunity to expand on the research and work being undertaken in Cambridge. I also questioned the use of the term ‘Discoveries’ which reminded me of  early European ‘voyages of discovery’ and felt that an alternative term pointing to a collaborative future may be more appropriate.

Certain types of objects are not just grouped together but reappear in the different themes throughout the exhibition such as different examples of tabua, yaqona dishes and masi. This may be repetitive, but it actually served to show that some objects were an important part of different aspects of Fijian life, over time, as well as their on-going use today, and justified the curatorial decision to include them throughout the exhibition.
The exhibition demonstrates that the objects were acquired in many ways: through democratic relations, mutual respect and friendship; it also highlights the multi-dimensional and nuanced aspects of colonial collecting. As I walked around the exhibition I kept wondering about the objects that had been exchanged and presented by the British that had the equivalent value and whether there are any of these in the Fiji Museum in Suva? I would also have welcomed more quotations or views from a Fijian perspective. The exhibition catalogue acknowledges that it attempts to develop an analytical symmetry between the British and Fijians but admits that the account is inevitably one-sided and that all the quotes and descriptions originate from European sources, including those attributed to Fijians.

All labels are written in English with the Fijian translation in brackets, thus respecting the Fijian language, and it is admirable that some labels acknowledge the problematic nature of the impact of Europeans on Fijian culture as well as the cultural continuity in contemporary Fiji today.

There is a good range of visual media which are displayed as objects in themselves and these include a mixture of old historical black and white photographs as well as more contemporary coloured ones of Fijian life today.  Some photographs show the processes by which objects were made which I thought helped to reclaim a historical narrative for the Fijian makers of the objects who, with further research, may one day be identified.

The exhibition is comprehensive in scope and very well presented. What makes this intelligent exhibition succeed is not just the exquisite objects on display, but the way in which the exhibition is designed to give space to each complex aspect of Fijian life in pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial times and provides a rare and wonderful opportunity to see some of the most valuable and precious objects of Fijian art.

The exhibition reveals the historical and contemporary relational aspects of MAA: British collectors and governors, Fijian chiefs, Fijian craftspeople and makers, the MAA curators and draws attention to their interconnectedness through material culture and the objects on display. For the British the objects reflect the institutional, political, social and cultural histories as well as the domestic life at Government House. The exhibition can be interpreted as an example of how material culture is embedded in social relationships and the mutual constitutiveness of objects and people.

Fijians were represented in the exhibition through the material objects themselves which revealed their makers’ creativity and innovative use of materials, their skill, craftsmanship and technologies of making, their aesthetic sensibility, and their adaptation in changing circumstances, politically and aesthetically. The objects reveal the Fijian system of thinking, their social system of chieftainship and their religious and ontological way of being in the world through the making of objects and the cultural system of value attributed to them at the time.

All relationships involve issues of power. However, visualizing an intangible concept such as power is difficult as it is something that is usually invisible. The chiefly presentation objects in the exhibition were not intended to be transferred as permanent possessions at the time, but were intended as a means to promote on-going relationships. The objects in the exhibition represent a dialogue between two countries and two cultures and between the past and the present, but, as demonstrated in the exhibition, they also retain their power for the future.

Catherine Cummings, University of Exeter

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.