By Maia Nuku
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Oceanic art includes over two thousand works of art from the Pacific: ancestral treasures handed down across the generations that were created in islands and archipelagoes that extend across a vast expanse of ocean. Highlights of the collection include the landmark architectural installation or ‘Kwoma ceiling’ as well as spectacular barkcloth headdresses from New Britain, dramatic turtleshell masks from the Torres Strait Islands and elegant, highly abstracted Yipwon (‘hook’) figures whose radical rearrangement of formal elements so inspired avant-garde artists at the turn of the last century. As well as honing in on the marvelous and specific details of individual works in the collection, the challenge to make the art of Oceania relevant to local and international audiences requires us to draw out the uniqueness of the art in terms of its distinctive role and agency. For it is the inter-connectedness of the region and its people – in terms of ancestry, genealogy and centuries of dynamic engagement – that is the single strand that unites all of the art in the galleries.
Next year the Met will celebrate its 150th anniversary year. Poised on this threshold, it seems pertinent to reflect on the evolution of the museum and its continued trajectory as an institution that has grown directly out of the cultural and philanthropic ecosystem of New York city. Fifty years ago in May 2019, almost a full century after the museum’s doors first opened to the public, Nelson Rockefeller addressed a press conference and announced his commitment to transfer his carefully assembled collection of African, Oceanic and ancient American art to the Met. This expansive, and extremely strategic, gift broadened the institutional scope of the museum in a single stroke and the unique conceptual and aesthetic vocabularies of these art traditions continue to inform public perceptions of the power of art today.
Nelson Rockefeller and the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA)[i]
Scion of one of the nation’s most significant philanthropic families, Nelson Rockefeller is perhaps best remembered for the decades he spent in the political spotlight. Born in 1908, he was elected to four consecutive terms as governor of the state of New York (1959-1973) before he was appointed Vice President under Gerald R. Ford whom he served from 1974 to 1977. Yet Nelson was equally at home in the art world.
Among the most formative influences that sparked his early interest in art were his early travels abroad and his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This new institution opened in 1929 – just nine days after the Wall Street Crash – and was devoted exclusively to modern art. Indeed, it was the first of its kind in Manhattan to exhibit European Modernism. Abby Rockefeller’s interest in the avant-garde was considered in some quarters as rather eclectic and eccentric. She certainly instilled in Nelson an appreciation not only for modern art but also for the African and Oceanic art forms that had influenced its development.
In 1930, on graduating from Dartmouth College, Nelson joined the Board of the Metropolitan Museum. Ironically, the catalyst for his mother and her close associates to establish MoMA had been the Metropolitan’s evident lack of interest in avant-garde art. Now in a position of influence where he might make a difference, Nelson advocated for the institution to engage with a major gap in its collection, that of pre-Columbian art. Nelson’s lobbying efforts on this front fell largely on deaf ears and his enthusiasm was dampened by the somewhat sceptical response of this early generation of museum trustees who simply did not view art from these regions as part of the institution’s core mission.
Nelson continued undeterred. With the encouragement of his close friend and associate René d’Harnancourt, he decided to create his own museum and in 1954 set about establishing the charter for a cultural organization devoted to the artistic traditions hitherto absent from the Met’s collections. In establishing the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA), Nelson Rockefeller was a pioneer, assembling a singular collection of art from Africa, Oceania and the Ancient Americas – regions that at that time were united by their distinctiveness from the accepted canon of Western art and were more generally referred to as ‘non-Western’. D’Harnancourt became a close friend and collaborator and importantly, provided Rockefeller with a methodology for assembling a collection. He served as co-founder and vice president of the fledgling institution that was located in a town house adjoining Rockefeller’s childhood home, directly across from MoMA at 15, West 54th Street.
Until that time, art world interest in these so-called ‘non-Western’ traditions had focused entirely on their relationship to Modernism. The art historian and critic Robert Goldwater had written his path-breaking dissertation Primitivism and Modern Paintingat Harvard University in 1938, charting the influence of African, Oceanic, and American pre-colonial customary traditions on 20th century art in the West. D’Harnoncourt recommended to Rockefeller that he recruit Goldwater, then a professor in the Department of Art History at Queens College, as Director of the Museum of Primitive Art.
Beginning in the role in 1956, Goldwater outlined a formal collection policy for the new museum and began to implement an extensive program of landmark exhibitions that introduced these arts to the broader art world. Robert Goldwater was assisted in these endeavours by a bright and capable young man. Born in 1920 to English parents who lived on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, Douglas Newton had recently moved to New York. For over two decades, Rockefeller and his band of advisors assembled the collection of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas in the United States. In effect, these apparently different social and artistic circles were not as distinct from each other as one might expect: Robert Goldwater was married to the French-American painter and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Though she exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists, her work had much in common with Surrealism and she was not formally affiliated to a particular artistic movement. Whilst Rockefeller prided himself on having a keen eye that could pick the quality of artworks across many fields, he described himself as especially responsive to sculpture as a medium of expression. Describing it as ‘something v. intuitive’, he explained: “my major interest is sculpture because the plastic arts to me have the greatest strength and vitality’.
Single-minded in his attempt to convince the hearts and minds of the American public on the merits on these relatively obscure and unfamiliar artistic traditions, Rockefeller’s ultimate goal was to have the non-Western art become an integral part of the Met’s wide-ranging collections. Relying on his formidable powers of persuasion, Rockefeller worked with d’Harnancourt to broker an agreement with the Met’s newly incumbent director, Thomas Hoving, that would see the creation of a new department within the museum, one that would encompass not only the holdings of the MPA but also Rockefeller’s personal collections.
Following the announcement in May 1969, it fell to Douglas Newton to oversee the transfer of some 3,500 works of art (as well as the extensive library, archive and many of its staff) twenty-five blocks uptown. Rockefeller’s philanthropic gesture fundamentally changed the character of the Museum. Vast reaches of the globe now came to be represented under the museum’s roof for the first time. Rockefeller’s prescience and tenacity had led not only to the founding of the department – but also to the construction of specially designed galleries in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, which opened to the public in 1982.
Broadening the scope of its mission to embrace this wealth of new artistic genres, this transformative gift of art signaled the moment when the museum’s collections became truly encyclopaedic. Of course, this spectacular art had always been defined primarily by its non-inclusion in the accepted canon – and was firmly framed in that era as ‘non-Western’ – but Newton, like Rockefeller, had other ideas. He continued to lobby for its inclusion alongside the great classical traditions of art, conceiving projects that advocated strongly for suitable platforms that would reorient its received assessment. Shortly after the new wing opened in 1981, Douglas Newton as first chair of the new department, turned his attention to one such project – a major exhibition of Maori art that was to become iconic and which would prove to be a catalyst for change in the highly contested post-colonial and cultural politics of 1980s New Zealand.
The exhibition Te Maoriwas conceived by Douglas Newton and Maori scholar Hirini Moko Mead as a project that would showcase the finest examples of Maori art from New Zealand collections on an international stage in New York. The exhibition has come to be understood as a significant milestone in the cultural renaissance of Maori – a turning point, if you will, in the way in which museums and communities interacted around art from then on in the region. The impact of this exhibition was indeed far-reaching and was responsible for establishing an entirely new cultural framework for policy in New Zealand. Not only did it change the overall perception of Maori culture both abroad and at home, it forced a vital debate focused on issues surrounding the display and management of Maori collections of art and so-called ‘ethnography’.
In its process the exhibition set new precedents in areas of consultation and shared decision-making. Maori tribal authorities were consulted from the outset. This was a significant development that attended to the rights of diverse parties in the interpretation and articulation of Maori cultural heritage and the way in which Maori were represented. Whilst curators were responsible for making the initial selection of loan requests, it was the New Zealand museums that insisted on full Maori participation from the outset and full consultation with Maori tribal authorities and elders was sustained throughout. New Zealand museum staff acknowledged their very specific role as custodians of taonga(ancestral treasures) on behalf of Maori and were sensitive to the fact that despite their nominal ‘legal’ ownership of Maori artefacts (let’s say the ‘physical’ aspect), full spiritual and cultural custodianship (the ‘metaphysical’) rested with a wide variety of Maori tribal groups.
Working now in New York with the Oceania collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I often reflect on the legacy of Te Maori. The exhibition showed what art can do – in terms of raising the esteem and self-awareness of a people, in terms of beginning an important dialogue in NZ between museums and communities that would see complex colonial histories begin to be confronted, discussed, further nuanced and perhaps even slowly untangled. What the exhibition did so deftly was vividly highlight the distinctive manner in which Pacific peoples conceive the agency and role of their art. Visitors witnessed at first hand the engagement in the galleries of affiliated Maori who accompanied their tribal treasures and who participated in the ritual protocols of opening ceremonies at each venue. Handed down across the generations, these highly prized taonga tuku iho(treasures from old) were newly clothed in song, chant and gesture. Audiences could appreciate that these were not static relics confined to a distant past but very much living spiritual objects that remained in relationwith their living descendants. In this respect, the artworks were very much ambassadors specifically charged by Maori elders to travel overseas to raise the profile of Maori culture – so that Maori art could stand on the world stage to be appreciated alongside the art of the great ‘civilizations’ – of Greek and Rome, of China and Egypt. A canon expanded.
Legacy of Te Maori
I remember beginning my studies in Pacific art and anthropology. As I pored over the published catalogues of early Pacific art exhibitions and organized visits to museum stores in England, Ireland and Scotland, I assumed that museum collections were pretty much a known quantity, that the overall shape of Pacific art had been outlined and was now being colored in. Post-doctoral research took me down further avenues of enquiry and led me across the Channel to museums in France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain where I began to understand that the known geography of collections across Europe was more like the tip of an iceberg. Scholarship had established what was above the ocean line but way below the water’s surface, tucked away in the stores of smaller ethnographic museums were scores of treasures, what seemed like vast resources to be tapped.
In the three and a half decades since Te Maori, the scholarly disciplines that frame Oceanic art have seen many exciting developments. These now operate productively on the boundaries between art history – anthropology – historical ethnography and museology. Written documents are no longer perceived as the only valid primary sources – artefacts and objects have taken center stage to open up pathways to different kinds of knowledge and understandings. Theoretical frameworks that center materiality and an analysis of ‘things’ (in and of themselves) direct a discourse that acknowledges the activeagency of objects. And of course, these are anchored more often in indigenous epistemologies – knowledge that is encouraged to take root so that the cosmological coordinates of an artwork can be attended to, rather than its purely formal qualities.
Collaborative research and digital access have extended the parameters of projects and involve Pacific artists, scholars and cultural practitioners working alongside museum curators and conservators, accessing major collections of Pacific art together and pooling their knowledge bases to bring new perspectives that really lessen the gap between ‘knowledge’ and ‘practice’. Another crucial factor is that scholars in the Academy have finally begun to take more seriously the perspectives and viewpoints of such collaborators. This means that alongside the usual cataloguing of data (measuring and photographing works, transcribing labels and inventories) there is conversation. Groups of people in the stores having animated conversations around things. And the works themselves have led this dialogue – their materiality, the traces of hands and history on their surfaces. For in many instances, they are the crucial components of the much larger puzzle that we are all engaged in piecing back together.
So how do we help these ideas and approaches tilt the institutional axis of our major encyclopaedic institutions? For my own part, I have been trying to shift the perception of the gallery as simply a place where we present art from a particular region or time in history and move towards an understanding of it as a place of direct encounter: a place to host, a place to dialogue, a place to confront these complex colonial histories. As well as honoring the foundational narrative of collections and their particular histories and trajectories into institutions, it is vital that we also invite and encourage participation from contemporary Pacific scholars, artists, dancers, writers and poets so that people understand we are a culture that is not confined to the past. Bringing people (physically or digitally) into the galleries to work on projects helps create a living dynamic that can activate and enliven these relationships. In this sense we build on the original notion of the role of a curator – in ‘taking care of, & attending to’ the art we are moving towards a role of kaitiakitangaor guardianship, a role that sees us looking to nurture relationships and reinforce networks that may have become eclipsed over time, that is to pull knowledge back up and safeguard it going forward. This work is cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary. These projects push at the boundaries of the institution, forcing it to re-assess itself, to become self-reflexive.
We all work within the particular parameters of our time, pushing against an institutional framework so that it nudges further in the direction we believe it needs to go. Fifty years ago, Nelson Rockefeller advocated strongly for art from regions of the world that he observed were completely absent from the conversation. Thirty-five years ago, his colleague Douglas Newton (the first chair of the newly created department at the Met) created a collaborative space for indigenous voices that allowed Maori to have a direct say in the way their art was presented and received by visitors. Inviting Pacific communities back into our galleries today is, to my mind, simply reminding the museum of what it had the foresight to do before. As well as a repository of the past, collections are living resources for creative interventions that have the power to effect institutional change.
For those of us who are born overseas and/or live outside the Pacific, the artworks encountered in museums and galleries can act as anchor points which connect us to home. They are a vital link creating a connection to the whenua(or land) which bring us into immediate relation with each other. Our Pacific ancestors had the imagination to visualize – and make tangible – these deep (virtual) networks of ancestral relations. They wrote these lines of lineage into their skin, plaited and painted them into masks, planted them into wood as notches in carving. This particular and distinctive ‘way of being’ in the world – the unique conceptual landscape of the Pacific – all of this is embedded into each of the individual works we encounter in galleries. Meshing their values, ideas and philosophies into the surfaces and intricate folds of things, artists ensured that these would be revealed well into the future. The power of Pacific art is unleashed when we encounter these works: the Pacific as it inheres in people, and places – and time; the Pacific of song and story, as it is spoken and danced; the Pacific in art that keeps moving – that can shift in and out of different worlds, all the while accruing status and value (mana), as indeed it was designed to do; the Pacific as it inheres in the on-going complex and trickywork of relationships – between people, art and museums – dynamic and evolving – just like the ocean within us.
Finally, I am reminded of my Hawai’ian colleague, curator Noelle Kahanu[ii] who recently explored the fraught parameters of the relationship between museums and the communities by considering the nuances of the phrase ‘to cede authority’. She asked if we might think less about demands for museums to ‘cede’ authority, suggesting we might consider instead their potential in ‘seeding’ legacies – that is, in planting and nurturing newly configured relationships. It is a hugely useful metaphor and one which we all remain committed to continuing. The process of decolonization is a cumulative one. Exhibitions, art galleries and museums are critical sites where we can host precisely these kinds of dialogues as places of new and invigorated encounter in the 21st century.
Dr.Maia Nuku, Evelyn A J Hall and John A Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This paper was presented at the OAS 2019 Forum at the art Gallery of New South Wales, February 2, 2019.[i] The subject of Nelson Rockefeller’s legacy was examined in a special exhibition at the Met in 2014 – entitled In pursuit of the Best: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision. The exhibit was also the focus of a Special Issue of the Met Bulletin(Summer 2014), written and researched by curators in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AAOA) at the Metropolitan Museum Art and I acknowledge their original research which I have drawn on to map out Nelson Rockefeller’s contribution in this regard. [ii] Noelle Kahanu was invited to respond alongside curators Nicholas Thomas and Peter Brunt to the Oceaniaexhibition at the Royal Academy London in a panel convened by Pacific History Association (PHA) on 3rd Dec 2018. The session was introduced and chaired by Professor Dame Anne Salmond.