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?

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 — 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,” 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 art, which is largely functional, would be if other cultures wished to preserve our everyday tools in museums — such as computers, cellphones, or SUVs. The artistic authenticity of a particular object is determined, in part, by the objects provenance — its history that helps us to understand the significance and original cultural context of the object. Without this context it becomes complicated to identify certain tribal cultural artifacts as artwork or not.

But let’s imagine that there exists an institutional framework or bureaucratic organization with the resources to undertake such a monumental task of artistic identification. There would still be additional problems to consider. In Indonesia, for instance, there are numerous political and cultural obstacles facing the emerging push for preservation. Communication in the nation is lackluster. Identifying and controlling all potential tribal art among the indigenous people is a task best left to the imagination. The infrastructure simply does not yet exist to properly compensate indigenous artists and craftsmen, let alone stem the tide of black-market deals and random destruction. Yet this is exactly the circumstances in which we hope to be able to control and manage the preservation of indigenous artwork.

Some would have us believe that tribal artwork and indigenous artistic productions are part of a cultural heritage that is quite literally the property of the nation in which those people reside. It has become politically expedient to express art in terms of the national boundaries in which it was produced, as if the cultural effects of art can be limited in such a manner. Nonetheless, with many subscribing to the idea that art can be cultural property, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nations — primarily from the Third World — who demand that artistic treasures that were removed from their lands be returned to them now.

This attitude is based on the simplistic belief that art can be owned based on the geographical location of its production. As if the culture of any nation or society is so fragile and static that it will not endure unless museums throughout the West relinquish control of artifacts and artistic pieces that were collected over the course of centuries. This view of culture is quite simply, and to the chagrin of many, mistaken. Imposing controls on the use and spread of art from tribal societies pirates the original culture — turning objects of art into objects for consumption — while the interference attempts to fix the culture in a single historical moment and prevent the natural cultural changes and transformations that would ordinarily occur without outside influence.

These points only underscore the one incontrovertible fact that is central to the issue of art preservation among indigenous societies. Art is an expression of culture, just as the wonderfully produced masks of Papua New Guinea are artistic expressions of the religious beliefs of those people. More than that, though, art is a vital and dynamic component of any culture and can only be viewed in such terms. Therefore, the art that any culture produces will naturally change over time. In the study conducted by Lehmann and Lehmann, the authors found that new forms of artistic expression began emerging among some of these people as late as the 1960s. They took the form of story boards painted on wood that contained no religious significance and were only decorative in nature. No culture can be expected to stay frozen in the historical moment in which it is first discovered or during a period of particularly high artistic expression. Rather, the art of these tribal cultures will change and be transformed as contact with the West increases and the indigenous people of tribal societies throughout the world adapt their culture and art to meet those changes.

From this, we can conclude that there is no one who can, or for that matter should, be charged with the responsibly of preserving the native art of the indigenous people of the world. These artistic productions are creations of cultural moments in history and cannot be judged or understood without an eye for their historical context. If anything, ethnographers should take it upon themselves to record these artistic productions as extensively as possible — through written and photographic records that will preserve at the least the memory of the artistic moments that have long since passed. But attempting to force indigenous people to limit or control the nature of their art, or presume that national governments can dictate the icons that constitute a cultural heritage, is simply inane. It is the responsibly of the art historian to demonstrate that tribal and indigenous art can be an important current of scholarship, so long as that study is not designed to interfere overly in the indigenous culture in the misguided name of preservation.

Works Cited

Barbier, Jean-Paul. “The Responsible and the Irresponsible: Observations on the Destruction and Preservation of Indonesian Art.”

Duffon, Denis. “Authenticity in Art.” In the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerrold Levinson. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003). 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm.

Hamlin, Jesse. “How de Young Is Handling New Guinea Art Question.” San Francisco Chronicle (4 May 2006): E1. 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.sfgate..cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/04/DDGJMIJFVO1.DTL.

Lehmann, Karl and Lehmann, Andrew. “Tribal Art of Papua New Guinea.” Lost World Arts. (Maui, Hawaii: 2004). 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.lostworldarts.com/new_page_2.htm.

Karl Lehmann and Andrew Lehmann, “Tribal Art of Papua New Guinea,” Lost World Arts (Maui, Hawaii: 2004), 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.lostworldarts.com/new_page_2.htm, par. 29.

Jean-Paul Barbier, “The Responsible and the Irresponsible: Observations on the Destruction and Preservation of Indonesian Art,” 60.

Lehmann and Lehmann, par. 13-19.

Denis Duffon, “Authenticity in Art,” in Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Ed. Jerrold Levinson (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm.

Barbier, 59.

Jesse Hamlin, “How de Young Is Handling New Guinea Art Question,” San Francisco Chronicle (4 May 2006): E1, 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/04/DDGJMIJFVO1.DTL, par. 1-5.

Barbier, 62.

Lehmann and Lehmann, par. 26.