Monday, April 20, 2009


Saturday morning I was listening to NPR on the walk to retrieve my car from downtown and there was a segment on about natives of Kodiak Alaska and their lack of knowledge/record of their own heritage. The journalists went on to explain how there was a private collection of the tribes’ masks in France and the owner was loaning (not returning) the collection to the people to learn from and put on display in a local museum. This was seen as a wonderful thing and a great miracle that the artifacts were preserved. 

I started thinking: How did these masks end up as a collector’s item rather than part of the local knowledge? Should the French collector be morally obligated to return the masks to their rightful holders? Who exactly should own these pieces? Should they be part of the local commons, owned by the people? Because of globalization and the homogenization of place and people, are things being lost and appropriated to ‘lovely’ home furnishings? What exactly is the ‘right’ thing to do here?

I also had issue with how NPR presented this. Essentially they were saying, that thanks to the French collector, these artifacts were saved and not lost or damaged or buried in some ditch by the native peoples. Sending the message, at least to me, that clearly these people were incapable of preserving their own traditions. Only the white Western elite could do such preservation. 

Then I started analyzing my own apartment and d├ęcor. Did I own anything that was culturally appropriated from a community or identity that I do not belong to? What about all the things I brought back from India? I tried to only buy things that were handicrafts and made specifically for consumption purposes… but what sort of message was I sending wearing or displaying such items back in the US? Were these things signifiers of wealth and ability (Look at me I went to India…)? How should I feel about this, I mean clearly my consumption in India in 2008 is vastly different than 18th century Native American masks… but still related.


Back to work... I wish I could incorporate the above thoughts and ideas into my final project, but alas, I feel its too late in the game.  Also, so many types of things I'm being forced to include.  So much of this writing process feels so unnatural and awkward it is probably one of the reasons I'm so miserable with it.  I'm just disappointed that something I was looking forward to doing/creating for a year and a half has been one of my largest dreads for the past few months.  Square pegs simply do not fit in round holes without a lot of sanding and shaving.  Perfect metaphor for this paper.  I've sanded it down to where I barely recognize it as my own creation.  Rather it was something that was custom ordered, returned several times and continually rejected.  I hate it.  It doesn't make any sense outside the context of my instructor's class, nor is it an accurate reflection of my academic interests.  Great job Women's Studies.  Way to suck out my soul.

All will be done, for better, for worse, in two days.  Maybe I'll feel somewhat human again.


Erin said...

This is a huge issue within art history (obviously).
Some other things to consider:
(My learning is more focused on African art, so I'll start with that.)

Some African masks are useful for ceremonies for only a certain amount of time. After that the spirit leaves them (so to speak) and it may be buried or burned. Some consider the mask as a remnant is okay to acquire. Other times a mask or sculpture may be in the care of a chief who may or may not understand it it meant to benefit the entire community rather than just himself. The items kept in his care are considered wealth. Is it wrong for him to exchange it for a different kind of wealth? Some items are sold for the profit of the chief or outright stolen in raids or from graves. These have little credibility as "preserving the culture" because proper documentation is impossible. Good collectors go through great lengths to acquire this information and be certain it is honest.

Reproductions are considered a good way for the common collector to have such things, though often the quality is much much less.

Protheletizing(sp?) religions are one of the major causes for culture loss. Many who continue to honor the ancestors after others convert are laughed at, called witches or killed. Many of the ceremonies centered around community are rendered meaningless.

In the face of this is it immoral to collect what may be gone in just one generation even if not properly documented?

When you purchase an antique Afghani bracelet sold after a woman lost her family in the war(The American War perhaps?) to support herself and her children are you committing an immoral act? Or are you doing something good because she can survive?

Purchasing items made in the traditional way in India supports local artists and the local culture. Is appropriating it specifically flaunting American wealth, or is it recognizing a global connection to your human sisters?

This conversation requires more time I think.

Liz said...

This isn't the first time I've thought about this either. I think about it quite often actually.

I'd really love to talk about this further. There are just so many considerations and different circumstances that are in direct conflict with each other, its difficult to figure out the 'right' way to deal, or process it.