Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2000
Ruth Philips and Christopher Steiner, eds. Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 424 pp. Paper (0520207971)

Jonathan Batkin’s article on the early dealers in pueblo pottery, one of the most eye-opening in this valuable volume, also has one of the best stories: in a curio store in Santa Fe in the late nineteenth century, among the pottery rain gods (shipped in barrels of 100 at $6.50 the barrel), the beadwork and tambourines, the Jicarilla Apache baskets and Navajo silver, the owner claimed to be able to show you Ben Hur’s trunk and the skull of Henry Ward Beecher “as a boy.” It made me laugh, and it encapsulated what the essays in this volume reveal—and what all real art history should reveal—the smoke and mirrors, the tricks and stratagems that engage people, the strange things that objects make people do and say and believe.

Some of the nineteen authors here represented find a metaphor for just this theme: to Enid Schildkrout, in an extension of her work on the unexpected relationships between Western European aesthetics and Zairean (Mangbetu) iconography, it is a “hall of mirrors.” In this hall, created by Mangbetu artists, it is far from clear who sees what and with what consequences for the relationships between consumer and producer, image-maker and imaged, man and woman. Janet Berlo (an artist in cloth as well as words) chooses the metaphor of a tent and of intellectual and artistic journeying and encampments in alien fields—Inuit graphic art in this case. A central image, by Napachie Pootoogook, is a drawing of the artist outside her tent holding a drawing (within a drawing) of her tent (so that there is also a tent within a tent, cloth within cloth, paper within paper): but it is a different tent, much older, than the one she stands outside, creating an echo of re-re-presentation. Sidney Littlefield Kasfir takes two objects as metonyms of wider cultural experience among the Samburu—the postcard and the spear—and discusses the value associations of savagery, eroticism, passivity, and aggression that they may embody at different moments, in different hands, subject to different gazes. Here, too, all is not always as we might expect, as Kasfir shows in an anecdote of a Samburu woman who sued (successfully) when her image was used on a postcard without her consent—Kasfir expertly pointing us to a more subtle analysis of “gaze discourse” than simplistic reliance on a supposed dichotomy between “colonizer” and “colonized.” Trudy Nicks, describing Indian entertainments, and particularly Chief Poking Fire’s Indian village at the Mohawk community of Kahnakwe in Quebec, uses the metaphor of packaging—a lot of art is its packaging, she reminds us—it is important not to discard it in our attempt to find the meaning “inside.”

Packing and unpacking also form the chosen metaphor of the book as a whole—the cover image shows an old-fashioned tourist portmanteau overflowing with souvenirs from all continents and oceans. If you unpack the volume itself, you will find many different case-histories reviewed: Ruth Phillips on Huron and Euro-Canadian moosehair embroidery, a cultural exchange dating back three centuries; Aldona Jonaitis’s highly necessary survey of totem poles as they actually are, as distinct from how they have long existed in people’s imaginations; Stephen Inglis on the mass production of printed images in twentieth-century India. There are also Sandra Niessen on Toba Batak production; an object “biography” of Chinese Dragon robes in their many ownerships by Verity Wilson; a survey by Marsha Bol of the astonishingly large material production of the Lakota (Sioux) and the way in which it was marketed to the non-Indian buyer (I would love to see a follow-up article on the repatriation of the Lakota ghost dance shirt from Glasgow Museums); and a glimpse offered by Nancy Parezo of the deliberate mixing of categories of Native and non-Native in the staging of a long-running “Indian Fashion Show” by the Denver Art Museum’s Frederic Douglas.

Eric Kline Silverman’s attempt to find new aesthetic explanations for contemporary tourist art from the Sepik River in New Guinea left this reviewer happy to have seen new material, but unconvinced by Silverman’s analysis. Marvin Cohodas makes a contribution on northwest Californian Karuk basketry, more impressive in its strong command of material than in the completeness of the argument—extracts from Bourdieu on the functional and structural homology of sites of art production and art consumption are cogent but curiously unheeded. Cohodas (as well as Silverman) chooses to stress the agency and importance of art producers at the expense of the agency and importance of art consumers, Cohodas taking an overly aggressive anticolonialist stand. This might be sentimentally gratifying or politically constructive, but historiographically, it is a mistake. Cohodas dislikes the term “tourist art.” This term is clearly problematic (which probably also explains why it is omitted from this book’s title—a mistake, for Unpacking Culture and its subtitle are just too anodyne for such an interesting collection). However, avoiding the term “tourist art” seems like writing about the art of Renaissance Florence while trying to not to mention either the name Medici or the word “court.”

Indeed, if I have any bone at all to pick with this excellent book, it is that while most of the authors pay due lip service to the importance of art consumption within the complex equation of international (tourist) art production, they do not get much further. Only a few actually discuss the way in which the art is utilised by its purchasers: Cohodas, indeed, gives us a vivid glimpse of the Victorian front hall and parlor, just enough to whet the appetite. The exception to the rule is Molly Lee’s essay on the people who bought the souvenirs and other wares produced in southeast Alaska at the turn of the century: an original and necessary complement to any understanding of the art production process. To turn tourist art into an extension of prior traditions of ethnically and culturally specific art production is to fetter it with golden shackles, for it is both less and more than whatever predated it (and coexisted with it). Incidentally, if the aesthetics and philosophies of producing societies seem more interesting than those of consuming societies, then, somewhere in this volume, should we not have an essay on the production of tourist souvenirs in factories in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere? I remember the rows of plastic model totem poles from China that graced many a shelf in tourist shops in Alaska not many years ago. What conceptions of ethnicity and authenticity allow us to pass them by so easily?

Is tourist art defined more by its mass-ness, its fluidity, than pre- (or post-) determined ethnic boundaries? Among the important contributions that seem to suggest this is an essay by Frank Ettawageshik musing on the question of whether you can look at both the wood and the trees — contrasting his own vivid memories of playing in the birches outside his family shop in Harbor Springs, Michigan (a view almost too close, he thinks), with the broad but imprecise view of an outsider. Tourist art is a mass art in many senses—it is made in quantity, disperses rapidly, fills a thousand homes, not merely a handful of museums or mansions (its producers and its consumers most often belong to different cultures), its conformity to aesthetic canons is difficult to understand in conventional art-historical terms. And yet surely we must get past these difficulties, find new ways to research and understand these art forms that flow between cultures, that express the aspirations and philosophies of the many. Carol Ivory, writing on the Marquesas Islands, points to the fact that tourist art underpins cultural revival across the board, and its mass-ness (and even crass-ness) may help to redevelop ethnic self-confidence as part of a continuum of artistic production (a point well made also by Nicks and by Cohodas, inter alios).

Christopher Steiner, one of the editors, tackles the problem head on—describing tourist art squarely in terms of mass production. His analysis is highly effective: in the process of trying to understand the mechanics of tourist art, new fields of aesthetic analysis are immediately opened up to him, allowing him to perceive that tourist art has to contain certain stereotypes, certain canons, certain reproducible patterns that, in themselves, bespeak a type of authenticity.

This work is the first important survey of the field since the Ethnic and Tourist Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) of Nelson Graburn (who contributes a concluding essay to this volume). But it is more than just a survey of a field: it is a vital advance in our understanding of how art works at all times, in all places.

Jonathan Meuli
independent scholar.