Any number of exhibitions at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana have led to the same conclusion: Sources for authentic ethnic sacred artifacts the world over are shrinking.
Except in Yap.
An exhibit, “Calling Island Spirits: An Introduction to the Sacred Arts of Micronesia,” focusing on Yap and nearby islands, opened at the museum this week. Twenty historic artifacts and ethnographic photographs borrowed from UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History are being displayed alongside several contemporary “re-creations” made at the Ethnic Art Institute of Micronesia (EAIM).
The institute was established on Yap two years ago by the Robert Gumbiner Foundation for the Arts, which is based in Long Beach. To make those re-creations (not knockoffs or reproductions, mind you), Gumbiner’s no sap: He taps the youth of Yap.
“Reproductions you take to a factory and produce in a synthetic material that simulates the original,” explains Cynthia MacMullin, the foundation’s director of collections and exhibitions. “We’re actually teaching native local artists to make these objects in the [manner and] spirit in which they originally were made and used.”
The exhibit, on display through Aug. 15, was organized by the Gumbiner Foundation (the same organization that recently hired away Bowers’ director of development and programming, Pat House, to be CEO at a proposed Hippodrome Center for Art of the Americas in Long Beach).
And just where on the map is Yap?
Micronesia is roughly bordered by New Guinea, the Philippines, Japan and Hawaii and consists of more than 2,500 islands grouped in four archipelagoes: the Marshall, Gilbert, Caroline and Mariana Islands. Yap, considered Micronesia’s most traditional sector, is in the Western Carolines.
A betel nut reception at the Bowers on Thursday was the first of several related events, all free.
Saturday, a three-hour symposium will include lectures, films (including a 1909 expedition documentary showing the tapuanu mask dance in the Mortlock Islands of Truk) and live Micronesian dance. Among the speakers: institute director Don Evans; art historian Jerome Feldman of Hawaii Pacific University; researcher Donald Rubinstein of the University of Guam; filmmaker Eric Metzgar; and Vitus Foneg, EAIM program coordinator and Yapese royal family scion.
“Foneg has been instrumental in bringing the island elders out of the woodwork,” MacMullin said.
On July 11, “Spirits of the Voyage,” Metzgar’s 90-minute documentary focusing on an ancient rite of passage for navigators as performed on Lamotrek Island, will be shown in the United States for the first time.
Pieces of the EAIM collection--spirit bowls, idols and weather charms--are available for purchase at the museum through July 11. The least expensive item is a small monkey man for $37.50; the most expensive is a fertility figure for $1,260.
But MacMullin stressed that the EAIM is a facility dedicated to the preservation, restoration and revitalization of indigenous arts, crafts and customs--not a glorified souvenir stand.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re not building a souvenir factory,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re creating art pieces for the collector, limited editions: 250 masks, for instance, will be made.” A mask runs $450; MacMullin says half that amount goes to the artisans.
“We call [EAIM] an institute because it’s teaching the artists their culture, their history,” she continued. “Since European contact, so much has been lost . . .
“There has been a souvenir art form that has come out of the islands. But what we’re doing hasn’t been done before. We’re offering scholarship--art historians, anthropologists, researchers--and exchange of information: What do we know? What do you know?”
One topic ripe for investigation at Saturday’s symposium may be why betel nut chewing hasn’t taken off in the United States.
“There are 2 million chewers of betel nut in Southeast Asia,” noted MacMullin. She quoted one of her sources: “ ‘Once the habit has been established the habitues are enslaved to their passion.’
“It’s absolutely horrible,” she said. “You put a little lime paste with it, you chew on it, your mouth . . . turns orange brown with spittle. [But] it’s a mild excitant with a narcotic soothing effect. Once you start chewing it, you chew it all the time; it’s always in your mouth. Sitting, sleeping, standing, working . . . All of our carvers chew betel nut.”
* “Calling Island Spirits: An Introduction to the Sacred Arts of Micronesia” continues through Aug. 15 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursday till 9. Free. (714) 567-3600.