Did you know that only a small fraction of HoMA’s collection is on view in our galleries at any given time? The majority of our permanent collection—over 50,000 works—resides underground in our vault, protected from damaging elements like light and moisture. Our From the Vault events offer opportunities for visitors to get up-close-and-intimate with hidden gems from the collection that rarely (if ever) go on public view. Below, members of our curatorial staff share notes on the pieces they presented at From the Vault: iPOV [infected] last month.
Oceania is often relegated to the edges of the art canon, and this mode of thought is reflected in how many art museums typically do not have Oceanic works in their galleries. April’s From the Vault event, in conjunction with Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, gave me the opportunity to engage with HoMA’s Oceanic Collection and think about how we choose to represent Pacific Islanders and our region.
HoMA has part of a gallery dedicated to Oceania, however the Micronesian region is missing from this visual story. Part of this absence is due to the small collection the museum has of historic and contemporary works from the various Micronesian island groups. HoMA is fortunate to have paintings from Palauan artist, Charlie Gibbons. Gibbons started his artistic career carving storyboards and later began creating watercolors for which he became internationally recognized. Born in 1895, he lived through multiple waves of colonialism in Palau. Trading Ship in Palau Picking Up Trepang (for China) at T Dock Ngerkemais speaks to outsiders’ understandings of the region as isolated. He shows part of this colonial history through trade and encounters with non-Palauans. I positioned the painting in conversation with an early 19th century Chamoru ålas, or sea turtle breast pendant, to further highlight Micronesia. Turtle shell is a valued material in the Mariana Islands, and an ålas is part of a complex network of social relations, including the ultimate gift of reciprocity. Together, these pieces illuminate a void in many art museums’ collections, and provide an important opportunity for greater understanding of the complex stories emerging from Pacific Islands.
The last piece I discussed was D. Howard Hitchcock’s Rosebank, Lower Nuuanu Valley (1890). Hitchcock is known for his landscape paintings of Hawaiʻi. His romanticized depictions of the islands were used to draw in tourists to what he portrayed as islands void of people. Rosebank, Lower Nuuanu Valley (1890) remains in the vaults because of an addition of an impossibly tall flagstaff waving the Hawaiian Kingdom flag. There are accounts of people seeing the painting without the flag before HoMA acquired the gift. Perhaps the addition of the Hawaiian flag is meant to be a statement about the turbulent political era for the Hawaiian Kingdom during the 1890s. It is hard to pin down the specifics of this addition to the painting, however I am intrigued by the mystery behind it.
—Jesi Lujan Bennett, Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Hawaiʻi, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas
For the From the Vault presentation, I brought in several works from the collection that had not been on view recently due to several factors. Historically, female artists have been represented in museums significantly less frequently than their male counterparts. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, even though 51% of visual artists working today are women, only about 5% of artworks featured in major U.S. museums are made by women. Additionally, HoMA holds only one work by each of these artists, and all of the pieces incorporate a fragile media such as paper or fiber that cannot be on view and exposed to light for lengthy periods of time.
A photograph by Jan Groover (Untitled, 1989) and a drawing by Joan Brown (Models with Hats Thinking about Models without Hats, 1961) depict artists’ studios. Groover’s still life of bottles and statuettes references classical formal drawing studies, and is bathed in a reddish-golden light, comparable to the color of Conté crayon, a traditional drawing material. Brown’s drawing features female models in a studio setting. In the classical European academies of the 19th century, women artists were restricted from drawing the male nude model, a practice considered necessary for proper training in art. Here, Brown takes control of the scene by depicting her models from a female point of view.
Lastly, we discussed three handkerchiefs (Untitled Heirlooms, 1997-2000) by San Francisco-based artist Jeanne Friscia. Friscia’s fiber pieces from the late 1990s incorporate alternative materials such as homemade feminine hygiene supplies, to investigate themes of the body and sexuality. Using handkerchiefs passed down from her grandfather or found at thrift stores, the artist crocheted her own hair into the lacework sections. The resulting pieces retain a feeling of nostalgia, as well as emanate a disturbing undertone, as if the viewer has intruded into a private space. Look for Friscia’s works in the upcoming exhibition 21st Century Women, on view beginning June 8 in the Clare Boothe Luce Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art.
—Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art
From the Vault provided visitors with an opportunity to view some of the treasures we have stored in the museum. There are many factors that can alter our decision in choosing artwork to showcase which often dictates any narrative that speaks to each piece.
One such treasure sits patiently in storage, waiting for conservation before it can be put on view. The Sioux woman’s dress, adorned with 100 elk teeth, is carefully stabilized, covered with netting to secure the decorative elements. There are holes in the base cloth and missing red silk ribbons. In researching the background of these dresses made of wool cloth from England, commonly listed during the fur trade, we discovered the deliberate pieced construction of the garment. Wool was easier to maintain, yet the cut of the dress resembled the animal skin leather of the original dresses, with longer side panels. Another interesting feature was the incorporation of the undyed selvedge with a tie-dyed effect that was favored as a decorative border on the hem and edge of sleeves. Western dress would have hidden the selvedge in the seam, or cut it off.
These design choices are a reminder that preserving cultural identities from a historical perspective should not be a fixed placeholder within an ethnographic context, but rather part of a continuum of artistic liberties of evolving practices. Twenty-first century dresses are still made of the same Stroud wool cloth, but adorned with shells or plastic teeth, keeping this tradition alive. Looking back is also a reminder that we are all in a state of flux as we move forward.
—Sara Oka, Curator of Textiles