A powerful look at ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’ artworks

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The “Power of Images” exhibition at the National Art Centre Tokyo is nothing less than an assault on the senses — a barrage of exotic and vivid anthropological oddities from the collection of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka.

Garish, fantastic, ghoulish and comical masks adorn the walls, grinning and leering, with horns sticking out or eyes popping. Outlandish over-decorated costumes stand as if to pour scorn on your own conservative sartorial choices. Weird, psychedelic shrines invite you to laugh at them and then make you feel slightly sad for not having such a transcendent and vivacious faith.

Then, soaring toward the museum’s high ceiling, ornately carved totem poles point to the heavens and inspire a sense of awe. And there are the brilliant colors — in the aboriginal paintings, Tibetan sand mandalas or idols — applied as if they were potent essences rather than mere decorative touches.

It is possible to go to this show and abandon yourself to it. The appeal that these works have stems partly from a patronizing curiosity about “the exotic” and “primitive,” but it is also based on a resonance with our own primordial senses — an atavistic urge to be what we once were before logic, time, materialism and so on, fitted us like so many cogs into modernity’s machine.

Due to this nebulous sense of unease and our frustrated sense of the primordial, there is a tendency to view the most eye-catching cultures represented here — tribal Africa and Papua New Guinea, indigenous Australians and native Americans — through rose-colored spectacles, rather in the manner of Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” or Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond’s rather utopian views of Samoa and New Guinea. But there is also a sense of horror and brutality to many of these items.

This is something that particularly struck Tamotsu Aoki, the director general of NACT and a member of the organizing committee. He was particularly impressed by an ethnological exhibition he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The forms expressed a harsh view of the world, nature and human beings without compromise or hesitation,” Aoki writes in the exhibition catalog. “They showed no trace of sentimentality toward human beings or the world. As I observed these works, my whole body felt weak and helpless. I had the clear impression that they were looking at me rather than the other way round.”

It is telling that the exhibition Aoki saw was “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision in Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” The Rockefeller name may perhaps remind some readers of the tragic fate of Michael Rockefeller, publicized in the recent book “Savage Harvest” by Carl Hoffman. Reviewing the evidence, the author concluded that Rockefeller, the son of Nelson Rockefeller, had been slaughtered then ritually butchered and cannibalized by Papua New Guinean Asmat tribesmen after falling into their hands when his catamaran overturned off the coast of southwestern New Guinea in 1961.

Yes, much of what is on display here is not simply bric-a-brac that shows the “rich cultural diversity” of our world, but something a lot darker and potent, whether it is the Yaka mask from the Congo, with goggle eyes and luxuriant straw hair, worn by pubescent boys following what must be a painful circumcision ritual in the forest or the ornately carved hardwood mask worn in the Cameroonian highlands by members of the Kwifo (“Night”) Society when enforcing accusations made by sorcerers against unpopular members of the community.

But power has more mystical forms as well. Some of the items, such as a tiger mask from Southern Mexico, are used in fertility rituals to ensure good crops; others, like a garment from Mali sewn with mirrors, serves to protect the hunter from the spirits of hunted animals.

When you encounter items like this, it seems that the exhibition’s title is the wrong way round. Rather than the “power of images,” what we have here are “images of power.” But this, of course, is one of the reasons and justifications for ethnological museums — to defuse this power, first by removing the objects from their contexts, and then framing them in taxonomical categories as mere subjects of a globalized Western science of anthropology.

The exhibition facilitates this ethnological approach: firstly, with the large, antiseptic “white cube” spaces of the museum, then by throwing the items together according to the favored thematic categories. These themes are interesting and there are also some striking juxtapositions, but with a large number of items — almost 200 — this results in the items seeming somehow uprooted from their original specific cultures. The informative bilingual catalog, however, gives you enough information to recontextualize the items and visualize them serving their original purposes in the communities that created them.

“Power of Images” at the National Art Centre Tokyo runs till June 9; ¥1,000; Open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (8 p.m. Fri.) Closed Tue.; www.nact.jp/english