When I heard that the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) had an upcoming exhibition showcasing the cultural relationships between California and the Pacific Islands, I was cautiously excited. As a life-long resident of California with a Hawaii-born mother and an extended network of aunties, uncles and cousins strewn across the Pacific Ocean, this exhibition struck close to home. The idea of the Pacific “on display” made me anxious. Were Pacific Islander communities involved in putting together the exhibition? Would it do them justice? Throughout Western history, colonialist countries have used cultural institutions like museums to showcase their occupied territories to the general public. These practices boiled down the cultures of colonized people to simplistic, stereotypical representations serving to justify violence and exploitation. While I did not expect my wildest colonialist nightmares to come true at OMCA, this long legacy of misrepresentation was not far from my mind.
A few days after the exhibition opened, I visited OMCA with a friend. We entered the exhibition and moved through a darkened foyer. Two projections lit the walls on each side. One shows an expanse of ocean, swelling and receding peacefully under the bright light of day. The second projection is a time-lapse of the sky, clouds shifting and forming rapidly. For me, these images conjured the familiar smell of salt water in the breeze and the sound of crashing waves on the shore. Photographs and stories of Bay Area residents with roots across the Pacific populated the central exhibit space. As I read them, my anxiety began to fall away.
Pacific Worlds is a compelling exhibition that honors the many cultural histories of the Pacific Islands and California. “Pacific Worlds is a kāhea (a calling) to the peoples of the Pacific to remind us of the importance of our collective voice and kuleana (responsibility) to our Pacific heritage,” Carolyn Melenani Kuali’i, a community member and advisor said in a statement. “Having the songs and stories told by us will be a celebration of our place in the larger content of this world and will provide an opportunity for others to awaken to a deeper understanding of who we are.”
The exhibition marks the centennial of the 1915 World’s Fair, or the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), that took place in San Francisco. An Oakland dentist named Dr. John Rabe traveled the Pacific at the end of the 19th century collecting much of the “artifacts” in OMCA’s collection. At the world’s fair, overdone stereotypes and caricatures of Pacific Islander people were prominent, enacting the same harm and misrepresentation I first feared. Would the remembrance of PPIE erase or work against the words that the rest of the exhibition highlighted?
In contrast, the main thrust of Pacific Worlds is to counteract these histories, proving that for every instance of exploitation and cultural pigeonholing, Pacific Islanders have risen up to make their stories known.
The exhibition subverts the traditional role of museum as ultimate authority, instead acting as a platform for Pacific Islander Californians to tell their stories in their own way. Museum curators worked alongside a Community Advisory Task Force (of which Kuali’i is part) comprised of Pacific Islander community members living in the Bay Area. OMCA also invites visitors to contribute to the exhibition through interactive writing and art prompts.
I visited Pacific Worlds for a second time with Kuali’i and Suzanne Fischer, OMCA’s associate curator of contemporary history and trends. As we moved through the show, each shared the challenges and triumphs of working to create a cohesive final product that respectfully celebrates the ongoing connection of the West coast to the Islands.
An important point for curators and the Task Force was ensuring the show fit the needs and desires of a varied and growing community. According to the 2010 U.S. Census 286,145 Pacific Islanders live in California. The exhibition spotlights the cultures of Tonga, Samoa, Hawai’i, Guam, Fiji, Maori, Palau, the Caroline Islands and the Philippines. Interview excerpts accompany full-size photographs from people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These portraits act as windows in to personal memory and bring to life to each unique cultural history.
Kuali’i reminds me that though history is important, “culture is not stagnant.” One of the greatest achievements of this exhibition is the discussion of traditional practices as they are realized by Pacific Islanders today. For some Pacific Islander cultures, kava root is traditionally made by women and consumed by men. A group of young Bay Area Tongan women are shown making and consuming kava together, subverting traditional bounded gender lines of the practice. Kuali’i explains that this is both an important indication of shifting culture, and a spark for a deeper conversation about respecting history and modifying tradition.
Pacific Worlds chronicles the evolution of other cultural practices like surfing, dance, tattooing and fiber arts. OMCA’s collection of historical artifacts is set side-by-side with contemporary interviews and quotes from Pacific Islanders. Themes of immigration and cultural pride weave a wider tapestry that chronicles the diaspora and the evolution of cultures that take root in new places.
Dispersed across the exhibition are quotes about colonialism’s continued impact for Pacific Islanders in California and on the islands. “We have been taught that we are not Chamoru… they’re all dead—and that we are Americans… The U.S. methodically set out to destroy our culture, our language, our history,” activist and Senator Angel L.G. Santos said in 1991. This quote sits above a section on Pacific Islander warrior history and contemporary militarization. Along with discussions of environmental degradation and the literal killing of native people, Pacific Worlds promotes dialogue about history’s often-dire echo across the diaspora today.
In spite of history’s atrocities, Bay Area Pacific Islanders highlight the power of their traditions through space, time, and many miles of ocean. Through their narratives I am now better able to understand how I can honor and respect Pacific Islander communities as a community organizer and scholar. In particular, I look to indigenous-led conversations about movements for cultural and political sovereignty. I also hold a personal interest in being critical of my own privileges as a non-native Asian American with ties to the Hawaiian Islands. For me, this means talking about the ways my Korean immigrant ancestors, alongside many other East Asian communities, benefit(ed) from the ongoing colonial oppression of Native Hawaiians when they first arrived on Oahu’s shores.
It also means reconsidering the terms Asian Pacific Islander/ Asian Pacific American (API/APA). While it is meant to encompass American communities who trace their ethnic identity or heritage to countries all over South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, parts of the Middle East, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia we all hold varying experiences. Though many of us share the Pacific Ocean, we do not share the same histories of western imperialism and colonization, and have differing experiences as communities in the United States. Pacific Islander communities in the U.S., for example, face higher rates of criminalization than their East Asian American counterparts. As Scot Nakagawa, senior partner of ChangeLab, says in his 2013 article The P.I. In the A.P.I, “When we reduce the complex experiences of diverse people to a single, totalizing, story we too often fail to see how our diverse stories intersect.”
I am excited about the conversations Pacific Worlds has been, and will continue to spark. I also hope to see OMCA carry on its clear commitment to letting collective, community voices lead their work.
Pacific Worlds is on view until January 3, 2016 in OMCA’s Great Hall.