Sunday, November 20, 2005

re: Phila. Art Museum...For almost 20 years now, in letters and in-person conversations and pleas, I have been trying to get the uncommunicative honchos, snooty and smug in the best Philadelphia tradition, to admit an irksome and insulting error in the naming of one of their Gauguin paintings. Gauguin wrote, in Tahitian, the title of his painting on the canvas itself: PARAHI TE MARAE, or, translated, simply: (He) Dwells On The Marae. (N.B. Celestine Hitiura Vaite, the first Tahitian woman novelist to write in English, notes that "parahi" has a connotation much like saying to a visitor/guest: don't go yet; sit down; stay awhile longer. It is said when the guest is readying/rising to leave and indicates a politeness, not a desire for the guest to remain indefinitely.) A Marae is a rectangular open-air temple upon which the ancient ceremonies of all kinds were held. The largest Marae in Polynesia is on the island of Raitaia, and is called Taputapuatea. It was from there that the prayers prior to many of the long voyages of discovery across the Pacific were performed. Smaller Marae dot almost all of the Polyneisan islands. In this painting, an oversize, almost surreal human or part-human figure resembling a Tiki is placed. A Tiki is a lower god, albeit a protective one, than the one over-riding God, Ta'aroa in Tahiti and her islands, Maki-Maki on Rapa Nui. The figure is seen inside of the Marae, sitting, clearly visible from a distance, so that anyone approaching can say: There Is The Marae even before the actual stone structure can be seen. For some inexplicable reason known only to the people in-charge of the Philadelphia Museum, the decision was made to rename the painting The Sacred Mountain, which nomenclature appears on a little gold plaque next to Gauguin's work. The point is that this is a clear insult not only to Paul Gauguin, but worse, to the Tahitian people, since it disregards their language which they have fought for over 150 years to preserve in the face of French occupation and administration and over 125 nuclear tests in the air and under the sea, now, fortunately, stopped, but not before incalculable damage. For the people of Polynesia, ALL mountains, indeed all land (Te Fenua) is sacred, so the retitling makes no sense at all. To rename the painting, and then, in the face of clear evidence that an error has been made, to continue to refuse to do anything at all about it, smacks of the worst kind of cultural imperialism. Although the Philadelphia Art Museum is certainly one of the most outstanding in the U.S., the condescending nose-in-air attitude of the bigwigs and fatcats who run the place, compounds their egregious error. Sad to say, it is typical of nasty, tweaking, phillistine Philadelphia at its worst, a sensibility which continues to dominate the power-structure of the arts of the city. The fact that no one seems to care, and I have spoken about this with many many people in Philadelphia, including a number of poets and writers and painters and professors over the years, makes mockery of any claim the city has to being a center of excellence. Given the fragile and unhappy situation of the world today, this grievance may seem of little consequence; however, despite the priceless holdings of the Art Museum, it is my firm belief the place should be under boycott due to the continuing insult to the people of Polynesia, and to their language and to the work of Gauguin, who was always on the side of the Tahitan and Marquesan people amongst whom he lived.

(February, 2008. The racist situation of cultural imperialist disdain remains in the Philadelphia Art Museum re: the Gauguin, although no one except myself really seems to care about this microcosm of disinformation. Ah well, never mind.....Of course, even I could not boycottt the place when Frida Kahlo, my favorite artist, is about to make an apperance there in the form of her works, beginning this month.)

N.B. MARCH 27, 2008

On my own still, travelling the 60 miles from Margate, New Jersey, to Philadelphia to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit (not as comprehensive as the London one a few years ago, but, obviously still worth the hassle of standing in lines to see), I notice that someone with more clout and influence than I has prevailed on the Museum to acknowledge, finally, the Tahitian language title of their Gauguin! They have removed the old plaque and replaced it with one noting PARAHI TE MARAE is the name of the painting - though they have, for some reason, on the same plaque continued to give it an English language title of "The Sacred Mountain". But at least they have acknowledged the existence of the true Tahitian title chosen by the artist, so the Phila. Art Museum is now off my personal hook.

N.B. #2, June 4th, 2008. Probably someone got through on this matter to Anne d'Harnoncourt, Museum Director, who died, unexpectedly, a few days ago, and whose loss is felt throughout the Philadelphia cultural community and further afield.

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