Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum: Pasifika Living Arts Festival

ACTA - Posted on 29 August 2011

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By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

Polynesian Samoan fire knifeThe first Pasifika Living Arts Festival was held on May 7-8, 2011 in Long Beach, hosted by the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum (PieAM) and supported by a grant from the Living Cultures Program. Planned as a yearly signature event, this occasion showcased art forms from delicate weavings and medicinal tinctures of the Marshall Islands, to the enormous Sakman canoe by the Chamoru builders of San Diego, recreated from old drawings; it will sail for Guam this year. Samoan fire knife champions demonstrated their agility and skill and taught eager attendees the fine art of using the stick as a potential martial arts weapon. Bone carving was demonstrated, and while power tools have replaced hand tools, the skill required to use shell and stone to create Polynesian motifs for adornment remain a learned and complex skill. Dance and song were enjoyed by the attendees. Notable performers were the Kuttaran Chamoru Foundation of Long Beach, which through lecture-demonstration presented the variety of dance and dress of the Chamoru, the indigenous people of Guam.  

Opened to the public in 2010, the hosting organization, PieAM, is the first of its kind in the world devoted solely to Pacific Islander arts and culture. It is a sister organization to the Ethnic Art Museum of Micronesia located in Yap, both of which were founded by Long Beach native, Dr. Robert Gumbiner, whose medical profession first brought him to Micronesia and whose collection of ethnic art serves as the foundation for the two museums. The mission of the museum is to incorporate the diverse cultures of the Pacific Islands, with a focus on Micronesia, into a vital resource for Pacific cultures, complete with a permanent collection, educational programs, rotating exhibits, and living arts. The museum will serve to showcase the diverse cultures from the Pacific who call this area home, including the Marshallese, Samoans, Chamoru, Fijian, Carolinian, Tongan, Hawaiian, the Ni-Vanuatu, Niuean, Tuvauluan, Maori, Papuan, Nauruan, Palauan, the I-Kiribati, and many more distinct nationalities. As current census figures attest to the fact that Pacific Islanders are the second largest population in the Los Angeles area, this museum adds to the representation of the cultural diversity of Southern California area and is a welcome addition to the cultural landscape.

The PieAM sits on a triangular piece of land in the middle of a confluence of three streets, appropriately situating the building and its lovely garden on its own urban island. The building is painted on three sides with a mural to look like a traditional men’s house on the island of Yap, one of the Federated States of Micronesia. The museum is carefully crafted to reflect the communal endeavors, participation and reliance on one another that broadly characterize the Pacific Islander community. This is seen in the community curatorial exhibit area and the traditional meeting house that prominently sits in the center of the museum–the entire design invites participation.  

Executive director, Brenna Barrett, a Yap national explains it this way: “Since a museum concept is not traditionally recognized in the Pacific Islands, the mission for the opening exhibitions were to bring the outside mural inside and to welcome the public to a traditional meeting house. It suggests that the meeting or gathering spot is also a way to view art.” She further points out the significance of the sculpture garden saying, “We did this by bringing a traditional Micronesian mural alive into the traditional village view of the actual garden. Everything that is found in the Sculpture Garden is either from the islands or can be found in the islands. This Sculpture Garden is so authentic that when pictures of it have been shown in the islands, the remarkable response has been, ‘Oh... isn't that just past the other village on the south part of the island?’"

Plans for a second Pasifika Living Arts Festival are underway for the spring of 2012. This tiny urban island of a museum much like the wide spread of islands in the vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean that it represents will be a place of discovery to return to again and again.

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Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum: Pasifika Living Arts Festival

1 PieAM: Tapwanu Idol

Tapwanu idols. Photo: K. Kugay

2 PieAm: Rai Stone Money

Director, Brenna Barrett, a native of Yap, Micronesia explains that items in the garden were donated by community members.  Photo: K. Kugay

3 PieAm: Products of Pandanus

A display of woven goods made from pandanus from the Marshall Islands.

Photo: K. Kugay

4 PieAm: Chamoru Boat

The Chamoru boat builders based in San Diego have built a replica from old drawings of the Sakman canoe which they plan to sail to Guam this year. Photo: K. Kugay

5 PieAm: Chamoru Dance

Chamoru women's dance performed by members of the Kuttaran Chamoru Foundation, Inc. Photo: K. Kugay

6 PieAm: Samoan Fire Knife

Samoan fire knife dancing employs skill, agility and grace. The fire element was added as a result of master Samoan practitioner, Letuli, found that he could get work in Hollywood by adding this element to his display. Photo: K. Kugay

7 PieAm: Fire Knife Dancer 2

Another skilled fire dancer with tradtional Samoan tatoos demonstrates his skill at the Pasifika Living Arts Festival. Photo: K. Kugay

8 PieAm: Chamoru Clothing

Chamoru elders once wore clothing like this before contact with the West's missionaries. Photo: K. Kugay

9 PieAM Building

The outside of the Pacific Islands Ethnic Arts Museum is painted to look like a traditional men's house of Yap, Micronesia. Photo: K. Kugay