San Francisco's De Young Museum, and the lie of Irian Jaya

gumballsIn September, I spent a morning at De Young museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was excited to go. I like modern painting, and de Young has collections of surrealist and social realist painting; impressionist, and pop art works. The city’s Museum of Modern Art gave me a new appreciation for Wayne Thiebauld too, and De Young has works of his, including one showing three adjacent gumball machines. Thiebauld’s manipulation of colour to make shape and shadow: radiant greens, orange against sky blue – is hypnotic.

trompe-loeilSo too is de Young’s collection of trompe l’oeil paintings. They depict assemblages of notes and papers; household paraphernalia you might find hung from or pinned to the wall. These works pretend that they aren’t paintings at all; deceiving the eye to awe, and indeed, hypnotise the viewer. Perhaps to trick her into trying to untack a leaflet to look at, or even into doubting her own perceptions of reality. Trompe l’oeil works are conscious of their own artifice, and play with the notion of the masterful, manipulative construction of artifice as real. A trompe l’oeil painting would not deceive in every context, though: it requires a fitting one. So the works also make comment on how culture contributes to shaping and shifting perception.

Near to the trompe l’oeil room is another gallery of white settler paintings of the nineteenth century American landscape. These are vast, arched with heavenly rainbows, and unpopulated – except for maybe a humble, wandering cattle herder. Despite what it seems, these paintings serve less to celebrate the monumentality of the landscape, I think, and more the power of man that conquers it. That man with his cattle may be small – but his destiny, immeasurable.


There are thick silences in these rooms, realities the eye is tricked away from glimpsing. The fact that “this nation’s history,” as Andrea Dworkin puts it, “is one of spilled blood”: this is a silence.

Everything that has grown here has grown in fields irrigated by the blood of whole peoples. This is a nation built on the human carrion of the Indian natioa330078ns. This is a nation built on slave labour, slaughter, and grief. This is a racist nation, a sexist nation, a murderous nation. This is a nation pathologically seized by the will to domination.

Perhaps something these two rooms exemplify – the trompe l’oeil and the Hudson River School paintings – is how the gaze itself is colonised. In her essay The Root Cause, Andrea Dworkin reflects on this, by distinguishing between absolute truth and constructed reality.

Now, I want to make a crucial distinction – the distinction between truth and reality. For humans, reality is social; reality is whatever people at a given time believe it to be. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that reality is either whimsical or accidental. In my view, reality is always a function of politics in general… it serves the powerful by fortifying and justifying their right to domination over the powerless. Reality is whatever premises social and cultural institutions are built on… Reality is enforced by those whom it serves so that it appears to be self-evident. Reality is self-perpetuating, in that the cultural and social institutions built on its premises also embody and enforce those premises. Literature, religion, psychology, education, medicine, the science of biology as currently understood, the social sciences, the nuclear family, the nation-state, police, armies, and civil law – all embody the given reality and enforce it on us.

…Truth, on the other hand, is not nearly so accessible as reality. In my view, truth is absolute in that it does exist and it can be found. Radium, for instance, always existed; it was always true that radium existed; but radium did not figure in the human notion of reality until Marie and Pierre Curie isolated it. When they did, the human notion of reality had to change in fundamental ways to accommodate the truth of radium. Similarly, the earth was always a sphere; this was always true; but until Columbus sailed west to find the East, it was not real. We might say that truth does exist, and that it is the human project to find it so that reality can be based on it.

floor-mapSo, what about the museum itself? These grand displays of triumph and mastery, and claims to authority, that have people queuing up daily for tickets. Presumably it too, delivers an artifice, a constructed and compromised “reality ” rather than the truth.

One unique aspect of De Young museum, on the Pacific coast in San Francisco, is its impressive collection of work from New Guinea. The donors of these art collections are celebrated on the walls in large print; the work configured in such a way as to make a claim about the reality of New Guinea, one that surely befits the institution and its beneficiaries.

I always find these “ethnographic” displays chilling. They are much different from Western art displays. The work is more curiosity than art, and at the same time more functional than meaningful. The rooms are drier, more dimly lit, and the walls often darker in these twilight zones between human and natural history. Everything is stolen. I feel like a voyeur, as if I am perusing pages torn from a journal the author has not given me permission to read and a thief reveals to me for his own purposes. It’s a similar feeling to wandering a red light district: whoever has given me permission to watch, stare and assess is not the person I need it from. I feel as though I don’t quite know where to look.

Marcia and John, everyone

So I tend to look at the curator. What are you doing with these treasures, who gave you the right to advertise them as your own, and to what purpose are you putting them, even though they are not yours?

What struck me in this show of New Guinea work most of all, were the works from West Papua – or Irian Jaya, as the wall texts add in brackets. There are several West Papua works here, including two large shields; much of the work was “gifted” in 2005 by Marcia and John Friede, who are celebrated in large font on the walls, as collector philanthropists, and as though they gave birth to the collection from their own bodies.

Irian Jaya is the name that locates West Papua in Indonesia. Indigenous West Papuans – the artists who made many of the treasures here – reject that name as an illegitimate fabrication. The illegal Indonesian occupation of West Papua has killed over half a million indigenous Melanesians since 1969, and through sponsored migrations to boot has reduced that population from around 100% to closer to 30%. The struggle to free West Papua was brought to my attention first at home in New Zealand, though Tere Harrison, Pala Molisa, and other Māori and Pacific activists contributing to the struggle at home.

That made aspects of this exhibition land like a punch in the gut – like the placement of a full size vitrine of taonga Māori (it holds a Ngati Porou pare, attributed to Hone Ngatoto; three Te Arawa tekoteko, a Ngati Porou taurapa and tauihu and a poupou by Raharuhi Rukupo). The vitrine is in front of a hexagonal seat. If I sit on the seat facing into the gallery, the vitrine is to my left, and my line of sight falls directly ahead to the bright lit backside and testicles of an Indonesian dragon carved from stone. That backside points itself at the Māori art collection; art belonging to a people engaged in a struggle against the illegal Indonesian occupation of a Pacific nation.

The cabinet of Maori taonga, and hexagonal seat facing an Indonesian stone dragon’s backside.

Looking to the left of the dragon backside, I see another raised cabinet, with a bark fiber painting from West Papua; it’s in front of another West Papuan standing figure. Looking at the bark fibre piece, it is easy to see why it has been placed at the border of the New Guinea and Indonesian collections. The piece is reminiscent of Batik, Indonesian cloth painting – so it makes the art of Papua, and particularly West Papua, appear to blend seamlessly into that of Indonesia. The text accompanying it articulates as much. Yet compare the bark fibre painting with the standing figure, and you can see how strategic the stylistic comparison really is: anyone respectful of West Papuan sovereignty would not work to make it.

As Benny Wenda, the leader of the international movement to Free West Papua, states, “We West Papuans are Melanesian not Indonesian… we have a right to be free and reunite with our Melanesian family.”

The taonga Māori cabinet, given its place on the border between the Papuan and Indonesian work, seems to endorse this seamless merging: West Papua, Indonesia.

In trompe l’oeil paintings, at the very least, we see the frame around the artifice, that lifts it from the wall. We don’t see the frame so easily around an exhibition itself, though we know it does not end at the walls of a room, or the exterior architecture. An exhibition is shaped by conditions set by corporate and government funding bodies – as Dworkin suggests, the framing is in the politics, the agenda, in the reality an exhibition constructs. Don’t these shape our school education, culture and media, and our own perception? “We are living imprisoned inside a pernicious delusion,” as Dworkin  says, “a delusion on which all reality as we know it is predicated.”

De Young Museum’s exhibitions are built to promote and market U.S. imperialism. In this context, the questions presented by trompe l’oeil paintings are of formal, and not of human or social interest. With the monumental silences of white settler landscape paintings left in tact, curators can continue into new frontiers. The U.S. supports  Indonesia’s illegal occupation of West Papua in part because Freeport, a U.S. owned-company, owns the world’s biggest goldmine there. So on a foundation of silence over spilled blood, de Young promotes the imperialist myth of “Irian Jaya”, carefully designing a narrative supporting the “Asian” history of this fabricated place.

The truth is, there is no Irian Jaya. There is West Papua, and West Papua is Melanesian. That is the freedom struggle; and that is the truth – the truth from which our reality, as Dworkin would say, should be built.

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