A Marshallese sailor stood in his outrigger and wondered, “Which way will the ocean currents take me?” “How can I get to Namu Atoll?” “The wind is blowing out of the west, so where will the biggest swells be?”
Actually, our imagined seasoned sailor already knew all the answers, because he had woven one of these “navigation stick charts.”
(That’s what the anthropologists call them. The sailors call them rebbelibs, medos and mattangs, depending on their precise function. These are over 100 years old. These days of course the sailors use GPS.)
With the straight “sticks” (really coconut fiber) the weaver marked the known ocean currents; those will bring consistent, predictable waves. The curved lines indicate ocean swells, sometimes called “wind waves.” These are less predictable, and their strength and direction can change with the weather.
And the little cowrie shells? Those are the Marshall Islands. If you are sailing amid 29 coral atolls and over 1100 individual islands, it’s good to have a map to help you find your way home.
I saw these two last week at the new Berkeley Art Museum, part of an inaugural exhibit called “The Architecture of Things.” With works by the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and Buckminster Fuller, the exhibit “considers architecture as a potent model for our capacity to reimagine and shape the world around us.”
As these sailors imagined the sea with fiber and shell.
Would I have known what they were if I hadn’t looked at the label? They could have been Cubist art or contemporary minimalism.
And what was my reaction when I saw they were originally from the Anthropology Museum? In what circumstances were they removed from the Islands and brought here? The label is a little condescending, describing how “ the beautiful geometric forms enabled the adept navigators to make their way across the inconceivable vastness of the sea.” Such clever primitive folks, so artistic!
I couldn’t help but think of the Islands’ sad history at Western hands; colonization, relentless nuclear testing in the 50’s and now the dubious distinction of being ground zero for climate change-induced ocean level rising. Their home is drowning. No map will guide them home.
So the art map, the map art, did what art is supposed to do. It made me pause, wonder, admire, weep, cringe, research, write, think, regret, admire some more, ponder, share. Pretty good job by the new museum.
(I post all these Wednesday “Blue Theology Tide-ings” reflections here and on Facebook. I am wondering about publishing them somehow…ideas?)