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DAWN OF THE AMAZON : New Bowers Exhibit Sheds a Little Light on Lesser Known Treasures of the Rain Forest

August 26, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

We watch fascinating footage of jaguars, fantastically plumed birds and insects of untold variety on nature shows. The print media inundate us with figures concerning the rate at which their teeming, canopied home is shrinking. Yet the human beings that occupy the same lands are mentioned only occasionally at best--and the art they produce, almost never.

Until now.

"Everybody talks about the rain forest," said Adam Mekler, who owns most of the items that make up "Colors of the Dawn/Invisible People: Arts of the Amazon," opening Friday at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana. "But I can't tell you how many times I come across people--college professors, doctors and lawyers--who are not even aware that there are people in the rain forest. And why not just call them people? The 'noble savage'? Why do they call them savage?"

Mekler, reached by phone at his home in Los Angeles, was on a very impassioned roll.

He continued by noting that while hundreds of African, Native American and pre-Columbian art shows have been mounted in the United States and Europe, less than a handful of Amazonian shows of any kind have been staged--and a previous exhibition of Mekler's collection, at the Fresno Art Museum last year, counts for one of them.

"For some reason, the Amazonian people--I don't like to call them tribes--are the last people on Earth Western people try to understand," Mekler said.

"They send anthropologists, but even most anthropologists are uninterested in these objects. You find 400 pages about the tribes and not one photograph of an object.

"What makes human beings different from other beings are the objects they create. When no attention is paid to their objects, the Amazonians are being ignored as people. How they're presented when they are presented to the world is also disturbing. The titles of books all use words that dehumanize, that depict them as something other than human beings."

Mekler believes this reflects the way the Amazonian culture is treated.

"The white man treated blacks and North American Indians like that," he said. "But they still treat the Amazonians like that today . The Amazonians know more about nature than all of us put together, yet they are continually exploited, are thrown off their ancestral lands, and have no voice at all in matters that concern their existence."

Reports indicate that 73 Yanomami Indians, including three pregnant women, were massacred by wildcat gold miners just last week; almost half the victims were children, at least 10 of whom had been beheaded with machetes. Miners had killed five Yanomami the week before.

*

The Fresno show displayed hammocks, cooking utensils, blowguns and even a shrunken head, objects more commonly associated with an ethnographic display.

When Bowers curator Paul Apodaca initially set about to mount a show concentrating specifically on the art of the Amazonian people--for no other reason than that he felt it was a show that needed to be done--he serendipitously became aware of the Fresno show. Mekler subsequently visited Bowers and was, in his own words, "overjoyed" by Apodaca's proposed non-anthropological focus. He offered additional objects from his home not previously seen. Apodaca also learned of artifacts that had been brought back from the Xingu River tribes of Brazil in the 1960s by the late Saddleback College trustee and ethnographer, John Marshall, and arranged for their donation to the museum; those items round out the exhibition.

Among the more than 150 items to be displayed at Bowers are brilliantly feathered headdresses and masks, ceremonial body costumes, luminous jewelry made from beetle wings, carved wooden benches, and sculptures depicting hunting and birthing scenes. A ceremonial tunic featuring a toucan head and wings on front and back is reputed to have been owned by President Grover Cleveland.

The oldest item in "Colors of the Dawn" dates to 1910, the most recent is from the 1980s. Though mindful of the need for contextual information, Apodaca tried as much as possible to concentrate on the objects' value as works of art.

"My labels will provide a poetic narrative to transmit some of that information," Apodaca explained. "I'm not going to set you adrift in the room. But I also don't want that information to interfere with your ability to look at the art as beautiful, to be struck by the care and the work that's in it."

"Colors of the Dawn" includes artworks made by 37 of the more than 60 Amazonian tribes that reside in the rain forests of South America, tribes with such names as Waiwai, Kayapo Kuben Kran Krein, and Txikao. The Amazon basin occupies an area larger than the United States, yet has a population two-thirds that of Santa Ana.

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