Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview: Vibrant show of Pacific Rim work
at University of San Francisco
by Peter Menkin

Your gallery in San Francisco at the Jesuit oriented University of San Francisco has such a wonderful show going on about Pacific Rim History involving Religious art from various parts of that area brought to California. Will you tell us how a school gallery was able to gather such a small, but impressive gallery of works that tell about the movement of various influences in the Catholic art that is displayed, and let us know when the gallery show ends?

The show closes on the December 17. The Gallery has generous hours and is open until midnight Sunday through Thursday, until 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The library is open, and students study until late hours. That’s part of the advantage of being in the library, we get wider usage.

I visited all 21 of the California Missions and talk to the Curators. Everyone knows something, and everyone knows someone else. I was able to take a trip to Asia. I went to Macau and the Philippines. There I was able to do work with Museums in Manila and Macau. There was another Jesuit who was affiliated with the Jesuit University in Tokyo, and he arranged for the rare books and other artifacts. The name of Sophi is the name of the University in Tokyo. In all, we borrowed from 30 different lenders.

On an average day 700 students track through the space. It has been very well attended by people outside the University.

In your own work as Curator and teacher, will you give us an idea of the special influence of the various regions with an emphasis on which region was really the most influential, as evidenced by the work you have on display?

I think the most interesting piece for me was the central position of the Philippines in Trans Pacific Trade. Philippines was the emporium of Asia (we’re talking about 1565 until 1815). There is no one interesting piece, it’s the collection of pieces from all Asia from India, from China, from the Philippines that brought the Pacific in this 250 year period, ending up in Mexico. Then many pieces came north to the Missions in California.

I would hope they would be interested in Europe, because this is the first globalization of culture. The Spanish empire extended from Madrid to Manila. And the trade in artifacts as well as books points to vivid curiosity and intellectual engagement across the Pacific. This was trade for the sake of trade. The importation of primarily luxury goods into the European and American market from across the Asian Pacific.

The buyers were the Spanish population of Mexico and much of the trade was Europeans both in the new world, and much of the trade material returned to Europe as well. The money to do the trade was the silver mines in Mexico and Bolivia and Peru.

How would you characterize the work? In other words, when I visited with you at the gallery and we talked, you told me that the work in many cases came from aboard ships and some from specific places of the Pacific Rim nations. Please find a moment to give us a perspective on these works that helps readers define the vision involved in the choices, but mostly in the religious attitudes represented by the works?

I would characterize the work in this exhibit as mostly religious, although there are examples of luxury goods that were for common. The pieces that you see that we can trace were pieces that were traded for Spanish silver. None is the personal devotional life of the sailors, for use in homes, Churches and Monasteries and the like. The image of the Chinese Madonna was based on both European models of the Immaculate Conception and shows the influence of the Mexican influence of the lady of Guadalupe that ended up in a private home that came from China.

Looking at the case containing rare manuscripts: Father Tom (Thomas Lucas S.J., PhD, USF's first University Professor of Art and Architecture and director of the Thacher Gallery), Peter Menkin, writer (on right).

These are all works of the Catholic Counter Reformation, and are mostly in the Spanish baroque style with significant influences of Asian art. For example, Chinese porcelain in the Ming style (blue and white), decorated with Christian images and emblems. It’s not a question of purity; it’s a question of making hybrids. And it is precisely the hybrid nature of the art that makes it so interesting and intriguing.

My friend who is an architect and photographer took pictures while we visited with you, and I noted that some beautiful books were part of the collection. As well, Terry Peck, my friend commented that this was in contemporary parlance a look at globalization in its time. Would you concur with his statement about globalization and compare or contrast it with the present notion of globalization by Americans.

The intellectual curiosity of the Missionaries (Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans) is clearly seen in the variety of books that include grammars, dictionaries, ethnographic and cartographic works as well as theological tomes. Europe was eager to learn about the cultures of Asia and the Americas, and these works, some of which are elegantly illustrated with engravings were immensely popular among educated readers in Europe and the New World.

It’s not either or but both And. The globalization of culture now isn’t just McDonalds. It includes modern technology, the sharing of philosophies and world views that transcend national lines. My point here is that globalization is not just about commerce—as important as that is—but also about the free exchange of ideas.

You know Reverend Doctor Tom, the British had an empire. In your own study, do you think there was something comparable in a larger way with their sense of world travels in a similar time, and did denominations of the Christian persuasion influence work in other places or regions of the world in a similar manner as the Pacific Rim’s development?

The difference between the Spanish colonial strategy and that of Britain and Holland is that the Spaniards used the Church, and the diffusion of Catholic belief as part of their imperial strategy. The goal, albeit a paternalistic one, was too eventually to make of the native people Christian citizens of the realm, farmers and village merchants who were part of the body politic in general, the British and Dutch colonizers never sought the integration of the native peoples in their cultures. And this I think is one of the major differences between the Catholic and Protestant approaches.

Is there anything you would like to add about the gallery display and art that I haven’t asked, or a statement you want to make as a closing comment?

The message of the exhibit is that cross cultural dialogue is not a contemporary novelty, but rather has existed in a greater or lesser form over the centuries.

Images: Photos by Terry Peck, though first photograph on page is courtesy University of San Francisco.

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