Sugar skulls, cannon balls and tiki mugs: ancestor worship weekend

Halloween may have come and gone but Los Angeles is still on holiday high alert. Families are preparing for their own versions of "Dia De Los Muertos" and many cemeteries have organized big celebrations around communing with ancestors.

LA Eastside blog posted an excellent round up of events happening this weekend: Self Help Graphics's annual celebration, Olvera Street observances, traditional strolling musicians abound at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello...

Even non-Chicano Angelenos are integrating the tradition into their lives. The Pasadena Museum of History hosts "A Walk Through Time: Shadows of Blue and Gray: California Stories of the Civil War" at the Mountain View Cemetery, 2400 Fair Oaks Avenue, Altadena. Saturday and Sunday, November 1 & 2, 2008
Performances each day at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm & 3:00 pm

Angelenos also have the opportunity to propitiate someone else's ancestors. Forest Lawn Glendale Museum's current exhibit, "In Search of Tiki," celebrating deities of both traditional and contemporary tiki culture, provides the perfect opportunity to indulge in the Polynesian form of ancestor worship.

I learned all of this at a special "Art of the Tiki" lecture held at the museum on October 12th. It was eerie to listen to co-curators, Douglas Nason and Jeff Fox, tell us about the cultures surviving in the "ring of fire" zone of the Pacific while fires raged in surrounding hills that weekend. We, Angelenos, can learn lots from cultures that used totemism to cope with volcanic eruptions, typhoons, venomous sea snakes, biting centipedes, brush fires, earthquakes, and tsunami. Perhaps we need to build more backyard shrines to stave off impending environmental disaster, as well.

Doug Nason, author and Oceanic art expert, explained that the term "tiki" refers to wood carvings representing gods or deified ancestors worshiped by indigenous cultures throughout the Pacific. He told me later that this show came about when another venue fell through and organizers quickly realized Forest Lawn Glendale would be a perfect fit since the museum's permanent collection included a large Easter Island sculpture (Maoi), nicknamed "Henry" by Forest Lawn museum staff. Don't forget to ask for the excellent, complimentary "Art of Tiki" catalog, which carefully explains the difference between "tiki" and "Tiki:" tiki is a widely used word to describe any human-like figure depicted in Oceanic art. While found in most Polynesian cultures, tiki in its purest sense is specific to the Marquesas Islands and New Zealand. "Tiki" translates as man, ancestor or god. Doug's catalog essay explains that "tiki is also a protector, a talisman, a sexual symbol or a totemic coat of arms."

The small but comprehensive exhibit offers visitors a survey of tiki art produced by indigenous cultures in different regions of the Pacific. Doug's lecture included a fascinating slide tour of indigenous tiki symbolism. He explained that Tiki Americana originated with WWII veterans of the Pacific Ocean theater who returned home with a greater appreciation for Hawaiian and Polynesian lifestyles, if not the most sophisticated understanding of indigenous cultures. James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (1948) and subsequent film adaptation unleashed the first wave of mass Tiki Americana, also called the 'Polynesian Pop" fad, as postwar consumers rushed to introduce the exotic into their lifestyle. I thought it was interesting how Polynesian Pop worked its way into our culture from the bottom up, rather than the top down. The working class, not elites, embraced the aesthetic and supported the emergent Polynesian merchandising industry in the 50s and 60s.

Co-curator, Jeff Fox, took over from Doug to explain how the mid-century lounge culture appropriated the tiki aesthetic in the '50s and '60s. He also related how Southern California took advantage of its proximity to the Pacific Islands by disseminating Tiki Americana globally, often via the surfing and hot rod subcultures thriving in the area.

Jeff and Doug showed how Tiki Americana contributed to the Southern California's light manufacturing industry. Small art production companies and importers sprang up in order to meet the demand. Indeed, one of the special guests of the event was LeRoy E. Schmaltz, one of the owners of Oceanic Arts, the seminal important, Tiki restaurant/prop design company. They outfitted most of the tiki-themed commercial enterprises in the US, including the original Adventureland concession at Disneyland. One cannot deny Disney's impact on the tiki subculture in the US. The exhibit is chock full of Disneyana, including original conceptual drawings for "The Enchanted Tiki Room" by noted Disney animator and conceptual designer, Marc Davis. His family even lent drawings and artifacts that Mr. Davis had collected during field trips to Papua New Guinea. Disney fans should take note that a show devoted to the art of Marc Davis will open at the Forest Lawn Glendale Museum Gallery on May 8, 2009.

The show also includes examples of contemporary tiki art by artists such as Shag, Linda Bark'karie, William Stout and Atomikitty.

At any rate, honor your ancestral deities by visiting the "Art of Tiki" exhibit this weekend and then go to the tiki-inflected Damon's Steak House on Brand in Glendale for some rum-based drinks. You even get an extra hour to relax since Daylight Savings Time ends on Sunday, too.

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