Saturday, February 22, 2020

Appreciating Balinese Wood Carvings

During my first of eight visits to Indonesia in 1968, my scholarship money provided sufficient funds to plan a short trip to the Island of Bali.  While there I was introduced to Balinese wood carvings and over the ensuing twelve years and five later trips to Indonesia, began to collect pieces that now adorn our home.

My first acquisition was a statue of the Ganesha, the elephant god of the Hindu pantheon.  (The Balinese are largely Hindus.)  Although many he has many attributes in legend, he is best known because of his elephant head.  He is worshiped as a symbol of intellect and wisdom, of art and science, and letters and learning.  Shown here, my Ganesha statue is an outstanding piece of Balinese wood sculpture.  It is meticulous carved completely by hand on a dark hardwood. 

I came to own it almost by accident.  In 1969 I had wandered down the beach from my Denpasar hotel when approached by a young man wearing shorts and a torn shirt.  He offered me this marvelous statue in exchange for my shirt — truly a bargain for so impressive a piece.   Because I had packed lightly for the side trip to Bali and had no spare, I gave him as much money as I had in my pocket and went to find a shirt I could give him.  Later on that visit I was taken by acquaintances to see one of the carving studios in the hinterlands.   Amidst the carvers at their work, I accused the owner using electric saws to shape the pieces initially.  “Look around,” he retorted. “We have no electricity.”

On a subsequent trip I decided to add to add other Hindu gods by buying Balinese carvings in shops on Java.  In one recommended store, I found two such statutes.  One is of Hanuman, the central characters in the epic story of the Ramayana and frequently portrayed in celebrations in Bali. The Ramayana presents them as humans with reference to their speech, clothing, habitations, funerals, consecrations etc. It also describes their monkey-like characteristics such as their leaping, hair, fur and a tail.  Because Hanuman often is shown with a white face, he is sometimes called “the white monkey.”  My statute shows him struggling with a “naga” or snake, possibly a sea serpent,  likely as he is on the ocean with an army from India to Sri Lanka to rescue the Ramayana heroine, Sita.

The other is a statue of the Garuda, a being who the wings, head, beak and talons of an eagle or vulture. He may be part human being.  Part of his role is as the enemy of all snakes that are symbolic of death and the underworld. In contrast, Garuda represents birth and heaven; in addition he is associated with the sun and fire.  The Indonsian airline is named for Garuda.  The statues, bought about the same time in the early 1970s, represent continued good work of the Balinese artisans, although the wood from which they are carved is not as heavy.

Those artisans were not above making statues aimed at the tourist trade — and I was not immune from buying one about 1970.  It is of a Balinese woman who is entirely nude.  While the women of the island frequently go topless.  they are well covered below the waist.  This statue with its skinny arms and oversized head clearly was meant for the libidinous male visitor.  Note, however, the attractive multi-coloration of the wood.

I also have two smaller carvings that fit well in a bookcase.
My earlier purchase was of the old man carrying bundles of sticks.  I was attracted to it by its depiction of common life.  One often saw similar individuals, skinny and aged, trudging the dusty roads of Indonesia with heavy cargo.  

  I had spent a great deal of time browsing a shop about 1980, sadly noting a decline in workmanship, when I came upon a truly expertly carved piece and took it to inquire about price.  “You have chosen the most expensive item in the shop. The famous carver who made this has died and there will be no more,” the proprietor said, quoting me a price considerably beyond my means.  While proud of my connoisseurship, I settled on the smaller, less expensive piece shown here, of a family of three pipers.

My last purchase of a Balinese carving was a statue of two bulls locked in battle.  It was an unusual piece, one I had never seen before.  It also fit well into a niche in our home that needed something of interest to liven an area.  

While I have not returned to Indonesia for some 32 years, I am told that the quality of Balinese carving has continued to deteriorate.  Older pieces, however, are regularly seen on auction sites like eBay.  For those interested in collecting, the 1988 book, “Woodcarvings of Bali” by Fred and Margaret Eiseman is highly informative.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

Native Americans Selling Whiskey II

Forward:   The official Government view about selling liquor to Native Americans was expressed in an 1833 report by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to Congress:   “The proneness of the Indian to the excessive use of ardent spirits with the too great facility of indulging that fatal propensity through the cupidity of our own citizens, not only impedes the progress of civilization, but tends inevitably to the degradation, misery, and extinction of the aboriginal race.”  Given that warning and federal laws against selling booze to indigenous peoples, it is startling to realize how many distillers and liquor dealers used Indian images on their whiskeys.  This post, my second on this subject, documents nine more.

The first example is a label from Calumet, Michigan, showing a comely maiden in  a headdress advertising “Copper Queen Whiskey,” a blend.  It was produced by Nariso Bianchi, an italian-born 1897 immigrant to the U.S.  About 1904 Bianchi, with a partner, opened a saloon and liquor store.  Although he was a “rectifier” not a distiller, that is, blending whiskeys for color, taste and smoothness, he did his own bottling and labels, advertising Copper Queen Whiskey as proprietary.

By coincidence Calumet at the time was named “Red Jacket,” the same name and personage as the next whiskey.  Red Jacket was a Seneca chief who had fought on the side of the British in the American Revolution and was named for having worn the British red coats.  His real name was Sagoyewatha (He Keeps Them Awake), and was adamant against the white man, his ways and especially the Christian religion.  Nevertheless, Buffalo distiller Thomas Clark named his facility and whiskey after him.  Red Jacket is shown here wearing a medal later bestowed on him by George Washington, a reward for abandoning the warpath.

Meanwhile, in Chicago a young Bennett Pieters was profiting greatly from selling a highly alcoholic Red Jacket Stomach Bitters.  By wrapping his remedy in an Indian motif, Pieters was tapping into the rampant myth of the times that Native Americans possessed special knowledge of medicines.  For a time it made him rich, until several fraudulent schemes and his own alcoholism led to his downfall.  Abandoning his family, Pieters joined the U.S. Cavalry in 1871, went West, and became an Indian fighter. 

Searching for an image to illustrate his “Old Redskin” blended whiskey, Thomas A. Brownrig of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, chose a scowling chief with a downturned mouth, carrying a hatchet.  American Indians of the Abenaki and other Algonquian languages-speaking nations had inhabited that part of coastal New Hampshire for thousands of years before European contact.  Brownrig advertised widely in local media  calling himself a “Dealer in Foreign and Domestic Liquors, Imported Goods a Specialty.”  He also claimed be Portsmouth exclusive agent for the popular I. W. Harper Whiskey.  

Meanwhile on the West Coast, the Gottstein brothers of Seattle chose a canoe-borne indigenous American to be embossed on their liquor flasks.  Chief Seattle (1786-1866) was a leading figure of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes who pursued a path of accommodation toward white settlers.  A widely publicized speech arguing in favor of ecological responsibility and respect of Native Americans' land rights has been attributed to him.  

An Indian maiden illustrated “Tippecanoe,” a double fire copper whiskey from Joseph Pfeffer, a Cincinnati liquor wholesaler.  For saloon signs, almost always displayed in places where women and children were excluded, the Tippecanoe husky lass was shown bare-breasted.  When used on the label of a bottle that might find itself on a grocer’s shelf or a druggist’s display case where the eyes of the world might see, the maiden was more chastely dressed. At the bottom of a shot glass, as shown here, it is hard to tell.  

From a letterhead came the Indian chief advertising “Sachem” brand whiskey.  The term “sachem” is defined as a North American Indian chief especially the chief of a confederation of the Algonquian tribes of the North Atlantic coast.  In this case the whiskey was the product of the Rehm-Zeihler Company located in Louisville, Kentucky.  This firm was established by O.E. Rehm in 1904 and continued in business until closed by National Prohibition.

The comely Indian maiden seen here was an advertising element of Isaac and Bernard Bernheim Bros., acclaimed as the most successful distillers in American history.   Located in Louisville, the brothers registered the famous “I.W. Harper” brand. The "I W" initials were borrowed from Isaac's own name, while Harper was the surname of a well known Kentucky horse breeder. The whiskey went on to win multiple medals for quality, the first being at the New Orleans Exposition in 1885.

Our final Native American selling whiskey is a stern-looking chief whose face graced the label of “Old Yock” brand straight rye whiskey from Dillinger Distilleries of Ruffdale, Pennsylvania.  For several years before the Civil War Samuel Dillinger drove a large Conestoga wagon pulled by six horses across the Allegheny Mountains on the Nation Pike, transporting merchandise between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  After settling down in Pennsylvania, he became the second largest distiller in the state, hauling out fifty newly filled whiskey barrels every day from his distillery to store in his warehouses and then delivering a quality aged rye like “Old Yock” to his customers.

Note:  My first article on this subject was posted on October 27, 2017.