The Art of Rice

By Barnes, Cynthia | Humanities, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Art of Rice


Barnes, Cynthia, Humanities


IN JAVA THEY CALL HER DEWI SRI. In Bengal, she is the Hindu goddess Annapurna, and in Japan, one out of four shrines is dedicated to her. Rituals honoring the "Rice Mother," the goddess of the sacred grain, are prevalent throughout Asia. For centuries, rice has been more than a diet staple: it is a symbol of spirituality.

From Java to Japan, the cultivation of rice is viewed as reflecting the cycle of human life and the actions of the gods. UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History has mounted an exhibition to celebrate the importance of the grain, and to record the ancient customs before they are eroded from the modern world. "The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia," opening October 5, brings together an international team of scholars, museums, universities, and artists to examine the role rice has played in the Pacific Rim for more than five thousand years.

Each day, more than three billion of the earth's inhabitants seek their primary nutrition from rice's 120,000 varieties. "Intellectually, a meal is conceived of as rice. To not eat rice is to not eat." says Roy Hamilton, the Fowler's curator of Asian and Pacific art. he first became aware of the central role rice plays in the region in 1970, while volunteering in Indonesia through Stanford University.

Hamilton has observed similar beliefs throughout the Pacific Rim. "In reality, it is most of what people eat in the poorer countries. But in wealthier nations like Japan, where there is much more nutritional variety, on a cultural level they maintain this ideal. I thought it would be interesting to take a pan-Asian look at this culture."

The exhibition charts rice's reign throughout the portion of Asia where rice-focused cultures exist. "Iran, for example, produces and consumes rice, but there's not this idea of a sacred connection between people and plant," says Hamilton. "We focused on the 'rice belt,' roughly from India through Southeast Asia to China and on to Korea and Japan."

Three hundred and five objects from thirteen countries will be displayed in Los Angeles before embarking on a three-city tour. The exhibition includes two works of art commissioned particularly for the Fowler. A publication of twenty-seven essays by authors from the United States, India, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, France, and the Netherlands, an educational website, and a series of twenty-five public outreach programs round out the project.

The aim of "The Art of Rice" is to expose audiences to the vast and interrelated historical cultures of rice in Asia, as well as to document the ancient rituals and customs being swept away by agricultural modernity and increasing globalism.

Aurora Ammayao, a folklorist and project consultant, remembers the rice deities of her childhood. She is Ifugao, one of the peoples of the mountainous north of the Philippines. During rice rites, her father, a mumbaki or priest, used to chant the "Myth of the Origin of Rice," a huuwa, or folk epic.

They pour the wine and they drink;

after a while, they pray to and invoke

their ancestors on both sides for the rite on the origin of rice. They finish invoking and take out the chickens;

they fan-bless the seedlings to be transplanted;

they slit the chickens and singe them;

they cut them open and inspect the bile sacs

and the signs are good.

As an adolescent, Ammayao turned away from the rice rituals, viewing them as an excuse for the village men to get drunk on rice wine while the women and girls harvested the crop under the hot sun. "Much of it would end up as more wine to drink!" she writes. "I saw no merit or purpose in preserving such traditions."

But forty years later, Ammayao has changed her mind. She has seen many Ifugao convert to Christianity and renounce their traditional ways, and has witnessed her father become "born again" and abandon the rice rituals. …

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