Best Islands For Art

Dance, music, architecture, sculpture, painting – "the arts" defy the limits of a list. One art bleeds into another – steps on a stage create percussion; the inscriptions on a drum tell a tale. Human creativity encourages cross-pollinations and reinterpretations, and whether it's from separation or enclosure, islands encourage human creativity. On some islands, art comes out to meet you. It's in the windows and streaming through the streets, even on the faces of the people. On others, you have to seek it out, find the corners where it's made, the museums that display it and the people who perform it. On some, you're asked to watch; on others the band won't stop playing till you get up and dance. But on most of these islands, all of the above apply. Art finds you. From Bali's dance to Sicily's mosaics to Hawaii's museums, enjoy these seven great islands for the arts.

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BaliCreativity weaves so deeply into the fabric of society on the Indonesian island of Bali that society itself begins to feel like tapestry, an intentional work of art. The traditional dances here are considered to be Bali's most time-honored performing art. Most fall under two types: wali, the sacred, and bebalihan, the entertaining. To welcome travelers with entertainment, dancers doing the legong in gold-embroidered costumes with tasseled headdresses move to the music of gamelan ensembles — players hammering ornate xylophones, giant bronze kempur gongs in carved frames and buffalo-skin drums — all alongside bamboo flutes for the slower songs. Gamelan music sounds chaotic until the patterns emerge. Of course, it's not the music that changes, but the listener. The best art, like the best travel, mixes the recognizable with the strange, synthesizing it all into something compelling and perhaps transformative. You might not find your soul in the Balinese forest, but listen for its echo in the raucous drumming.

Bali's arts exist in interwoven layers, metallophone frames carved in the shape of lions and dragons, masked men dancing in decorated space, shadow puppets painted in exact detail even for performances cast in silhouette. Like life, it isn't all pretty — the evil character of Rangda goes against the good character of Barong Ket to express the balance of power in the puppet dance known as Barong — but it is exuberant. Negative images compete for physical and psychic space with the regal and the merely lovely, everything imbued with that charismatic spirit crucial to performance and happiness. Art here insinuates itself into the mundane, and vice versa: Wash water spouts from a nymph's bellybutton, caught by a woman garbed in cloth imprinted with musicians.

This is what American anthropologist Margaret Mead meant when she described how the arts were embedded so deeply in the life of this island. Art is everyday living in Bali, as it should be everywhere: life as creative act, travel as theater of the real. To experience Bali's artistic fervor at its peak, go during the month-long Bali Arts Festival, starting in June (2009 dates to be announced). It features both the old and the kreasi baru, the new creations, that so enrich the fabric of Bali.

SicilyCalled the most conquered island in the world, the landmass off the boot tip of Italy contains art and influences from the Greeks and Romans, the Vandals and Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Normans. (Well, the Goths didn't leave much trace, but someone has to stir the melting pot.) Greek temples and theaters still stand at Segesta, Agrigento and Selinunte. The late Roman Villa del Casale — built in the fourth century and excavated in the 1950s — contains one of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in the world. Mosaics in one room depict women frolicking in bikinis, proof that beach fun predates ISLANDS magazine.

Myriad influences also appear in Sicilian pottery, the majolica ceramics merging terra cotta from the west with porcelain from the east. But more than anywhere, perhaps, the intersection of cultures shows up in Sicily's magnificent arch- itecture. Not to be missed, the Cathedral of Monreale merges the styles of its Byzantine, Norman and Arab builders and occupants. Room upon room of frescos, inscribed doors and archways, tiled window frames and detailed mosaics of biblical scenes amaze visitors, relentless splendor rising to the gilded rafters. Sicily's bloody history of ancient invasion and more recent reprisal may or may not repeat itself, but Paladins do still wage the battles of the crusades. These are not actors; they're puppets, pupi siciliani, in full suits of genuine tin armor. As in the great theatrical tradition of professional wrestling, the outcomes may be scripted, but the real blows delivered during genuine staged puppet swordfights would really hurt if the puppets were actual people. Meanwhile, the dead live again and justice reigns, at least for the pupi.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island)There is no place on earth with a more singular and recognizable body of art than Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. Why early Polynesian settlers built nearly 1,000 moai, detailed and expressive stone busts weighing an average of 14 tons apiece, and how they moved them from quarries to the ends of the island has baffled archaeologists. By itself, the phalanx of 15 resurrected heads at Ahu Tongariki demonstrates the moai's range, as well as the spirituality, artistic dedication and resourcefulness of the carvers. The incomplete row of seven statues at Ahu Nau Nau, four of them completed with red-stone topknots, forms an archetypal island scene: native idols along a beach. The geographic and cultural isolation of Rapa Nui (more than 1,000 miles from the next inhabited island and with some moai predating European explorers by 1,000 years) provide an opportunity to witness the art of a culture almost wholly contained. That art may have less variety than the art of nexus islands like Japan and Sicily, but viewing it produces a keen, separate inspiration. The art of one small civilization in one small place represents, in microcosm, the whole splendid history of art worldwide.

In 1989 Thor Heyerdahl published Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, a typically bold claim. But understanding and mystery do not exclude each other. Sometimes the more you know about something the more mysterious it becomes. Traveling around Easter Island, greeting the moai as they emerge from the landscape showing emotions from amusement to anguish creates mystery in its best form. An art historian might explain the work, but even explained, art serves as a link connecting artist to admirer to the unknowable. Art establishes a shared iconography. Great stolid heads — not to mention a whole Rapa Nui cosmology of lizard-men, birdmen, petroglyphs and bark-cloth figurines — enter our dreams and our very definition of "island," the mystery not solved, but revealed.

JapanTradition is not a prison, but a stage set by previous centuries of art, on which contemporary arts evolve. New creations simultaneously reflect the past and innovate. Whimsy itself becomes iconic, the fluid wrist, the winking samurai. The arts in Japan extend from Jomon Period pottery circa 10,000 B.C. to the doe-eyed vixens of 21st- century manga comics. Ancient horizontal scrolls of images read in sequence foreshadow modern Japanese animation. Innovations are traditional in Japan, where art forms and the materials they employ astound by their number and variety: sumi-e (brush or ink painting), kabuki (traditional theatrical art), ikebana (flower arranging), origami (paper folding), bonsai (dwarfed tree in a pot); wood, lacquer, porcelain, gold, iron, paper, silk.

And like all robust cultures, Japan absorbs modes and techniques — ink painting from China, European sculpture, pop culture from the United States — molding them all into something as modern as Hello, Kitty! or as timeless as an image of Mount Fuji in the distance, a forest scene cast in evocative ink lines and awash in mist, a monk in robes or even a courtesan in white face. And the mix itself, Japan's intersections of influence, keeps on mixing.

IrelandUpstairs in a pub off the lamp-lit quays near Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin, recognizable arpeggios reel through the air, a seishun in progress. A pint of Guinness, a scarred wooden table and a worn velvet cushion on a bench seat — these instruments of culture make the fiddle, whistle and bodhran sound even better. Island culture at its island source fashions happenstance into tradition. Music in Ireland seems not so much played as transmitted, from native to visitor, from generation to generation. And visual art — the knots and scrolls of Celtic symbols — is transmitted in stone and wood and metalwork. Ireland feels like a land of icons.

One such icon for book lovers lies in the Trinity College Library: the Book of Kells. It represents the apotheosis of medieval book arts, perhaps of Celtic art itself — another touchstone (but do not touch). An illuminated manuscript of the Gospels created by several scribes probably in the eighth century, the book evidences an intensely imaginative reading process, the sacred text laid out so painstakingly in its fonts and matching images that each enhances the others, a celebration of literacy in keeping with Ireland's literary reputation. But should you really come to Ireland for a book? Yes. A book and the music and the emerald valleys and the delicious beer.

JamaicaCaribbean art has a problem: How do you forge independent identity in a place with little surviving indigenous culture (not to say none) and a history of oppression? Jamaica faces that sticky postcolonial issue head on with music and art of resistance and emancipation, most famously the eclectic and apocalyptic Rastafarian messages conveyed through reggae music and graphic arts. Locals like Tom the Great Sebastian and his traveling sound system helped gain inter- national acclaim for Jamaican artists like Bob Marley and styles like ska, rock steady, dancehall, dub, raga and rap, plus new styles not yet named. Jamaican music has had a profound and lasting effect on music worldwide, remaining both distinctly Jamaican and roundly Caribbean the whole while. And that whole history thrives — the sweet noise still fills the halls and streets and adjacent hotel rooms, especially of a Friday night. Get a crash course at Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, July 19-25, 2009.

Cuba and Haiti, meanwhile, get more attention as strongholds of Caribbean painting, but Jamaican painters and sculptors have produced a number of well-known works in a style variously known as "primitive," "naïve" & "outsider" art. The National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston houses an impressive collection, including the iconic sculpture Negro Aroused by Edna Manley, as well as works by Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds and many others.

OahuHonolulu has the bustle of a big American city, but it also has a well-developed and supportive arts community sitting at a crossroads between East and West. Island arts institutions include the Honolulu Academy of Arts (great for Asian art) and the Bishop Musuem, with its world-renowned collection of 2.4 million Hawaii & Pacific artifacts (the renovated Hawaiian Hall is set to open summer 2009). The ARTS at Marks Garage is a gallery, performance space and all-around arts-community hub. Dozens more arts venues announce each other's exhibits.

The understanding is that more arts means better arts. And the best promoters of art are artists, after all, so to grow the community, don't advertise; teach. Hawaii, & Oahu in particular, has ample opportunities for visitors to try traditional Hawaiian arts. The Royal Hawaiian Center, on the strip next to Outrigger on the Beach at Waikiki, has classes in hula dancing, Hawaiian quilting, lei-making and other arts. Anyone can show up once or many times to get hands-on with island culture or to attend evening performances in the Royal Grove. Upstairs at Bob's Ukulele shop, you can interrupt the impromptu concert to ask Wai what instrument you should buy to learn on. He'll tell you to learn first and buy after. Tuesday through Friday at 10 a.m., Wainani Kaneali'i Yim or Puake'ala Mann will put a uke in your hands and teach you to play.