African-Print Fashion Volume 41.2

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS  in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.  Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA .

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

WOMAN WEARING DRESS printed with portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Union flags, black and white photograph, circa 1977. Photograph by Jacques Toussele, © Jacques Toussele.

In 2015 Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo expressed her affinity for African-print cloth, stating, “This is our cloth. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.” Her passionate words suggest the fervor with which African-print cloth is linked to African identity as well as an awareness of its transnational history and present. Its story begins in the late nineteenth century, when the (mostly female) traders in what is now Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, encountered European merchants arriving with a new kind of fabric—vividly-patterned wax prints. These women, from communities that had for generations revered well-made textiles and appreciated imported goods, recognized the potential of the colorful wares and suggested to the merchants motifs and hues that would appeal to their customers.

One merchant in particular, Scotland’s Ebenezer Brown Fleming, who was working with a company in the Netherlands, listened to the feedback his agent received, and, around 1890, began offering printed cloths that—though manufactured by machines in Europe and inspired by handmade batik fabrics from Indonesia—became entirely African. Scholar Helen Elands states concisely that, “It was African interaction in design choices that enabled African aesthetics and cultural values to pervade these products, allowing them to carry connotations of tradition and authenticity.” Many contemporary fashion designers, both in Africa and the diaspora, continue to embrace African-print cloth, which is now manufactured in Europe, Africa and Asia, as a declaration of their connection to Africa. Though these fabrics are delicately entangled in the complexities of Colonialism, technology, consumerism, and style, they are, at heart, African and in innumerable ways, global. 

ALEXIS TEMOMANIN, DESIGNER FOR DENT DE MAN. LES TOILES D’ARAIGNÉE: MAN’S SUIT in wax print by Vlisco, the Netherlands, 2016. Courtesy of Dent de Man, London, UK. Photograph by Marc Hibbert.

Several recent exhibitions have focused on African design and fashion, including “Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design” organized by the Vitra Design Museum in 2015-2019; “South of the Sahara: Accelerated Urbanism in Africa” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016; “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016-2017; and “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” in 2017-2019. This last exhibition, conceived by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2014 just before an explosion in popularity of African-print fashion, focused on the cloth and fashion of West and Central Africa, addressing their history and contemporary iterations while conveying the multifaceted networks of international trade that shaped them and the intricate expressions of identity that they embody. Its lavishly illustrated catalogue, with essays by numerous scholars, including the four co-curators: Suzanne Gott, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine, stands as a permanent record of a dazzling exhibition.

The terminology used to describe and the technology used to create African-print cloth vary between countries and over time. In the standard hierarchy of African prints, though, “wax prints” generally are the most desirable and are produced with a resist-dye process employing engraved metal rollers that results in fabric printed on both sides and showing characteristic undyed areas of crackles and bubbles; additional layers of color are applied through a variety of methods. “Fancy prints” are printed on one side of the fabric through numerous methods, but do not use the resist-dye process, while “imi-wax prints,” or imitation wax prints, are a kind of fancy print designed to imitate the effect of the resist-dye process. All of these boldly-patterned and brightly-colored fabrics are considered African prints.

MEMBERS OF A GROUP wearing the classic God’s Eye pattern for the Cape Coast Fetu Afahye Festival, Ghana, 2012. Photograph by Betsy D. Quick.

The motifs on African-print cloth range from alphabets to handbags, iPods to chickens, radiating spirals to elaborate hair braid styles. Some early designs derive from Indonesian images, like Tree of Life or Bunch of Bananas (also called Shell), which initially represented the wing of the legendary Garuda bird of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. Others reflect patterns from traditional African textiles, such as Sun Ray or Target, a design based on tie-dyed fabrics, or Angelina, also called Dashiki and based on Ethiopian tunics with embroidered neck yokes and borders. Especially popular motifs include a hand with coins, a human eye, and fingers, and these often relate to familiar proverbs like “The palm of the hand is sweeter than the back of the hand,” and “I am left with only my eyes to watch you.” Some designs reflect significant current events, like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule on March 6, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the visit of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009, or International Women’s Day. Others are produced for specific occasions such as weddings or funerals.

IN A VILLAGE NEAR BROBO, CÔTE D’IVOIRE, an unidentified woman wears a wax-print featuring the distinctive skyline of Abidjan, 1992. The three-piece complet, made from six meters of printed cloth, is considered by many to be traditional Ivorian dress and is associated with propriety, discretion, moral fortitude, and a high regard for tradition. Photograph by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Though the earliest African-print cloth was manufactured in Europe, companies began producing prints in Africa during the independence era (late 1950s-1970s), and by the early twenty-first century, countries in Asia, especially China, made their own versions of African-print cloth. In many African countries the “original” wax prints from the Netherlands are revered as the most prestigious, while at times the pride of local manufacture has taken precedent. The purchasing power of Africans declined radically following the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s, creating an opening for less costly products from Asia. The recent influx of inexpensive Asian imports has both strengthened devotion to higher-end products and spurred popular interest in and use of African-print cloths as it has made them more accessible. Anthropologist Nina Silvanus describes the cloth as “full of irony,” and “a true hybrid—at once Javanese, Dutch, English, African, and now increasingly Chinese,” adding, “the archive of wax cloth complicates claims about origin, originality, and authenticity.”

Regardless of where the cloths are printed, they acquire their names in Africa. In her essay, Kathleen Bickford Berzock explains that “the long-standing practice of the naming of wax-print patterns by the consumers who purchase, wear, and collect them is part of its enculturation into local frames of meaning and value,” adding that the popularity of a print increases once it receives a name. 

A cloth’s name, motif or related proverb speaks clearly to its wearer’s peers. One popular print for mothers, midwifes, or women desiring children is Children are Better than Money, while a particular fancy print from the early 1990s incorporates the proverb En attendant mon grotto (“Waiting for my grotto”—an Ivorian slang term similar to “sugar daddy”) below an image with a young woman pointing to the desirable possessions of a Mercedes-Benz and a single-family home, against a pattern of coins. 

Berzock quotes folklorist Susan Domowitz on how, among the communities she studied in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, prints based on proverbs sometimes offered “an acceptable public voice to those who are constrained to silence.” 

KEN TRAORÉ, DESIGNER. KENYA’S STYLE: Pagne et marinière of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.

African fashion was, and in many places still is, primarily custom rather than ready-to-wear, and Suzanne Gott, in one of her contributions to the catalogue, describes the process as “an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.” The first, and most crucial step, is for the woman to select the cloth. The woman then takes her special fabric to a seamstress or tailor to be made into a traditional form, like the ntoma (the equivalent of “cloth”) ensemble in Ghana with a sewn blouse, wrapper or sewn skirt, and an unsewn cloth (an outfit typically requiring six yards of cloth) or the taille basse in Senegal (a fitted top with a peplum worn over a wrapper), or into something contemporary. Examples of these garments featured in the African-Print Fashion Now! catalogue include Senegalese designer Ken Traoré’s taille basse and head scarf from 2016 in bright yellow with orange flowers and olive-colored leaves, and Ivorian designer/seamstress Delphine Kouassi’s trois-pagnes (the Ivorian national dress) in a brilliant print of greens, turquoise and brown with sparkling metallic trim edging the ruffles—the sparkles surprised Saundra Lang, who commissioned this as a daytime dress, but when she expressed that, Koaussi replied, “This is how we dress in the daytime!”

Portraits from the 1960s and 1970s—described as “West and Central Africa’s ‘golden age’ of black and white photography”—emphasize the role these fabrics and garments have played in communicating identity, status, wealth, style, and ideas. Images by Francis K. Honny, working in coastal urban Ghana, show relatives posed in formal settings wearing matching prints to visually emphasize their familial ties, while ones by Mory Bamba, an itinerant photographer from Mali, depict young subjects outdoors in elaborate, chic ensembles. The photographs give faces, emotions, settings, and accessories to the African prints, and bear witness to the Ghanian proverb, “A beautiful cloth does not wear itself.”

BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS: Portrait of man and woman by Francis K. Honny, Elmina, Ghana, circa 1975. Courtesy of Tobias Wendl. Portrait of young Peulh women and men by Mory Bamba, Sikasso region of southeastern Mali, circa 1978. Courtesy of Adama Bamba, © Mory Bamba. Portrait of woman and child by Jacques Toussele, 1970s. © Jacques Toussele. Photography spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s with people in rural villages inviting traveling photographers to their communities to take their pictures.

One of the key manufacturers of African-print cloth is Vlisco, which formed in 1970 with the merger of two much older Dutch companies, P. F. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co. and Deventer Katoen Maatschappij voorheen Ankersmit & Co. (DKM). In 2006, Vlisco changed its approach from “a production-focused to a brand-driven fashion textile manufacturer,” and through its dynamic advertising campaigns, established itself as a significant fashion force. Vlisco created numerous outstanding garments considered “communication fashion,” described in the catalogue as “one-of-a-kind outfits created solely to ‘inspire’ Vlisco’s targeted consumers—well-educated elite and upper middle-class African women.” A 2013 example of this type of garment is a dress ensemble, in red, yellow and green, by Dutch designer Inge van Lierop (who was looking to nineteenth-century tailoring for inspiration), which features a fitted, long-sleeve top with a high collar and puffed shoulders of one pattern and an extravagantly voluminous skirt of a second pattern depicting traditional icons of African-print design, like fans, hands with coins and Bunch of Bananas, on pedestals—regally celebrating the cyclical nature of African-print fashion.

Today many African fashion designers, regardless of whether they are trained and based in Africa or the diaspora, embrace African-print fashion, according to Kristyne S. Loughran, who notes that, “Its aesthetic creates a direct and immediate visual link to Africa.” Lisa Folawiyo created a short dress in 2016 that combines two prints with detailed hand-embellishment—small beads sewn on the wedge of leaf-patterned fabric in the skirt and in the white dots above the waist, while Ituen Bassey, an award-winning designer from Nigeria who is partly based in London, designed a short dress in 2009 with glowing rainbow bands of African-print cloth that reference a tradition of patchwork. A standout example of this transnational connection is a dress designed by a teenager in New Jersey in 2015 to wear to prom; Kyemah McEntyre captured the attention of social media with her long-sleeved, décolletage, full-skirted gown of the Angelina pattern, quickly becoming a fashion sensation and sparking a vogue for African-print prom dresses.

BÉATRICE MANOVAN, DESIGNER. DRESS, Abidjan, 2016. SALOME LENANA wears a two-piece West African-style taille basse outfit, locally made in Nairobi, Kenya, 1994. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine. NICOLE AMIEN, DESIGNER. TWO-PIECE ENSEMBLE, wax print, Uniwax, Côte d’Ivoire, 2016.

WALÉ OYÉJIDÉ, DESIGNER FOR IKIRÉ JONES. MAN’S JACKET, trousers and scarf of African-print cloth, Untold Renaissance collection, 2014.

Alex Temomanin, from Côte d’Ivoire, who established his Dent de Man brand in London, handpicks each print used in his garments based on its emotional resonance to his own experiences and its universal storytelling capacity. His trimly tailored man’s suit of a Vlisco spiderweb print, Les Toiles D’araignée conveys how as a teenager he felt trapped in a web—trying to figure out his identity, dealing with the fragility of poverty—and how he found comfort in fabrics, which were often his only toys as a child.

A man’s black-tie ensemble, designed by Nigerian-born Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia-based label he established with his partner Sam Hubler in 2013, features a red-printed jacket, black pants and a silk scarf. The scarf, from the Untold Renaissance collection, depicts an African man in eighteenth-century European garb against a collage of conventional European imagery. The textile raises issues related to immigration and, according to the label’s website, “the absence of persons of color in Medieval and Renaissance-era European art,” while relying on “the sampling method used in hip hop culture.” (A related Ikiré Jones scarf appeared in the recent blockbuster movie and fashion tour-de-force Black Panther.)

Diablos (Maguette Traore), a graffiti artist and designer from Senegal, explains, “I use African elements, like le wax. You just have to delve into your parental values, your ancestral values,” and Leslie W. Rabine writes that, “like other Dakar streetwear designers, he makes African print a deeply symbolic component of Senegalese hip-hop.” One of his outfits comprises a handpainted T-shirt with shrimp-printed chaya (traditional baggy, low-crotched pants).

DEEP DAKART, DESIGNER FOR MIZÉRABLES GRAFFF. HOODIE AND T-SHIRT of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.


In this increasingly interconnected world, African-print fashion is an appropriate rallying point for African cultural identity. The catalogue for African-Print Fashion Now!, as did the recent exhibition, allows room for and even celebrates the complexity of its subject. The project brought together work by award-winning couturiers, unidentified seamstresses and many young designers, augmenting it with selections of accessories wrapped in prints, photography and contemporary art to convey the range of production and the cultural permeation of African-print cloth. Hassan Hajjaj’s stunning Afrikan Boy from 2012, a large photograph in a frame of sardine tins, combines art with fashion, showing a well-dressed man with an umbrella and a myriad of patterns. Essayist Hansi Momodu-Gordon writes of “the empowered individuality of [Hajjaj’s] subjects, who are not bound by singular definitions but appear as citizens of a global exchange of ideas,” words that could apply to all who wear African-print fashion.

 
 

HASSAN HAJJAJ. Afrikan Boy, 2012, My Rock Stars Volume 2 series; Metallic Lambda print on 3mm Dibond in wood frame with Geisha maquereau tins, 136 x 93 centimeters. Private Collection.

 
 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The quotations cited are drawn from essays written for the catalogue African Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style.

SUGGESTED READING
Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine.
African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017. 
African-Print Fashion Now! Videos from the Fowler Museum: https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/african-print-fashion-now

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” showed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 7, 2018 - April 28, 2019; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 24 - August 12, 2018; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, March 26 - July 30, 2017.

 

Click for Captions

 

Get Inspired!


Ashley-Callahan-Contributor2017.jpg

Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts and craft. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. In 2015, the University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This issue, she writes about the use of Dutch Vlisco wax print fabrics by African designers, in an article entitled “African-Print Fashion: Transnational Flair.”

Museum For Islamic Art Volume 41.2

HAMSA AMULET of silver, gilt, Fez, Morocco, circa 1930. Photograph by Ardon Barhama. Gross Family Collection. Images courtesy of the Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem.

Located in the heart of Jerusalem, a city sacred to the three main monotheistic religions, the Museum for Islamic Art is an independent cultural institution dedicated to raising public awareness of Islamic art and culture—a one of a kind in Israel. In addition to its importance as a museum, it serves as a cultural and educational center, as well as a multicultural bridge that connects different sectors of Israeli society—Arabs and Jews, ultraorthodox and secular—while promoting dialogue based on tolerance, mutual respect and equality.

It is a repository for thousands of works of art, including gold and silver artifacts, jewelry and musical instruments, and offers to visitors a rare glimpse of one of the world’s special collections, which tells the story of the Islamic world from the seventh to the nineteenth century. Its exhibition halls are arranged in chronological and geographical order, in accordance with the various dynasties. In addition to the permanent collections of Islamic art, the museum houses the rare permanent collection of clocks which belonged to Sir David Salomons. It is one of the three most important collections in the world, with dozens of clocks of different types, sizes and colors.

The current exhibition, “Jewelry Making: Past & Present,” creates a fascinating dialogue based on the universal language of jewelrymaking, between Islam, Judaism and Christianity, between cultures and ethnic identities, tradition and renewal, and between past and present. Curated by renowned art historian, Dr. Iris Fishof, the exhibition exemplifies the museum’s vision to promote dialogue between the different identities within the Israeli society.

41_2_Jewelry-Making-Past-&-Present-Title.jpg
EXHIBITION INSTALLATION  for “Jewelry Making: Past & Present” at the Museum for Islamic Art.

EXHIBITION INSTALLATION for “Jewelry Making: Past & Present” at the Museum for Islamic Art.

The exhibition is comprised of original jewelry created by forty-five Israeli artists, inspired by rare Islamic jewelry pieces from the museum’s collection. Displayed side-by-side, the contemporary interpretations of the pieces featured in the exhibition are personal and intimate creations that express emotions, ideas and sometimes, even defiance. Their work expands the boundaries of jewelrymaking and offers a new artistic genre which is gradually revealed to the visitor. The variety of Islamic jewelry artifacts are rich and expansive in artistic, technical and cultural terms, and cover a very wide historical period, dating back to the seventh century. These artifacts provided the Israeli artists and jewelers with an inspirational platform, carrying thoughts about the old world and the new world, about the past and future, identity, tradition, and change. Despite the great variety, the content of their works takes a sincere and courageous approach to time and place, and do not shy away from addressing social and political issues.

INSIGNIA: 50 SHADES OF PATRIARCHY LAPEL PINS by Rami Tareef, of silver, brass, gold; lost-wax casting, soldering, sawing, bending, gilding, 10.0 x 5.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2019.

For example, Rami Tareef exhibits Insignia: 50 Shades of Patriarchalism, a pin-based work which comprises fifty men’s lapel pins with an olive pip made of silver, representing the hierarchy of the Arabic man’s patriarchy. The work is designed to shed light on the changing, or “softening” patriarchal approach of the new Arab man, and to generate dialogue about his role in the family unit, and in society in general.

Paying homage to a nineteenth-century Moroccan Berber fertility jewel, decorated with silver and enamel symbols to ward off the evil eye, Rill Greenfeld created a pendant inspired by the amulet. Her piece, Fertility Now, a plastic box with contraceptive pills inside and around the pendant, utilized the birth control pills in its design and purpose.

BEAD WITH COIN PENDANTS of silver, cloisonné enamel, coins, filigree, 12.0 x 7.0 x 5.5 centimeters, Western Anti-Atlas, Morocco, nineteenth century. FERTILITY NOW PENDANT by Rill Greenfeld, of sterling silver, photopolymer plastic, pill blister; 3D printing, casting, soldering, 8.2 x 8.4 x 4.5 centimeters, 2019. Images courtesy of the Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem. Photographs by Shay Ben Efraim, except where noted.

What’s the ‘Matter’? is a contemporary and personal piece made of tin strips taken from a preservatives tin can, electrical wiring, computer parts, and everyday industrial materials. Jewelry artist Merav Rahat took inspiration from a nineteenth-century silver Moroccan necklace with coral, amber and glass beads, enamel, and other materials. Rahat touches on the physical and emotional baggage in the materials she uses, looking at questions of identity, place and memory in the globalization era.

NECKLACE of silver, coral, amber, glass beads, cloisonné enamel, 62.0 centimeters length, Dra’a Valley, Morocco, late nineteenth century. WHAT’S THE ‘MATTER’ NECKPIECE by Merav Rahat, of tin-can sheet metal, electric wire, tricot fabric, nuts and bolts, discs, computer elements, jewelry parts, plastic elements, old bottle caps, branches; coiling, tying, threading, 30.0 x 20.0 x 9.0 centimeters, 2019.

The contemporary interpretations were made especially for the exhibition and act as an extension of the boundaries of jewelrymaking as a contemporary artistic field, both in a conceptual, technical and material standpoint. Despite the great diversity, the pieces relate to the time and place in which we live, sincere and daring, and were made in response to social and political issues.

Also included is a collection of ecclesiastical metalwork from the Franciscan Order that has never been exhibited to the public. These sacred objects date from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries and have been accumulated throughout the centuries from European nobles who regularly sent money and goods to assist the Franciscans charged with looking after the sanctuaries in Jerusalem. A selection of Jewish vessels and amulets originating from the Levant are showcased from the private collection of William Gross. These pieces reflect the style and culture of their respective eras and regions, as well as the mutual language of folk art that served both Jews and Muslims. In addition, an exhibition spotlight is focused on the works of Yemenite goldsmithing, a local profession for hundreds of years and on the jewelry of the late singer, Ofra Haza.

EXHIBITION INSTALLATION  focusing on artifacts from the three monotheistic religions.

EXHIBITION INSTALLATION focusing on artifacts from the three monotheistic religions.

“Jewelry Making: Past & Present” offers a prideful place to a unique display of jewelry works from the three monotheistic religions for which Jerusalem is sacred. The variety of these works, which were designed for ceremonies or rituals, offers a broad view of the artistic language, materials and techniques used by jewelers from these religions.

“Jewelry Making: Past & Present” shows May 30, 2019 - November 16, 2019 at the Museum for Islamic Art,
2 Hapalmach St., Jerusalem, Israel 9254202. Visit their website at
www.islamicart.co.il/english.

 

Click for Captions

Get Inspired!


Nadim-Sheiban_Contributor.jpg

Nadim Sheiban, Director of the Museum for Islamic Art, is the first Arab museum director in Israel. He began his studies at the Hebrew University in 1972. He was a social worker and jurist, and for many years worked in social and community work and served in senior positions at the Welfare Department of the Jerusalem Municipality. In the last decade, Sheiban served as Director of the Jerusalem Foundation Projects Department, where he initiated and managed various projects in the fields of community and education. For five years, he also directed the Culture Department, which initiated projects in the fields of art and culture in the city.

Ron Ho Retrospective Volume 41.2

FIRST BORN NECKPIECE  of forged and fabricated silver Chinese chair, with pair of fabricated copper children’s shoes, silver twine ball and leather, 1990.  FIRST BIRTHDAY NECKPIECE  of forged and fabricated silver Chinese chair, with chair mat from Ming dynasty chair, fabricated silver chopsticks and platter of noodles, which represent long life in China, 1990.  VANISHED WISHES NECKPIECE  of forged and fabricated silver with leather and enameling, 1990.  Photographs courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

FIRST BORN NECKPIECE of forged and fabricated silver Chinese chair, with pair of fabricated copper children’s shoes, silver twine ball and leather, 1990. FIRST BIRTHDAY NECKPIECE of forged and fabricated silver Chinese chair, with chair mat from Ming dynasty chair, fabricated silver chopsticks and platter of noodles, which represent long life in China, 1990. VANISHED WISHES NECKPIECE of forged and fabricated silver with leather and enameling, 1990. Photographs courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

ALL FALL DOWN II NECKPIECE of silver, ebony, domino, and found objects, 1981. A breakthrough for Ho was represented by this gift to Ramona Solberg. “One evening Ramona brought me an ivory domino piece and some old bone underwear buttons. I placed these on a piece of paper with some bone heishi beads and some pieces of ebony. It was the beginning foundation of my work as a jewelry artist.”

Ron Ho was a cultural explorer who used his keen eye for beauty and design to create exquisite jewelry resonant with narrative and poetry. Like a Marco Polo of jewelry art, he traveled the world, especially Asia, and wove the artifacts and aesthetics he foraged on those travels into jewelry that sometimes referenced his own Chinese heritage, and always celebrated the quotidian beauty and joy he found everywhere he went.

Ron Tau Wo Ho, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most beloved artists, died in 2017 at age eighty.  During his lifetime his work was in constant demand by collectors and museums. He was a direct descendant of a rich jewelrymaking legacy that for decades revolved around a legendary jewelry program at the University of Washington. Ho was an enthusiastic collector of folk art, ethnic jewelry and museum-quality textiles, and a career public school art teacher. All aspects of his remarkable life are wonderfully presented in “Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale,” at Bellevue Arts Museum.

 
 
RON HO  wearing Lepidoptera, 1976.  LUCITE BASKET  containing bone and ivory buttons and other elements for use in his jewelry.  RENDERING  of Ho’s home for fifty-four years, designed by architect Paul Thiry originally as his own home.  HO’S STUDIO  includes a photograph of his dear friend, mentor and fellow artist, Ramona Solberg.  CACHE  of tools in his studio. Ho said: “As I became more skilled, I could see how I could develop the construction so that the pieces could flow together to give life to a stiff piece of metal and make it actually flow.”  HO  is wearing First Birthday and one of his signature handmade silk shirts.

RON HO wearing Lepidoptera, 1976. LUCITE BASKET containing bone and ivory buttons and other elements for use in his jewelry. RENDERING of Ho’s home for fifty-four years, designed by architect Paul Thiry originally as his own home. HO’S STUDIO includes a photograph of his dear friend, mentor and fellow artist, Ramona Solberg. CACHE of tools in his studio. Ho said: “As I became more skilled, I could see how I could develop the construction so that the pieces could flow together to give life to a stiff piece of metal and make it actually flow.” HO is wearing First Birthday and one of his signature handmade silk shirts.

 
 

The exhibition is co-curated by Benedict Heywood, BAM’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, and Nancy Loorem Adams, Vice President of Northwest Designer Craftsmen, and presented by the museum and Northwest Designer Craftsmen. Ho’s life partner, the artist Peter Olsen, also participated, enriching the exhibition by loans of Ho’s folk collections, Ho’s studio and a section of their elegant, folk-art filled living room. Ho’s studio is installed in its entirety, cheerfully cluttered with tools, paints, brushes, strings of beads collected who-knows-where, CDs, and books.

GUM SAN JOURNEY NECKPIECE of Merlin’s gold and copper, with Chinese antique porcelain jar fragment, Chinese antique fabricated silver artifact, feather, and silver, 1996. BEARS RELIQUARY of found objects, Tibetan reliquary, felted dog hair, Eskimo ulu knife, Eskimo snowshoe grip, antler, Afghanistan bone carving, with forged and fabricated silver, 2008. LIMEHOUSE BLUES REVISITED NECKPIECE of fabricated silver, pierced and fabricated copper, Prisma color pencil, plexiglass, and leather, 2015.

There are twenty-five jewelry pieces made by Ho in the exhibition. Several were made after BAM’s 2006 Ho retrospective, “Dim Sum at the On-On Tea Room: The Jewelry of Ron Ho.” The newer pieces confirm that even in his final years Ho was a master maker whose design skills were undiminished. In 2010 he made Limehouse Blues Revisited, an homage to a 1934 film noir set in London’s Chinatown. The piece was part of a group show and Ho was required to make his piece relate to 1934. Ho managed to create a visual haiku of traditional and stereotypical Chinese imagery, polished with his usual sheen of joy and exuberance.

A more personal neckpiece was Bears Reliquary, 2008.  The piece was commissioned by a man in honor of his beloved Malamute dog, named Bear. It incorporates found objects from Tibet, Afghanistan and native Alaskans, as well as felted dog hair. With its bits of carved bone and shards of native tools, the neckpiece suggests cultures living in harmony with nature, despite hardships. It is an extraordinary celebration of the companionship and respect between the dog and his human. 

ORCHID DRAGON GALAXY NECKPIECE  of Chinese jade, sandstone carvings, porcelain butterfly, diamonds, forged and fabricated eighteen and fourteen karat gold, shakudo, shibuichi, elastic cording, 2018. After Ho’s death, the neckpiece was completed by his friend and jewelry artist Nadine Kariya, partially following the sketch provided by Ho.

ORCHID DRAGON GALAXY NECKPIECE of Chinese jade, sandstone carvings, porcelain butterfly, diamonds, forged and fabricated eighteen and fourteen karat gold, shakudo, shibuichi, elastic cording, 2018. After Ho’s death, the neckpiece was completed by his friend and jewelry artist Nadine Kariya, partially following the sketch provided by Ho.

One of the newest pieces in the show is Orchid Dragon Galaxy, a neckpiece of Chinese jade, sandstone carvings, diamonds, and a found porcelain butterfly, all forged and fabricated with silver, like nearly all of Ho’s jewelry.  Ho was working on it as he died, and it was finished, in 2018, by his friend, the Seattle jewelry artist Nadine Kariya. In this neckpiece, as in so much of his work, Ho distills traditional Asian design elements into jewelry with compelling cross-cultural references. It is elegant and timeless. It could be the neckpiece for a queen in China, Afghanistan, or anywhere the viewer’s imagination takes her. 

There are old favorites, such as First Birthday, 1990, a neckpiece of a forged and fabricated traditional-looking Chinese chair and a platter of noodles with chopsticks. The piece refers to the historic importance of the first-born child in China, and the family’s dreams for his future. Also on display is Borobudur, 1986, a majestic neckpiece of varnished teak, silver and ivory suggesting a ship under full sail heading to points unknown. The piece is named for the famous ninth-century Buddhist temple in Central Java, and it could easily inspire seekers on spiritual or oceanic journeys. 

Most pieces are loaned from private collections, though some are from the collection of the Tacoma Art Museum. The earliest pieces date to 1975, when Ho was just beginning to explore his Chinese heritage through art. Born in Hawaii to Chinese immigrants on both sides of the family, Ho attended college in Tacoma, Washington, then embarked on a teaching career in schools in Bellevue, Washington. He was a painter and taught art. But his life changed when he took a class at the University of Washington taught by Ramona Solberg, a towering and highly influential figure in the Pacific Northwest jewelry community. At first Solberg was his mentor, encouraging him to explore his Chinese heritage as a subject for his contemporary jewelrymaking. Later the duo became close friends and travel companions who bargained for folk art and jewelry across several continents.

An excellent documentary on Ho runs continuously in the gallery, and it includes long interludes of Ho talking about his life and his art. There are also three of the elaborate Chinese silk jackets he collected, jewelry made for him by friends, including Solberg, and about twenty-five of the rainbow-colored silk shirts he had custom made when he traveled in Asia. He was an artist who saw beauty everywhere he went, and it delighted him. This exhibition is a worthy tribute to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most singular jewelry artists, and a reminder of how much he is missed.

“Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale” shows May 10 - September 15, 2019 at the Bellevue Arts Museum,
510 Bellevue Way, N.E., Bellevue, Washington 98004. Visit their website at
www.bellevuearts.org.

 

Click for Captions

 
 
 

Get Inspired!


Robin-Updike_Contributor.jpg

Robin Updike is a keen, long-time observer of the Pacific Northwest jewelry scene and has interviewed many of the region’s vibrant jewelrymakers for Ornament. Among them is artist Ron Ho, with Updike writing a profile of Ho in advance of his 2006 retrospective at the Bellevue Arts Museum. For this edition, she reviewed a new exhibition on Ho’s life and work at BAM: “I was pleased to discover that the new exhibition does a wonderful job of showing how Ron’s life, family, education, teaching career and friendships all wove together holistically when he made his singular jewelry. Seeing his beautiful collection of silk shirts, a smattering of the folk art treasures he collected around the world, and photos of him with his great friend Ramona Solberg was a lovely reminder of his legacy in the Seattle’s art and jewelry communities.”

Beadwork Adorns the World Volume 41.1

Clockwise left: LAKOTA “CREATION NARRATIVE” SHIRT by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of wool cloth, antique glass beads, 2016. Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unattributed. OBA’S “BARRISTER’S WIG” CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, 21.0 x 17.0 x 15.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Sara and David Lieberman Collection. Photograph by Craig Smith. BABY CARRIER PANEL, Kenyah peoples, Orang Ulu group, Borneo island, Indonesia/Malaysia, of cotton, glass beads, pineapple leaf fiber, 31.0 x 33.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. WEDDING MOCCASINS FOR BRIDE’S IN-LAWS, Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, of tanned hide, glass beads, 26.7 centimeters, circa 1930. MUKYEEM MASK, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, of hide, wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, plant fiber, 39.5 x 44.9 x 54.0 centimeters, pre-1935. Courtesy of the Field Museum. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Clockwise right:
LEOPARD HELMUT MASK, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of raffia, indigo-dyed cotton and trade cotton, glass beads, 53.0 x 79.0 centimeters, circa 1900. HORSE NECK COVER (ghughi), Kathi peoples, Saurashtra region, Gujarat state, India, of cotton, silk, glass beads, mirror, metal, 128.3 x 162.6 centimeters, circa 1930. David McLanahan Collection. OBA’S BRITISH CROWN-STYLE CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. GROOM’S WEDDING BAG, Banjara peoples, Wadi, Gulbarga, Karnataka state, India, of cotton, cowrie shells, metal, 49.0 x 30.5 centimeters, circa 1986. CHINA POBLANA BLOUSE, Puebla, Mexico, of cotton, glass beads, 62.3 x 53.5 centimeters, circa 1935. COLLAR, Saraguro peoples, Ecuador, of glass beads, nylon thread, 11.7 x 37.0 centimeters, 1963. BRIDE’S APRON (ijogolo), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of goatskin, glass beads, 60.5 x 42.0 centimeters, circa 1970. All photographs courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art and by Blair Clark, except where noted.

European glass beads, as author and curator Marsha C. Bol explains, are “the ultimate migrants.” In her exhibit “Beadwork Adorns the World,” which recently closed at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and her accompanying book, The Art & Tradition of Beadwork, she explored how, in the nineteenth century, these trade goods not only went to the far ends of the earth, but also were transformed into an astounding array of cultural and social artifacts. In the West, beadwork became mostly decorative, more so these days in couture and formal wear. But elsewhere, beadwork endowed clothing and objects with formidable power and rich, metaphysical meanings. It became the most profound expression of ritual, of majesty, of identity, and of the spirit world.

Dr. Bol generously agreed to sit down and talk about the years-long process leading to the exhibit. The extended search for superb examples consumed many air miles and many conversations with artists, since so much knowledge has only been passed down orally, from mother to daughter or from an elder to an archaeologist or historian. Intended to dazzle and impress, the beadwork in the exhibit did all that and more.

WEDDING OUTFIT (ulu rajang), Iban peoples, Sarawak state, Borneo island, Malaysia. HEADDRESS of wood, paper, glass beads, cotton, sequins, 38.1 x 61.0 centimeters. DRESS of stone, glass and shell beads, 77.5 centimeters long, twentieth century. David McLanahan Collection.

Q.  What was your inspiration for “Beadwork Adorns the World?”

Actually, it was a book project first. Back in 2011, a tall, stately, white-haired man named Gibbs Smith walked into my office. He was a magnificent man. He wanted to do this; he thought that Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, had been out for quite a long time and he wanted to publish something new; not about beads, but beadwork around the world. He came to me partly because of my background—I did a Ph.D. in Native American art history with a dissertation on Lakota [western Sioux] women’s and men’s arts, and I continue to do fieldwork. And he knew, because of this museum’s holdings, that it was the right place for the project. I was the museum’s director, so it was going to take a while to get it done. Bless his heart; he died about the time the book went to press.




Q.  What types of beadwork were shown in the exhibit?

The whole exhibit included two hundred sixty beaded objects. I used a very broad definition of beads: metal, shell, ceramic—all different kinds of beads, from fifty-two countries and one hundred four known cultural traditions. There were many examples of women and men’s clothing, several crowns, jewelry, and masks. There was also a beaded pillow, boxes, a royal stool, voodoo flags, bowls, and quite a few amulets. The pieces ranged from the nineteenth century to the present day, so it was not just about the past. When you first walked in there was a “Grab Me” piece. Exhibit designers emphasize the importance of that, to pique curiosity and interest. An extraordinary piece, it’s a wedding dress from the Iban people, who live in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Fully beaded, it weighs about thirty-eight pounds, with very large carnelian beads.


HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940.  Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940. Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

Q.  Were there any surprises for you, while you were organizing the exhibit?

I always approach a project like this with two prongs. One is obviously that you need to work with the collections that you already have. But the other prong is to think about the themes and the content. The museum has an impressive collection, and I went through every drawer and every cabinet looking for beadwork. I ran through four part-time assistants during the project. The museum’s photographer, Blair Clark, and I would spend every Friday morning shooting pictures; we ended up taking about one thousand photographs.

As I was looking at objects, I started to realize that they fell into interesting groups of themes, beginning with life passages. It made me aware of something that I’m not sure that I had consciously understood, which is that beadwork is used for these peak moments in the lives of people in almost every culture. So if you start with childhood, from the cradle, then move on to puberty and adolescence, marriage and death, every beadworking society that I know of does it for an occasion, or to identify and set apart a king, a spiritual authority or someone of high status and position.

Then I got to thinking: beadwork is not a structure, like ceramics or textiles; it’s an adornment, an embellishment. It’s not something that can be used solely on its own—it’s almost always married with something else. That also pushed me towards thinking about how the embellishment, which did not stand alone, added to the effectiveness of the piece—maybe gave it more potency. The exhibit was arranged to follow those themes, which were developed in the book.

Click Image to Enlarge

BABY BONNET, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, 9.1 x 2.7 x 4.6 centimeters, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc. CHILD’S HAT, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, of cotton, silk, glass beads, buttons, metal, embroidered applied trim, 58.0 x 12.0 centimeters, circa 1950. BOY’S HAT, Bai peoples, Dali county, Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China, of silk, cotton, metal beads and objects, feathers, yarn, embroidered appliquéd applied trim, diameter: 14.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Photographs by Addison Doty.

Q.  What was the toughest part of the show to pull together?

Trying to be international! We were missing some areas and I couldn’t travel everywhere, which was frustrating. When I did get away for work, I searched for beadwork. I went to Uzbekistan, southwest China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to look at the African collection, which is absolutely mind-boggling. I found a wonderful private collection of Lakota beadwork that is in two homes, here and in San Diego.

What is also special to me about the exhibit and the book is giving more recognition to the beadwork of Borneo. The examples we included came from a private collection in Seattle. Pieces like those are considered treasures in Borneo. Before glass beads came in through the trade network, they were getting carnelian beads from Java. Their designs are very recognizable, especially for the Orang Ulu people. Among indigenous people in Borneo there’s a hierarchy; certain designs belonged to the aristocracy and certain ones to the middle class. The beadwork on baby cradles serves a double function, to reveal social position and for protection. Babies’ souls like to wander, so the beaded panels distract evil spirits and keep them away from harming the baby.

BOY’S VEST AND PANTS, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc.

Q.  No matter where you looked, Venetian and Czech glass beads seem to have gone all around the world. How did they become so widespread?

First it was the Venetian, and then the Czech glass beads. Beads were always expensive; they had a lot of value as prestige items. In fact in some places in Africa, like among the Zulu, the king controlled the rights to the bead trade; only the king and members of his court were allowed to wear beadwork on their headdresses and clothing. There are three desirable things about glass beads. First of all, they are quite durable, and last a long time even though they are glass; secondly, they have a luster and shine that is very attractive; and thirdly they come in many different colors, which is also extremely appealing.

On the Plains, seed beads arrived around 1850. You cannot say that, among the Lakota, there was nothing before then, because there was dyed quillwork, and many of the old geometric designs carried over into beadwork. Later on, during the reservation period for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes, there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to abandon traditional ways, including traditional clothing. There was a big florescence of beadwork then on the reservations, part of which I believe had to do with trying to preserve the identity of the children. That’s why you saw a little boy’s vest and pants, which are very Western in style, yet they are totally Lakota because they are not made out of cloth; they are made out of hide completely covered in beadwork. This kind of outfit would be more acceptable to the Indian agent and government people, yet it let everyone in the family feel a strong sense of their culture.






Q.  So wherever you go in the world, beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

There’s a fascinating example of that, which is well-recorded, from Zulu beadwork in South Africa. Zulu beadwork does the talking for the women when it’s involved in courtship. Young women would make beadwork bracelets, cuffs, ankle bands, or necklaces as gifts for the young man they had their eye on.

We call them “love letters,” though they were not quite that. The necklaces in the exhibit dated from the late nineteenth century and were loaned from the Field Museum. Scholars disagree about this, but from the colors and designs, proverbs could be discerned. It was not like a personal message, but let a young man know her intentions. A young Zulu man could pile on beadwork from many girls, all at the same time; a piece didn’t obligate him. And of course the more he wore, the more status he had.

One of the most exciting things about doing this project was that every piece has a story to tell, because they are all deeply imbedded in the cultures that make and use them. I tried to share those stories in the label texts, though of course you’re limited in the amount of space you have. But one day I was at the museum after the show had opened and I overhead a man—a man, no less—come out of the show and say to his friends, “That show! There’s a story about every piece!” He was very excited, and I was doubly thrilled because it was a man—often we think of beadwork as women’s work—and because he understood there was a story with everything.

“LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. “LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0-19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. Photographs by John Weinstein.

Q.  Let’s talk about Western attitudes towards beadwork as “women’s work.” There was a thought-provoking section of the exhibit and the book called “Gender in Beadwork.”

We underestimate beadwork’s importance in other cultures. The idea in the exhibit was to honor and acknowledge women’s artistry and creativity in beadwork. In traditional societies, there has always been a division of labor by gender. Women worked with materials for the home, like making pottery or baskets. The fineness and beauty of what women produced brought them respect and rank: it gave them status. Even in our culture doing beadwork was a practical skill; it demonstrated a woman’s housekeeping capabilities, how she could produce useful things. Certainly in fashion today beadwork is prized.


Q.  Some beadwork from Africa radiates drama and power and grandeur. There were examples from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Bamileke in Cameroon and the Kuba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why is that beadwork so imposing?

Those are magnificent pieces, all intended for the king. Again, the right to wear trade beads belonged exclusively to royalty. It’s very powerful, gorgeous stuff. Only a professional male beadworker can make the king’s regalia, and he actually does it at court. In hierarchical societies, the kings usually have both political and spiritual leadership. The star of that section was the great Yoruba crown. It reinforces the king’s divinity, separating him from other people; when he wears that crown, he embodies the oba, who can communicate with ancestral spirits. The long beaded veil covers his face, and he holds an elaborately beaded flywhisk to hide his mouth as he’s speaking. His feet can’t touch the ground, so they rest on beaded cushions. The faces on the crown represent the first oba, Oduduwa. When someone consults the oba, he is not asking about his future. In their belief system, you know everything that is going to happen before you emerge into this life. As you are born, you touch the tree of forgetfulness. You are asking the oba to remind you of what you used to know.

The king only wears that crown for major ceremonial occasions. He has day-to-day crowns, which resemble the British crown; Nigeria was a British colony during the nineteenth century. There are even beaded British-style wigs for court. That’s a good example of how traditional beadwork merged into modern society.

OBA ADEMUWAGUN ADESIDA II, in the courtyard of his palace, Akure, Nigeria, 1959. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art. OBA’S GREAT CROWN (adenla), Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of palm ribs armature (pako), cornstarch (eko), cotton, glass beads, thread, 114.0 x 22.9 centimeters, 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Dawson Gallery.


Q.  The world is changing so fast. Does beadwork still have a cultural role to play?

Beadwork is still essential to reaffirm identity. For instance, after the Boer War in South Africa, the Ndzundza Ndebele people were indentured out to farms all over the country, scattered far from their homeland and each other. Ndzundza Ndebele women, even under those circumstances, began again to hold puberty ceremonies for boys and girls in these faraway places, which involved beaded aprons. Ndebele women are identified by their age-stage beaded aprons: for little girls, as unmarried adolescents, and as married women, when the apron has five distinct lobes. They held onto making and wearing these beaded aprons and are known for them today.

It’s always evolving. Nellie Star Boy Menard from Rosebud on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and I were judging at an arts fair in Bismarck, North Dakota. She saw a piece of beadwork and said, “Oh, that’s not Sioux enough.” I have talked to Florentine Blue Thunder and Tom Haukaas, who make their own pow-wow outfits, and they keep to the more historic traditions, but they complain that the judges now don’t know how to tell the old styles and designs. The pow-wow and social-dance competitions help beadwork to continue. If you don’t have a market for your arts, whether internal, among tribal members, or external, among outsiders, they are not going to survive.

ZULU RICKSHAW PULLERS ON THE BEACHFRONT, Durban, South Africa, early 1980s. Photograph by Jean Morris.


Q.  How can these older cultures stay resilient and sustain their beadwork traditions?

One way is through re-invention. In South Africa, Zulu rickshaw pullers became celebrated for their outfits. In the 1890s, somebody from Durban went to Singapore and brought back rickshaws (this is before there were cars). Only Zulu men were allowed to pull them, but then someone said they needed to wear a uniform so the police could identify who they were.

The Zulu men themselves created these wild, wonderful, imaginative costumes with the enormous, amazing headdresses. The oxen horns associated the strength of the ox with the man. They were a tourist attraction, and the men would stage their own competitions for who had the best costume. In the past they were famous warriors, so it became a source of real pride for the Zulu men.

Another way is through the marketplace. A purposeful part of the exhibit was to let visitors know that beadwork is still very much a living tradition. Within various sections I included profiles of contemporary artists, or of women’s co-ops who are working today. An example was the netted-beadwork necklaces made by indigenous Saraguro women in Ecuador. They’ve joined together five local associations into one big co-op, for marketing purposes and for buying materials. They can still make part of their traditional ethnic dress and bring in income to support their families. Oftentimes they are the main breadwinners in their communities.

CHILD’S BLOUSE PANEL, northern Afghanistan, of cotton, glass beads, 38.0 x 32.7 centimeters, twentieth century. Anne and Bill Frej Collection.

I should mention here that the International Folk Art Market was a great help to me, because a lot of beadwork artists come to the market and I was able to connect with them. The world is getting smaller all the time, and more beadwork traditions are crossing into global awareness. Artists are finding ways to adapt their beadwork and introduce innovations yet keep it meaningful. As I discuss in the book, beadwork has even moved into contemporary art. At the opening, Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves told me she was so grateful to be included in an international show, and not strictly a Native American show. That made it all worthwhile.


Q.  As you were considering pieces for the exhibit and writing your book, you developed criteria for quality and excellence. Did you wind up with any personal favorites?

There were so many pieces I loved for different reasons, but some were standouts for me, because of the amount of incredible beadwork on them, the skill of the artists and the aesthetics. I’m thinking of Tom “Red Owl” Haukaas’s beaded Lakota cradles; the nineteenth-century double-headed elephant stool covered in red tube beads used by the king in Cameroon; the wonderful Brulé Lakota violin case; and a Ndebele married woman’s wearing blanket.

VIOLIN CASE, Brulé Lakota, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, of commercial wood case, native-tanned hide, metal trim, glass beads, 81.3 x 25.4 x 11.4 centimeters, 1891. Courtesy of Stars and Stripes Foundation.

“Beadwork Adorns the World” showed April 22, 2018 - February 3, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Visit their website at internationalfolkart.org. The 16th Annual International Folk Art Market takes place July 12 - 14, 2019, Milner Plaza, on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit their website at folkartmarket.org.


SUGGESTED READING
Bol, Marsha C.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Dubin, Lois Sherr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Liu, Robert K.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, CA: Ornament Inc, 1995.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher.
“The Language of Personal Adornment.” In The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979.
Sumberg, Bobbie.
Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

 

Click Image to Enlarge

FON’S ROYAL STOOL, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of wood, raffia cloth, glass beads, 41.0 x 45.0 x 50.0 centimeters, nineteenth century. Photograph by John Weinstein. MITAKUYE OYASIN CRADLE by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of brain-tanned elk hide, cotton, glass beads, thread, 68.5 x 23.5 x 30.5 centimeters, 2005. Marilyn Eber Collection. MARRIED WOMAN’S BLANKET (irari), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of wool, glass beads, 269.2 x 381.2 centimeters, circa 1970.


Leslie-Clark.jpg

Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is endlessly fascinated by the variety, intricacy, technical prowess, and rich beauty of beadwork. “I kept going back to the recent exhibit ‘Beadwork Adorns the World’ just to feast my eyes and try to understand more,” she says. “Once you discover the complex meanings of beadwork in other cultures, you come away with a real sense of awe and wonder.” She has taken the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition to a more revealing level, with her Ornament interview with Marsha C. Bol, curator of the exhibit, as Bol discusses how throughout the world beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

Dressed with Distinction Volume 41.1

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, tablet weaving, Ottoman Syria, nineteenth century. WOMAN’S JACKET (salteh) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, toothed tapestry technique, Bedouin peoples, Aleppo, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early to mid-twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century.

MAN’S COAT ( damir ) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

How we dress tells a story that, in the case of traditional clothing, can stretch back thousands of years. The world’s culture has been built, layer upon layer, as pivotal moments of history effect changes on textiles like the rings of a tree’s trunk. For a certain country residing in the Levant, that history goes farther back than most. Currently at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria” is an awesome display of clothing predating the rise of the modern Syrian state.

One California day, cloaked in the clouds of an unseasonably wet winter, I had the chance to see the garments up close and prior to installation, courtesy of Joanna Barrkman, Senior Curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific Arts. Donated to the Fowler by Dr. David and Elizabeth Reisbord, both of whom live in Santa Monica, their collection came as something of a mystery. In the spirit of properly documenting and identifying the twenty-eight garments that were donated (twenty-three are exhibited), the museum partnered with Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the nonprofit Textile Research Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, due to her expertise in Middle Eastern clothing and fabrics.

Syria’s long history and geographical position has served to enrich its textiles, lending an edge of refinement that can take one’s breath away. As the hub for multiple trading routes, Aleppo and Damascus received a bounty of raw materials and foreign influences. Two of the coats in the exhibition bear the vibrating patterns of ikat dyeing, where it is known by the Arabic term tarbit. Locally produced in both Aleppo and the city of Homs, these long, flowing clothes, with a narrow neck and a cut that tapers from a wide base to a narrowing beneath the arms, show the inclusion of lining cloth that originated from abroad. Barrkman mentions that a concurrent exhibition of Central Asian ikats at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also based on a gift by the Reisbords, features Russian cotton prints on the interior. From Uzbekistan to Syria, global trade made its mark on local textiles.

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) outer front and inside back, of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, hand embroidery, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. WOMAN’S SILK HEADCOVERING (hatta) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, lance, Homs, Kasrawabiye/Homsiyye style, Ottoman Syria, mid-to-early twentieth century.

 

The silk itself was a foreign introduction. Silk production eventually was cultivated in Syria, but had been originally introduced through the Silk Road and Chinese trade. One of these ikat coats, a woman’s garment known as a qumbas, is an outlier among the collection. From post-Ottoman Syria, around the 1950s, an identifiable trait is its vibrant aniline dyes, which were in widespread use in the Middle East by the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike its sister garment, the piece sports delicate crimson cordwork along the cuff. The cordwork is associated with the Jordanian town of Ma’an, but it was possibly a response to the influence of being introduced to French exports, including lace.

Standup collars were a notable adoption into Syrian fashion, brought on by Arab admiration for the stiff collars of French military uniforms. A Bedouin woman’s jacket, one of two appearing in the exhibit, coquettishly sports this cultural adoption. These jackets differ from the largely silk garments of Syrian Arabs by being woven from sheep’s wool. Their cut, while still bearing a rectangular shape, possesses short sleeves, a nod perhaps to the more rugged life of these nomadic people. Bright pink flowers nestled in sea-green leaves chase each other up and down the lapels, flanked by detailed geometric designs. By this time aniline dyes from Europe largely replaced the natural dyes that had been used for hundreds of years. Most of the clothes in the Reisbords’ collection are thus aniline dyed.

The close aesthetic kinship between the Bedouins and urban Arabs is immediately apparent when one is introduced to the mainstay of the exhibition, the glorious silk abaya. These open-faced robes with voluminous sleeves appear in repose like a flat square, cryptically remote from the items of apparel that they actually are. Their construction is not unfamiliar, with long rectangles of cloth pieced together, bearing a close resemblance to the kimono. They, like the kimono, are overgarments, meant to be worn over a blouse or shirt, and in use by both sexes.

When not being worn, abayas appear inert, like carpets or tapestries rather than items of clothing; but when draped on the human form, they transform the wearer into a canvas upon which intricate designs, shimmering surfaces and bold colors dance. One can imagine how the streets of Damascus and Aleppo must have been filled with a bright parade of fashionable men and women.

WOMAN’S COAT (  qumbas, kumbas  ) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

WOMAN’S COAT (qumbas, kumbas) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

Many of the abayas are recipients of tapestry-weave, a technique so-called due to its traditional employment in tapestries. The weave is weft-faced, with no warp threads visible, and discontinuous, having different colored threads only in the areas of the surface design. This allows for complicated imagery and geometric patterns, rather than a repeated motif that extends end to end. With its application to a piece of clothing, the results are nothing short of magical. Sweeping triangles of the most subtle shades trail off into spiderweb thin strands of the same, with stylized flowers and shafts of grain spilling bright colors across the background. This is just the tip of the legacy of textile production in Syria. Aleppo was well known as a center of textile industry since the thirteenth century, an eight-hundred-year pedigree of excellence.

Beyond its fame for masterful tapestries, Syria was also known for its tabby-weave, or hermezi, a method where weft threads go over and under each individual warp thread. Laborious and time-consuming on a scale that is difficult to comprehend, Syrian artisans made their trade weaving these superlative textiles, which were also incorporated into their clothes.

One particular piece in the exhibition, a magnificent golden abaya with silvery columns enfilading in procession down the front and back of the garment, is an example of moiré and metallic threading. The otherworldly rippling surface of moiré is caused by pressing a wooden or metal plate or roller, incised with a pattern, to two layers of fabric under heat.

WOMAN’S BODY COVERING (çarshaf) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, interlocking tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century.

While these garments are different in cut, color and styling to modern wear in the twenty-first century, it is good to remember how much they inspired European dress at the turn of the twentieth century. Fascination with the Orient, that loose construct that played in one’s imagination as catchall for exoticism, led to a relaxing of the shape of European apparel. Boutiques took note of the voluminousness of Middle Eastern sleeves, a different approach to structure that no doubt had a few tailors stroking their chins thoughtfully. This shift away from tight corsets and forms that built upon and restricted the body was due at least in part to the interplay between cultures.

The message behind the exhibition is a subtle but important one; fabric weaves all of humanity together. The clothing in the collection, beyond its brilliant workmanship and sumptuous aesthetics, represents a culmination of historical trade, exchange and knowledge. Syria’s textile tradition has gone back over a thousand years, with the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus having survived over different incarnations. Throughout this expanse of time they built and refined an industry measured in lifetimes of skill. In this way it is rather like a tree’s rings, but in a form so beautifully abstract that it tugs the heartstrings.

This historical legacy has an impact on the present, one which Barrkman and Vogelsang-Eastwood are anxious to share. The living tradition of textile production in Syria has suffered greatly due to the civil war that has engulfed that region since 2011. These marvelous items of clothing represent a thread that may yet be severed. To the Syrian community in the United States, Barrkman hopes this exhibition provides them with a connection to their past, their memories and to their culture.

“Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria,” shows at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E Young Dr. N., Los Angeles, California 90024, through August 18, 2019. Visit their website at www.fowler.ucla.edu. You can read more about the Textile Research Centre at their website, www.trc-leiden.nl/trc.


SUGGESTED READING
GILLOW, JOHN. Textiles of the Islamic World.
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2010.
SULEMAN, FAHMIDA.
Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2017.
VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, GILLIAN. Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019.

Get Inspired!


PBL_Contributor-2018.jpg

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. His most recent journeys have taken him through two exhibitions, one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles. The common thread? World history in personal adornment. At the Neue Galerie, a private museum dedicated to Austro-German art and craft, a small one-room exhibition laid out the major players and the evolution of jewelry produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Building on the principles established by the Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte was instrumental in the development of contemporary art jewelry. A subsequent visit to the Fowler Museum at UCLA explored the influence of the Ottomans on Syrian clothing and textile production. From east to west, and west to east, he was impressed by the cross-section of human ingenuity and creativity.

Uneasy Beauty Volume 41.1

 
UBIQUITOUS BONE CHAIN by Caitlin Skelcey of ABS plastic, stainless steel machine screws, 3D printing pen, implanted screws, 86.4 x 7.6 x 10.2 centimeters, 2016.

UBIQUITOUS BONE CHAIN by Caitlin Skelcey of ABS plastic, stainless steel machine screws, 3D printing pen, implanted screws, 86.4 x 7.6 x 10.2 centimeters, 2016.

 

As Beth McLaughlin, chief curator of exhibitions and collections at the Fuller Craft Museum, explained in her foreword to the catalogue for “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” the forty-four artists in this remarkable show created wearables that “produce, rather than alleviate, tension.” Whether a spider brooch, a cumbersome collar, or an unsettling rosary, guest curator Suzanne Ramljak selected adornments that reflect what she calls a “no-pain-no-gain beauty ethos.”

The exhibition was divided into four parts: “Victim Fashion,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Natural Aversions,” and “On the Edge.” The work was consistently engaging, surprising—oftentimes provoking—from piece to piece and section to section.

One of the stand-outs in “Victim Fashion” was Protector Against Illness: Black Tamoxifen Bra, 1996. Mimi Smith affixed actual tamoxifen pills to an undergarment of nylon and lace, each pill surrounded by a decorative constellation of painted dots. Curator Ramljak called the piece “more breast cancer talisman than seductive lingerie.”

Daniel Jocz and Anika Smulovitz went the collar route in their exploration of the Victim Fashion theme. Jocz’s outsized shiny black-winged Crash Angel, 2007, from his Ruff series, was made of metals—aluminum, copper and chrome—painted with autobody lacquer. By contrast, Smulovitz repurposed men’s shirt collars to create the uncomfortable-looking White Collar, 2005. Apropos this piece, Ramljak reminds us that in the nineteenth century, starched collars sometimes proved “so unyielding that they actually choked wearers, earning them the nickname Vatermörder or ‘father killer.’ ”

 

HOLOCAUST NECKLACE by Joyce Scott of peyote-stitched glass beads, threads, 30.5 x 19.7 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Emelee Van Zee. Photographs courtesy of Fuller Craft Museum.

 

“Flesh and Blood” explored the body as a good source for ornaments. Holland Houdek incorporates medical implants and prostheses into her jewelry. Asymmetrical Mammoplasty Double Breast Implant Necklace, 2005, featured silicone breast implants set within ornate patinaed copper filigree rondos accented with Swarovski crystals. To create her Botanical Fiction series, Heather White cast anatomical fragments, among them, navels, nipples and lips, and composed them into floral ornaments. Seven sets of oxidized silver lips encircled a center of pink pearls inset in eighteen karat gold in White’s Botanical Fiction: Murmuring brooch from 2015.

Phobias came to the fore in the “Natural Aversions” section. A spider brooch by Marta Mattson was part of her 2013 Wear Your Fear series. Less anxiety-inspiring were Mallory Weston’s two snake pieces, Python Hot Pants and Constrictor Choker #1, both 2016, constructed from gold-filled bronze, silver, copper, steel, leather, cotton, and thread. The simulation of serpent skin was stunning.

STUDY OF SNAPPING TURTLES by David Freda of fine silver, sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, and enamel, 3. x 53.3 x 5.1 centimeters, 2000.

David Freda’s Study of Snapping Turtles necklace, 2000, made from silver, eighteen karat yellow gold and enamel, also was remarkable in its illusion. Sixteen off-white turtle eggs are arranged in a circle, with baby turtles crawling out from six of them and one snapper fully emerged. While among the most prehistoric-looking creatures, the snapper babies are somehow precious, even with their mouths open. Nonetheless, it’s a necklace, said Ramljak, which “takes gall to wear upon one’s jugular.”

The work in “On the Edge” dealt with political/social issues in a range of forceful ways. Several pieces took on violence. Jim Bassler’s Homeland Security jersey, 2015, overlaid what looks like medieval chain mail over a Boston Marathon singlet. This wool, linen and nylon vest will hardly protect one from bombings.

Child abuse in the Catholic Church was the subject of Angela Gleason’s Sins of Our Fathers necklace, 2006. From her Indulgences series, this five-foot-long “rosary” was made of small identical kneeling and praying children molded from silicone. Anchoring the necklace is a priest, also silicone. Like many pieces in the show, the point of Gleason’s necklace was quite obvious, but the takeaway is not immediate and reverberates as one considers where/why one might wear it.

The exhibition catalogue includes an essay by Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “À la Mode, à la Mort” explored some of the historical precedents for “uneasy” —read torturous—adornments, from corsets to footbinding.

In conjunction with the show, students in the Fashion Design and Jewelry and Metalsmith departments at the Massachusetts College of Art were asked to create “uncomfortable” works. “Discomfort Zone: Fashion and Adornment from MassArt” featured objects that “hinder bodily movement, inflict corporal pain, and provoke emotional distress.” Part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of eight cultural institutions whose goal is to celebrate the Bay State’s fashion culture, the show ran October 13 - November 4, 2018.

 

LOST IN TIME BRACELET AND WATCH by Kim Lilot of eighteen karat and fourteen karat gold, Rolex watch, iron, steel, Tamahagane (Japanese metal for swordmaking), Rubellite, tourmaline, diamonds, urushi finish ,7.6 x 7.6 x 3.8 centimeters.

 

Like the artists in “Uneasy Beauty,” the students addressed personal, social and global issues in their work—and turned to a number of unconventional materials to do so: synthetic hair, nail polish, packing peanuts, insulation foam and Iranian Rial coins. “Beauty is not black and white,” writes senior/fourth year student Emma Scott in her statement, a sentiment that might serve as the rallying cry for many of the artists featured at the Fuller.

“Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” showed at the Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, Massachusetts 02301, October 6, 2018 – April 21, 2019. Visit their website at www.fullercraft.org.


SUGGESTED READING
RAMLJAK, SUZANNE.
Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment. Brockton, MA: Fuller Craft Museum, 2018.

 
 

BRAVE 4: BREAST PLATE by Boris Bally of gun-triggers, gun-bolts and gun-barrels (steel) and brass shells, mounted on stainless steel cord, .925 silver, 66 x 29.2 x 5.1 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Aaron Usher III.

SNAKE BAG by Leah Aripotch of bronze, 30.5 x 15.2 x 17.8 centimeters, 2013.

 

Carl-Little_Contributor.jpg

Maine-based writer Carl Little made his second trip to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, while on assignment for Ornament. Little marveled at the variety of work on display, from the remarkable pieces in “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” reviewed in this issue to “Assembly: Recent Acquisitions,” which included one of John Bisbee’s nail sculptures, jewelry by Donna D’Aquino and that of the late Fred Woell. Little contributes reviews and profiles to Art New England and Hyperallergic. He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island. Little’s most recent book is Paintings of Portland, co-authored with his brother David. Look for his next feature in Ornament on San Francisco jeweler and designer Julia Turner.

Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery Volume 40.4

TRUTH IS BEAUTY by Marco Cochrane of stainless steel rod and stainless steel mesh, 2013. Photograph by Eleanor Preger, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery. THE 10 PRINCIPLES. Night scene: BURNING MAN PARTICIPANTS, 2013. Photograph by Neil Girling, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

Creativity is the principle that lies at the fiery heart of Burning Man. It is the sacred act that is celebrated by this neo-Pagan, techno-Hinduist, born-again-hippie festival, which represents to participants the absolute freedom to be one’s true self. It is appropriate that the hellishly hot, sandy basin in which the event sits is called the Playa. Metaphorically, it’s located on the boundaries of modern civilization and the vast unknown, between proverbial sea and sand. Effectively, it’s humanity’s sandbox, a place to play without all of the artificial constraints and prejudices we humans have made for ourselves.

      That word, play, is a much underappreciated aspect of human nature. Nora Atkinson would probably agree. As the Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft for the Renwick Gallery, Atkinson put together the landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” for many reasons, ranging from the personal (a former resident of the state of Washington, she felt a longing for West Coast culture) to the idealistic. As the quintessential outsider event, bringing Burning Man to the nation’s capital had more than a touch of subversiveness to it.

Burning Man was born in San Francisco, on the original Playa, Baker Beach, in 1986. It all began when carpenter Larry Harvey and his friend, Jerry James, knocked up a crude wooden effigy of a human being, dubbed the Man, bundled him up into the back of a Ford pickup truck, and carried it down to the shoreline. There, they and a group of friends raised the combustible figure, doused him with gasoline, and the rest is history.

WINTER IS COMING... by Manish Arora of silk and metallic armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, chain-linked by hand, 2015. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

THE PLAYA PROVIDES NECKPIECE from various artists, assembled by Jennifer George, of metal, plastic, crystal, abalone, wood, and sterling silver, 2006-2017. The gifting economy that underpins the entire foundation of Burning Man, both literally and figuratively, leads to a continual and constant exchange of medals, pendants, badges, brooches, and other memorabilia as signs of affection, friendship, community, and shared memories. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Well, not quite. The catalysts that transformed the Baker Beach gathering into a temporary settlement nestled in the sweltering sands of Nevada desert were the po-po, and a group of like-minded malcontents, thrillseekers and iconoclasts known as the Cacophony Society. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the Society came from a small group of friends who dubbed themselves the Suicide Club—after surviving, according to local lore, a stint hanging precariously from a loose railing over the crashing Pacific Ocean below Fort Point. Afterwards, Gary Warne and three compatriots recovered to safety, with a solemn oath to live each day as their last. These dwellers of the fringe, inhabiting the periphery of the human experience, would attract more like-minded individuals. Happenstance (and word of mouth) brought the flotsam and jetsam of San Francisco together on Baker Beach, celebrating the immolation of the Burning Man.

The festivities were interrupted in 1990, as the local police informed the revelers that the party was over. The community did not waste any time; during Labor Day weekend, a procession set out from Golden Gate Park, to find Burning Man’s new home, in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, far to the north of Reno. Here, in the middle of nowhere, underneath the blazing sun, a member of this band of merry adventurers, Michael Michael, marked the boundary between worlds with a foot dragged through the dirt, baptizing it with the words, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.”

AERIAL VIEW of Burning Man gathering at Black Rock City, 2012.  Photograph by Scott London.

      Black Rock City is the real final frontier (pardons to Gene Roddenberry). There might be a lot of wild, unexplored and untamed land left on planet Earth, but Burning Man dives deep into the social, spiritual and ethical territory that lays far out in uncharted waters. Ten Principles girdle the philosophical foundation of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and last, but absolutely not least, Immediacy. It is radical in that most honest of ways, by being a pure expression of what it preaches.

What may surprise those who view the festival as frivolous is the amount of work that goes into organizing Burning Man, and the structures that have grown up around it. The Department of Public Works (whose insignia is the Man circumscribed by the spokes of a tire wheel, embedded in a great black gear) has a laundry list of tasks that include “Building logical roads, creating and placing signage, maintaining approved potable water systems, providing portable and stationary electrical power, assisting with major art projects, and setting up the small-plane airport and runway.” The fact that between all those practical considerations, nestled surreptitiously, is the art, illustrates how the boundaries between practical life and art grow thin and merge together here. Like in many indigenous and folk traditions, there is no separation.

It was this challenge, of authentically presenting the spirit of the event, presenting the glitz and glamour without obscuring the substance, that Nora Atkinson faced in mounting the exhibition at the Renwick, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like a living flame, its temporary nature and spontaneity is its essence. How do you communicate that to an audience inside a building that is more than a century old?

 

BEFORE I DIE by Candy Chang (New Orleans, Louisiana), 2011. As an experiment in community building, and healing, Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood of New Orleans. A response to a loved one who had just died, now these participatory installations, like David Best’s Temple, allow its audience an intimate relation with the art. In fact, the audience is part of the art itself. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

 

      The key, Atkinson reveals, is collaboration. “I reached out early on to the Burning Man organization. I had already had in my head a number of artists that I wanted to include, many of them being perennial artists that I thought really represented the aesthetics that have come out of Burning Man. But I also wanted to make sure that the community felt heard, and that the internal community favorites made it into the show, and that we had a really wide spread.” She makes reference to the populist nature that is at the root of Burning Man, an “Anything You Can Do I Can Do” ethos that sees MFA trained artists creating installations alongside carpenters and death metal heads.

Some, like Michael Garlington, graduated from Burning Man University by first working in the Department of Public Works, then apprenticing to celebrities such as David Best, who created the temple made of recycled wood that takes over the Grand Salon on Renwick’s second floor. Now Garlington’s work is exhibited by a gallery, and he erects his own sacred structures on the dusty surface of the Playa. For Atkinson, revealing this network of connections and relationships that develop through the festival was vital, as was giving Burners (a term for Burning Man attendees/devotees that is as contentious as it is ubiquitous) a voice in the show. “We actually put out a call in the Burning Man community, through the Burning Man organization, asking people to submit artists that they thought were important, artists that were some of their favorites, to us. And there were some pieces in the exhibition that made it in that were discovered through people’s suggestions.”

TEMPLE by David Best and the Temple Crew of recycled wood, 2018. Best creates wooden temples, spiritual structures, that are lit on fire each year at Burning Man. The Renwick commissioned him to create a temple for the exhibition, which Best dedicated to people who have lost, whether it be a loved one or something else. Visitors were encouraged to write on small wooden plaques that could be placed at the various altars around the temple. Best has said that there are few sacred spaces where people can reflect on loss and to celebrate and remember our deepest emotions. Photographs by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      While the art installations may be the most memorable aspect of the festival’s visual milieu, Atkinson wanted to present the experience of Burning Man in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and what is a day on the Playa without body paint, glow-in-the-dark fabrics and otherworldly outfits?

READY TO LOVE ENSEMBLE by Manish Arora of thread, silk, beads, crystals, faux patent leather, felt, sequins, and iridescent armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, hand-appliquéd, chain-linked by hand, 2016. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      Normally we associate costumes and clothing as being different; one is unserious, fun and fantastical, while the other is outerwear to protect ourselves from the elements. Both however are the same in one very obvious respect: they are objects worn on the body. It is the gentle and not-so-gentle continuous pressure of society that makes certain outfits “costumes,” generally because they are too outlandish for people to comfortably accept as clothing. 

In fact, we are rejecting the validity of the wearer’s humanity. A person wearing something so outside the norm that we don’t recognize them as part of “our group” anymore becomes a caricature. Whether it is the loose, voluminous clothing of a clown, replete with red hair and rubber nose, or the dazzling ethnic attire from a foreign culture, for many people that invokes The Label of Other.

The costumes and clothing generated by Burners speak to the dissolution of societal labeling, just as the gifting of food, water and services represents an intentional shift away from a heartless status quo towards a healthy one. What you wear on the Playa is an expression of self; a statement of both exploration and identity where the message is simply, “This is who I am.” Whether the image you are projecting is what you want to be, what you actually are underneath society’s baggage, or the self you are finally, after many years, comfortable with revealing, Burning Man, for all its carnival illusions, is rather more real than the circus it superficially resembles.

With limited space and a huge breadth of material, Atkinson had to establish criteria for what pieces she wanted to display in the exhibition. The route she chose was to present artist and designer-made costumes to highlight the more unusual and fantastic wearables seen at Burning Man, while using photographs to give visitors an idea of what the every day Playa-goer looks like. She jokes about how when she has taken Burners through the exhibition, the most audible criticism is “Where’s the duct tape?” For many, who don’t know how to sew or cut fabric for clothing, ensembles are assembled from thrift-store purchases and random gear shimmied together with glue and a prayer.

NAGANA BRASS GOWN by Gelareh Alam of hand-cut leather, and custom metal work by Jungle Tribe, 2014. Although resembling something out of Mad Max, Alam’s intention for both pieces in the exhibition were born of a desire to express her thoughts on the emotional investment, both good and difficult, that love requires in a wearable piece. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      That is not the case with the specimens on display here. Even though they appear like the regalia of alien queens, Gelareh Alam’s Cocoon Gown and Nagana Brass Gown, along with Caley Johnson’s collaborative piece the Crown of Nagini, are more than simple costumes. Rather than being made for theatrics or pretending, Alam’s clothing is meant to raise the stature of the wearer, and to create an aura of confidence that elevates them. They are also deeply personal. Alam, who grew up during the Iranian revolution, has been going through a journey of self-realization since she arrived in the States.

When Alam first came to the U.S. to study fashion design at the Art Institute of California, she was moving from a degree in psychology to a new world, without being able to speak English. She found her voice through visual communication, which she feels led to her emphasizing sight above the other four senses. America gave her the room to explore and grow as a human being. When Alam went to Burning Man in 2007, as she was completing her degree, it was because a friend gifted her with a birthday ticket.

What that visit did for her self-confidence was profound. She brought some of her clothing to the festival, and the recognition she received from total strangers was like the cosmos giving her the proverbial wink and nod. “I could not believe the response I was getting. It was amazing to see. Suddenly I was being praised for the creativity that I was not allowed to practice growing up, and that was a huge transformation.

“Burning Man was so natural for me, it felt like home,” says Alam. “Expression in the elements. Sublime. Here was a culture screaming that radical self-expression was not just good, but demanded. It was a place to re-define myself, and align with peace, equality, human empathy. It was transformational and deeply empowering. As an artist I am constantly in search of inspiration and constantly trying to break through those barriers. At Burning Man, this is the whole point of everything anyone does there.”

THORAX, AMBASSADOR OF THE INSECTS by Tyler FuQua of reclaimed materials, 2015-16. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

     Tyler FuQua has been constructing giant puppets for over fifteen years as his true passion, while making a living as a contractor. Building things is in his blood, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or creating large metal installations. “Of course, it’s way more fun to build a giant robot instead of remodeling a bathroom,” he explains, “but sometimes I get projects that combine art and functionality.” His wearable costume, grandly titled Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects, was inspired as he mused about the speaker grills on his stereo, which resembled alien bug eyes. “I made the first helmet using these grills but it was just too ominous. I build fun things for all ages so this just wasn’t doing it for me. I went back to the drawing board and made what you see now. I really wanted to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, so the creation of Thorax was really determined by what I could find on the shelves at thrift stores. I would just walk around with an open mind until I found something that would work for what I needed. A lot of my art is creature-based, and I am a huge superhero fan, so Thorax is a conglomeration of those two things.”

There is also an element of self-invention. For many, Burning Man is that rare time in their life when they can be someone else. The straitjacket of their work, home or family life is temporarily lifted, and they are free to experiment with who they are. On the Playa, Burners find themselves anew, break apart previous conceptions of self, and come back together, rejuvenated, in some cases reborn, no LSD or ayahuasca required.

That isn’t to say everyone who comes to Burning Man finds it a transcendent experience; indeed, the point is the festival represents different things to different people. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a uniquely American phenomenon. Atkinson notes one of the reasons why she chose it as the subject of an exhibition was that Burning Man is as American as apple pie. “It was born in this very frontier culture, this sort of West Coast culture and Silicon Valley, believing that just because something has been done one way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done. The idea of being out in a vast, empty environment and creating something entirely new from scratch has a lot to do with the entire American dream and the spirit of what we are as a country.”

TOTEM OF CONFESSIONS by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti at Burning Man, 2015. Photograph by Michael Holden, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

      Such a multidimensional entity as Burning Man isn’t meant to be pinned down by taxonomists, although many will try. One flailing wing of the butterfly might be identified in that the festival is a radical social experiment. By undergirding the laboratory with strong, actively exercised principles, the Mad Scientist is unleashed into “the real world.” This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a society without rules that is the nightmare of many a dystopian take on the future. In fact what we have here is a nascent utopia, taken to its practical heights by the wild and untameable spirit of the people involved. But the dream doesn’t die with the end of each year’s festivities; it keeps being passed on by those who lived it, out there on the dusty earth of the Nevada desert.

SUGGESTED READING
Bruder, Jessica.
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Christians, Karen and Christine Kristen. Jewelry of Burning Man. Santa Rosa, CA: Global Interprint, Inc., 2015.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York: RacePoint Publishing, 2016.
King, Nicholas. Burners. Cochiti Lake, NM: Laughing Coyote Press, 2017.
Galbraith, Carrie and John Law. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013.
Jones, Steven T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2011.

LORD SNORT by Bryan Tedrick, 2016. Photograph by Duncan Rawlinson, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is showing in two phases, with the full exhibition through September 16, 2018, then certain works will be viewable through January 21, 2019, at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
Visit their website at www.americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.

Burning Man debuts annually; for 2018 it met from August 26 - September 3.
Visit their website at www.burningman.org.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

PBL_Contributor-2018.jpg

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A scene hopper, Benesh-Liu has spent time in a variety of art and craft-based communities, from millennial pop culture fan groups like Anime cosplay and furry costumes to outsider art museums like the John M. Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. While in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery’s landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” he realized his interests were all leading to one place, Black Rock City. After interviewing Nora Atkinson, the Renwick’s Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft, as well as artists whose work was featured, the interconnectivity of this event with creative communities became apparent. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Feathers and Fashion Volume 40.4

ROSEATE SPOONBILL WATERCOLOR (Platalea ajaja) by John James Audubon (1785-1851), circa 1831-32. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Photographs courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is a milestone for the field of ornithology, but the fashion world deserves to share in the celebrations, too. The passage of the Act—which prohibited the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds and regulated America’s commercial feather trade—was the direct result of women rallying together to resist the fashion for extravagantly beplumed hats that had devastated bird populations worldwide.

      In honor of what the National Audubon Society has declared the “Year of the Bird,” the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibition “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” blended fashion, activism and conservation science to honor the early environmentalists who helped turn the tide of public opinion against so-called “murderous millinery.” At a time when “ethical” and “sustainable” are once again trendy style buzzwords, the show served as both a cautionary tale and a call to action.

THE BIRD ON NELLIE’S HAT SHEET MUSIC, 1906. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, hats were essential year-round accessories for respectable women. But they were more social conventions and decorative accoutrements than practical sources of warmth or protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote French art critic Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise Art in Ornament and Dress (L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement). Hats increasingly incorporated not just feathers but bird’s wings, heads and even entire bodies.

Far from being seen as barbaric or macabre, these avian accessories were initially admired for their natural beauty, artful craftsmanship and scientific interest. At a time of rapid urbanization, they brought city dwellers closer to nature; there was a corresponding fad for terrariums and aquariums. In February 1900, Vogue described a chic Parisienne wearing a “little toque . . . adorned with a few upright wings of some sort of South American bird, the sleek feathers of which gleamed like jewels.” The dead birds might be mounted on wires to create the illusion of movement. Sometimes they were framed in a bucolic mise-en-scène of leaves, twigs, dead mice, and reptiles. Advances in taxidermy in the 1880s and ‘90s affected hats as well as hunting trophies.

Hats served as posthumous perches for everything from petite songbirds like starlings, parakeets and hummingbirds to large and flamboyant birds of paradise, peacocks and even owls, reanimated with glass eyes. Milliners might amp up their exoticism by assembling Frankenfowl hybrids from the head of one bird and the wings or tail feathers of another. Plumes were dyed colors unknown in nature, or formed into trompe l’oeil flowers.

RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER EARRINGS of preserved hummingbird heads, gold, metal, unidentified maker, probably London, England, circa 1865. Animal parts and insects decorated late nineteenth-century jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans. 

      “Colibri”—the French word for “hummingbird”—was slang for a frivolous person, making the diminutive creatures especially fitting fashion emblems. In 1889, the Parisian milliner Madame Josse created a toque trimmed with cut jet and “a dragonfly made of the breast-feathers of humming-birds,” according to the Millinery Trade Review. The English called hummingbirds “flying gems,” referencing their value as well as their beauty. The birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats, fans and pieces of jewelry; in 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method of setting them in gold and silver mounts. An example in the exhibit showed a pair of hummingbird-head earrings circa 1865 with the beaks tipped with gold.

Indeed, feathers adorned every part of a fashionable woman’s body. The enormous Roseate Spoonbill was a favorite of fan-makers; it was nearly extinct by 1920, though it rebounded after the Audubon Society dispatched protection wardens to its colonies. A bustled ice-blue satin evening gown of 1885 featured a swansdown-trimmed collar and train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, making their feathers an appropriate feminine ornament. Like the gown’s velvet underskirt and lace cuffs, swansdown was both expensive and sensual. It also played a part in beauty rituals, formed into powder puffs. Just as birds use their extravagant plumage to attract potential mates, so do people. 

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

      A delicate gold and diamond tiara—worn by a bride on her wedding day in 1894—sported trembling egret feathers instead of an aigrette, the feather-like spray of jewels named for the white bird who wears a lacy cape of plumage during nesting season. Egret feathers were scornfully dubbed the “white badge of cruelty” by wildlife advocates. They were worth a princely twenty dollars per ounce in 1915, according to The Tropic Magazine; as a result, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1902, about a ton and a half of egret plumes were sold in London, representing around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs).

 

GREAT EGRET WATERCOLOR (Ardea alba) by John James Audubon, 1821. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early twentieth century. With conservation laws, the species has rebounded. AIGRETTE HAIR ORNAMENT (from a Snowy or Great Egret) of egret feathers, gold, gold wire, diamonds, J.H. Johnston & Co, NYC, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Mary S. Griffin, 1961. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during their breeding season. Because of this fleeting growth, these feathers were among the rarest milliners used.

HERRING GULL WATERCOLOR (Larus argentatus) by John James Audubon with George Lehman, 1831. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. ACCESSORY SET OF HERRING GULLS, feathers, silk, including muff and tippet, unidentified maker, USA, 1880–99. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds.

 
At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone.

      Birds and birds’ wings were popular trimmings for the low, brimless hats called toques that trended in the Edwardian era, lending dimension and visual interest to minimalist style. “It’s the toque that dominates,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. “Birds, alas! entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat.” Though seagulls may not seem exotic today, the large Herring Gull species nearly went extinct due to its popularity for hats and other accessories around the turn of the century. A gruesome highlight of the show was a matching muff and tippet set made of carcasses from four adult Herring Gulls; their distinctive red markings indicate that the gulls were killed during breeding season, when their plumage was at its most spectacular.

 

MME. FAUCHÈRE TRADE CARD, circa 1894. Numerous feather traders, importers and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers. 

 

      Women were not the only fans of feathers, however; the nineteenth century was the great age of men in uniform, and the exhibition included a military hat brandishing an exotic scarlet plume. But it was women—often the very elites who helped popularize feathered fashions—who were the first to respond to the trend’s alarming consequences for the environment.

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including  Birds Through an Opera Glass  (1889), became important field guides. 

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides. 

      At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone. South America and Africa (particularly France’s African colonies) provided the lion’s share of exotic birds. By 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of 300 million birds per year. This grim toll was exacerbated by the fact that birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent—that is, during mating and breeding seasons, which magnified the problem of hunting birds by disrupting their reproductive cycles and dooming their orphaned chicks to death.

GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL (1849–1938). Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”

      The growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Plumage League (later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889 and, in America, a series of regional Audubon Societies, named for ornithologist John James Audubon. (Fourteen life-sized watercolors of birds—depicted living, flying and in their natural habitats—from his landmark 1838 book The Birds of America were on display.) The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905; in 1953, it adopted an egret as its symbol.

In Gilded Age New York, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall staged tea parties to try to persuade their rich friends to stop buying hats with real plumage. Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, campaigned passionately against wearing feathers during a residence with the Metropolitan Opera, offering her fans autographs in exchange for a promise not to wear feathers. Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithology student at Smith College, established a campus Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned her classmates’ hats.

Politicians and many in the fashion and feather trades pushed back against these protests; after all, jobs were at stake. A cottage industry of “willowers”—often Italian immigrants, sometimes children—who specialized in lengthening the short strands of inferior ostrich feathers were among those affected. The Act impacted these laborers as well as feather importers, hat manufacturers and retailers. Surprisingly, some naturalists and ornithologists rallied to the defense of the feather dealers, pointing out that their destructive tendencies had been exaggerated by ignorant if well-meaning activists, and it was not in their financial interests to hunt birds to the point of extinction.

However, the feather trade was not just devastating to bird populations but to the greater environment; gulls, for examples, are instrumental in keeping shorelines clean. It also impacted the fashion workers who toiled in dangerous conditions in tenements to create feathered hats. Eventually, these widespread moral and environmental concerns were codified into law in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This landmark legislation is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. It also paved the way for later legal protections of wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A similar statute, the Importation of Plumage Act, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1922. In France, where a guild of plumassiers—the artisans who dyed, shaped, processed, and sold feathers for use in apparel—had been active since the sixteenth century and retained considerable political power, change was slower to come. But it was undoubtedly hastened by formation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in 1912, as well as by World War I, which inaugurated a new era of minimalism in French fashion.

UNKNOWN WOMAN WEARING AN AUDUBONNET. American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. The Audubon Society also addressed the feather craze by promoting “birdless hats” trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric.

      Feathers from game and poultry destined for the dinner table remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. Milliners found creative ways to lend exoticism to non-endangered farm fowl like ducks, geese and chickens, or create artificial exotic “birds” out of commonplace feathers and glue. Ethical “Audubonnets” were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and twists of fabric; Audubon chapters commissioned leading milliners to design them.

The tradition continues today. Paris-based Lemairé, which has been supplying feathers to haute couture houses for more than a century, routinely makes feathers from common barnyard birds look like exotic specimens. British milliner Stephen Jones, whose work has crowned the heads of Princess Diana and the new Duchess of Sussex, has long used farm fowl feathers and artificial feathers in his elaborate headpieces, in compliance with Audubon Society guidelines.

As feathered hats and frocks have cycled back into fashion in recent months—seen at royal weddings, on the red carpet and on the runways of design houses like Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Alexander McQueen—the morality of wearing feathers is once again being debated, just as many women are reluctant to wear fur or leather. Even down-filled winter coats are increasingly advertised as being “ethically sourced” and “cruelty free.” In February of this year, the Trump administration reversed a key provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it poses a burden for utilities and energy companies; wildlife advocates argue that this move effectively guts the law. Maybe the Audubonnet will make a comeback?

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” showed April 6 – July 15, 2018, at the
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024.
Visit their website at www.nyhistory.org.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Campbell-Headshot.jpg

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she explains the history behind the “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, tracing a fascinating line between exploitation and activism.

Penn Museum Middle East Galleries Volume 40.4

40_4_UPenn-Middle-East-Galleries-Banner.jpg
BRICK FOOTPRINT, circa 2100 - 2000 B.C. This print of a human foot was discovered on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur (modern-day Iraq), and is now placed at the entrance to the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries.  All photographs courtesy of the Penn Museum.   QUEEN PUABI NECKLACE of gold and lapis lazuli with central floral design, 2450 B.C. 

BRICK FOOTPRINT, circa 2100 - 2000 B.C. This print of a human foot was discovered on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur (modern-day Iraq), and is now placed at the entrance to the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries. All photographs courtesy of the Penn Museum. 
QUEEN PUABI NECKLACE of gold and lapis lazuli with central floral design, 2450 B.C. 

It starts with a single footprint. Impressed some four thousand years ago by an anonymous Sumerian into a mud brick in the royal city of Ur, and recovered there a century ago, this mark makes a simple declaration, but one that lies at the heart of all human culture: “I was here.” The first object the visitor encounters upon entering, it is an apt beginning to the story that unfolds across the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s newly renovated and expanded Middle East Galleries, which opened to the public on April 21.

Click Image to Enlarge

Top to bottom, left to right: RAM IN A THICKET STATUETTE of gold, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen, one of a pair found in the “Great Death Pit,” in the royal city of Ur, modern-day Iraq. ANIMAL GAME BOARD of twelve engraved shell plaques of lapis lazuli, limestone and shell. FOOTED BOWLS for eating and drinking, Hissar, Iran, circa 4500 - 4000 B.C. QUEEN PUABI GOLD HAIR COMB with seven finials in the shape of eight-petal blossoms, 2450 B.C. LUNATE EARRINGS of hammered gold, worn by Queen Puabi, 2450 B.C. BEADS of largely agate, gold and single carnelian bead, found in the “Warrior’s Grave,” Akkadian period, circa 2250 B.C.

      Through some twelve hundred objects—more than half of which have never before been on display—this suite of three spacious, well-lit galleries chronicles no less than the emergence of human civilization across millennia, from the earliest villages and towns to increasingly complex urban settlements that paved the way for the modern metropolis. “These galleries tell you a story about how ancient peoples changed their way of life to stay in the same place all year round,” says museum director Julian Siggers. “This led to the formation of the world’s first cities, in ancient Mesopotamia. Urbanization dramatically speeds up innovation and introduced many of the issues—good and bad—that are still with us today. So this story really resonates with all of us because it is our story.”

The artifacts come from more than two dozen excavations by Penn archaeologists in the so-called Fertile Crescent (mostly in modern-day Iraq and Iran) that revolutionized our understanding of the ancient world. Perhaps the most dramatic discoveries sprang from the joint Penn/British Museum excavations of the Royal Tombs at Ur led by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s. These include the famous Ram in the Thicket statuette of gold, silver and lapis; a silver boat-shaped lyre decorated with a stag; and the centerpiece of the museum’s Middle East collection, Queen Puabi’s headdress and jewels.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH SUNDAY MAGAZINE, September 28, 1930, newspaper article about Royal Tombs of Ur discoveries: “What Science Has Discovered About the Personal Adornment of Chaldean Ladies.” 

      In January 1928 Woolley sent a breathless telegram (in Latin, for secrecy) to Philadelphia. Translated, it reads: “I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad [Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flowers, crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.” This royal burial chamber, dated to around 2450 B.C., contained not just the body of the bejeweled queen, which was laid out on a wooden bier, but also those of her attendants—six men and sixty-eight women who, as reward for their service, were bludgeoned to death and buried with their queen, along with a trove of royal artifacts, all remarkably well preserved.

Queen Puabi’s headdress is truly spectacular to behold. It includes more than twelve meters of gold ribbon, which was wound around her voluminous hair (think Princess Leia in Star Wars). Above this she wore three wreaths composed of strands of carnelian and lapis beads and festooned with gold leaves. Each leaf is a single piece of gold hammered into shape and folded at one end into two loops that attach the leaf to the strands and the strands to one another. The most ornate wreath features two- and three-pointed willow leaves tipped with carnelian beads, and flowers with petals of lapis and shell. A frontlet joins three strands of lapis and carnelian with twenty gold rings. Atop it all, a large gold comb erupts into an array of star-shaped flowers. A pair of boat-shaped gold earrings completes the ensemble.

According to Jane Hickman, a specialist in ancient jewelry and editor of the museum’s Expedition magazine, Queen Puabi had on more than twelve pounds of ornamentation when she was discovered. “The hair comb itself weighs a pound!” Hickman and her colleague, collection keeper Katy Blanchard, note that all of the materials used in the headdress had to be imported from neighboring regions—the gold from present-day Afghanistan or Syria, the lapis from Badakhshan in Afghanistan, the carnelian from the Indus Valley—indicating the enormous wealth of the queen, as well as the far-flung trade networks that had already developed at this early stage of civilization.

QUEEN PUABI REGALIA of headdress, beaded cape and jewelry of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, discovered on the queen’s body in her tomb at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, circa 2450 B.C. Puabi was wearing about five pounds of jewelry, mostly gold, on her head and about seven and a half pounds of jewelry, mostly semiprecious stone beads, on her body. Photograph by Bruce White.

      A modern proverb admonishes us that “you can’t take it with you,” but the ancients seem to have had other ideas. Although much is unknown about Sumerian burial rites and beliefs, the fact that people of importance were buried with their treasures, and warriors with their weapons, suggests a belief that these objects would be of further use to their owners. Blanchard notes that Queen Puabi’s diadem is “more correctly a series of necklaces.” One possible explanation is that these earthly treasures were intended to serve as currency in the afterworld. “Maybe in every level of the underworld she’s handing over a necklace to make it through to the next place,” says Blanchard. “So she took it with her as payment. These are questions we still have.”

Indeed, nearly a century after they were unearthed, these treasures still have many secrets to divulge, and research on the collection is ongoing. Interactive kiosks in the galleries utilize digital technology to allow visitors to take a deeper dive into some of these topics of interest, including what the motifs on ornaments and vessels tell us about the flora, fauna and agricultural practices of the region, many of which continue in various forms today.

Later excavations at sites such as Rayy, near present-day Tehran, yielded artifacts from the Islamic period, which fill much of the third gallery. These include many rare manuscripts such as an illustrated copy of the Khamsa of the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami and an illuminated Qur’an, as well as everyday objects such as cooking vessels and textiles from the Ottoman period.

The legacy of Near Eastern archaeology cannot be separated from the area’s more recent history and the often troubled relationships between its modern-day inhabitants and the West. “We can’t open galleries from this region of the world without noting that the deep material, human and cultural heritage of the region is also under attack,” says Siggers. With this in mind, the Penn Museum has launched a Global Guides initiative with funding from the Barra Foundation. Through this program, the first of its kind in the nation, the museum has hired as tour guides immigrants from Iraq and Syria. These men and women will, according to associate curator Stephen Tinney, “pair the history of ancient Mesopotamia and surroundings with stories drawn from their own unique experiences growing up in the Middle East,” giving visitors a broader perspective on the region’s long history of continuity and conflict.

Fostering such connections between ancient and modern experience was a stated goal of the Penn Museum’s transformation of its Middle East collections, the first in an ambitious series of planned renovations to the institution’s signature galleries. Indeed, one emerges from these galleries with the sense that our histories—and therefore our destinies—are much more intertwined than we are often led to believe, and that the key to our shared humanity lies in our creativity and the innovative solutions each culture arrives at in addressing the common problems we face.

The Penn Museum is located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Visit their website at www.penn.museum.

 

WILLOW WREATH of gold, lapis, carnelian, and shell.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

David-Updike-Contributor.jpg

David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his current projects include exhibition catalogs on Marcel Duchamp and the Art to Wear movement. His profile of designer Wendy Stevens appeared in Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2. For this issue, he ventured across the Schuylkill River to another Philadelphia cultural treasure, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to tour its newly renovated Middle East Galleries. His visit left him with a renewed respect for the common, ancient roots of human civilization, and a little bit in awe of Chaldean superstar, Queen Puabi.

Vanishing Traditions: Miao Textiles Volume 40.4

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

Dependent on the material accumulations of others, museums around the world have long been recipients of the passionate predilections of collectors. A day arrives when it is time to pack up one’s stuff and leave prized possessions to some established institution for, hopefully, responsible conservation. That storage issue has a history stretching over the millennia. In Britain, the Ashmolean at Oxford University, the world’s oldest university museum, became in 1677 the first public museum when it received its first collection with Elias Ashmole’s “cabinet of curiosities.” The collection was divided between the “wonders of nature” (naturalia) and the “handworks of man” (artificialia). Here could be viewed a variety of natural life, from a salamander, a flying squirrel, shells, and birds from India, to the stuffed body of the last dodo seen in Europe. Artificialia contained agate goblets, rhinoceros horn cups, a bead abacus, Chief Powhatan’s mantle (Pocahontas’s father), Chinese boots. One can readily surmise that these objects were collected with a wondrous excitement that discovery inspires when encountering the formerly unknown. Significantly, while the larger purpose of the Ashmolean was to enhance preservation of knowledge, with these objects recorded and systematized; specifically it was their public display that had an equally great benefit, so the greater populace could participate and benefit. Admission was open to all, with a fee, and not restricted only to the few elite. These actions, dating from the seventeenth century, have long impacted the museum world and the cultural and social ramifications have been incalculable.

MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Yahui Township, Danzhai County, Guizhou Province, China, twentieth century. MIAO WOMAN’S APRON of cotton, silk, Job’s tears, chicken feathers, embroidered, Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton and silk, embroidered, Guiding County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Behind the jacket is a pleated, indigo-dyed Miao woman’s skirt. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO YOUNG MAN’S JACKET of silk, cotton, metal bells, Job’s tears, embroidered, Suoga Township, Liuzhi County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      In a much more contemporaneous example, a recent exhibition at The Textile Museum at George Washington University demonstrated the importance of material gifts to a museum’s identity and mission, and how in resulting exhibitions they inform and educate the larger public. In 2015 Bea Roberts, a collector from California, gifted her 284-piece Chinese minority textile and ornament collection, from Guizhou Province in Southwest China, to the museum. On her trips to this mountainous, subtropical region, Roberts quickly learned just how evanescent cultural traditions were in our swiftly changing present-day. Beguiled by the handcrafted works she found in Guizhou, she was determined to collect and preserve what she knew would “vanish” from the many cultural groups that make up Guizhou. Understanding that traditional cultures are rapidly being absorbed by larger, more dominant ones, perhaps even within a generation, has spurred many collectors to acquire sooner rather than later. (The Han account for almost ninety-two percent of the Chinese population, with fifty-five other ethnic minorities officially recognized.) Cultures that once had little contact with the “outside” world are now sometimes unrecognizable in their original form. It’s the what’s here today is gone tomorrow syndrome of loss.

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

      Given a keen eye and an instinct for both the singular and the representative, Roberts collected some amazing and instructive physical examples of textiles and jewelry, primarily from the Miao. One is an astonishing Miao festival jacket from the 1950s, an embroidered tapestry of rich patterning, with figures from Miao folklore surrounded by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Practically every bit of surface is embellished with musicians, flowers, birds, and more than twenty butterflies referencing the “Butterfly Mother,” the primal ancestor of the Miao people and a central focus of Guzang Festival rituals (celebrated every thirteen years, although more festivals are now annual). Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader.

Textile surfaces exhibit the rich profusion of transformative iconography that permeates minority cultures—bats symbolize happiness and good fortune; hybridized silkworm dragons and fish dragons, other abstracted shapes indicate the importance of achieving a successful birth; birds are also important as protectors and divine messengers. Dress with such totemic imagery enhances the possibility of communing with ancestors or with spirits of the natural world where everything is thought to be alive and interconnected.

DONG CHILD’S HAT, decorated with pompoms and the eight Daoist immortals, of cotton, silk, silver alloy, embroidered, Liping or Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Baby carriers, intrinsically functional, are also opportunities for other potent imagery—eight-pointed stars, sunrays and octagons symbolize protective maternal deities who will attract light, warmth and energizing lifeforce to the infant. Children’s hats especially incorporate symbolic motifs to safeguard the growing youngsters and they are often embroidered with auspicious motifs such as lions, fishes and butterflies. One Dong charmer is festooned with pompoms and appliquéd bulging eyes intended to trick evil spirits into thinking the child is a ferocious animal and, leaving nothing to chance, has the twelve Daoist immortals in silver alloy attached.

Trained by female family members and starting early, young girls will learn everything about her clan’s textile techniques—handweaving, indigo dyeing, embroidering are among the critical skills to learn. It can take as long as five years to make a profusely decorated outfit to wear during one’s wedding and the festival cycles, so it is crucial that a garment is beautiful and well made. Technical and aesthetic proficiency is closely linked to attractiveness and desirable marital outcomes. The design and making of an apron as a gift from a young woman to a young man specifies her interest and shows off her accomplishments. Worn by men as well as women, aprons memorialize Miao daily life, its landscape and flora, its folklore—one embroiderer revealed the influence of local songs on their pictorial representations: “If you only embroider and don’t sing, you won’t know the stories of your patterns. Someone who doesn’t sing well doesn’t embroider well.” 

GEJIA WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET, front and back, of silk, cotton, embroidered, indigo-dyed, Matang Village, Kaili City, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum. Installation photograph of back of jacket by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Subtlety is never the point. Mastery of techniques is to be visibly demonstrated in every possible way, from a festival jacket’s sturdy construction to finely embroidered (and removable) patches that decorate shoulders, sleeves and aprons (and can be passed through generations). More is more and more is highly desirable for a successful garment and similarly true for minority jewelry. Silver is preferred for its power to throw off evil or demons. While textiles are the complete purview of women, jewelry is made by men trained in metalworking who design the neckpieces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, hairpins, and festival crowns, in silver or more typically a silver alloy, that are integral to the success of a festival costume. They are as exuberantly abundant in their design as the lavishly decorated textiles. With auditory attributes bestowed by jingling metal components, nothing should stand in the way of boisterously announcing a family’s wealth at something as important as the Guzang Festival in Guizhou Province.

SUGGESTED READING
Exhibition Catalog
. Contributing authors Angela Sheng, Deng Qiyao, Xi Keding, Li Qianbin, Zhang Xiao, Stevan Harrell, Kate Lingley, Huang Ying Feng. Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2009.
Roberts, Bea. Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China. Davis, CA: UC Davis Design Museum, 2010.

“Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China” showed February 24 - July 9, 2018 at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Visit their website at www.museum.gwu.edu.

 

MIAO FESTIVAL CROWN of silver alloy, cotton and silk streamers, Leishan County, Guizhou Province, China, 1980s. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

Stepping-Out-Title.jpg

SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Leslie-Clark.jpg

Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Iris van Herpen Volume 40.3

Iris-van-Herpen-Title.jpg

IRIS VAN HERPEN. Photograph courtesy of Jean Baptiste Mondino, Iris van Herpen and the Phoenix Art Museum.

A great deal of passion must reside within Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. An initial stroll through the capacious Steele Gallery, turned over to van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” at the Phoenix Art Museum, makes an immediate visceral jolt that gathers strength visually. Instead of succumbing to an ambiguous desire to flee what appears to be a disturbing alien command center, time begins to slow and the exhibition increasingly captivates, exercising upon one a more cerebral curiosity over the installation. Fifteen distinct collections of forty-five ensembles, dating between 2008 and 2015, are arranged mostly along two very long rows staged with vocalless sentinels garbed in the astonishing, unsettling aesthetic that physically transforms them. But the real experience takes place internally, as the world van Herpen has created is housed in a phantasma of dreams, revelations, nightmares, hallucinations, visions. It is unlikely that many will embrace it; observe it yes, willingly enter it, probably not.

      Since the young designer’s first collection in 2007, at the age of twenty-three, her work has transcended the shock value she is known for in the “gowns” designed for celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Björk, and Tilda Swinton. Her works are designed for the female form of which we are accustomed, but the body is really a springboard for sculptural compositions that serve her drive for incorporating modern discoveries and innovations into her collections. They have become an important vehicle for arriving at a place where her experimentations reveal something seminal and descriptive about the nature of the human body through the power of dress. A dialogue considered necessary, she has described, as being “between our inside and our outside.”

      Science and technology are her muse and the primary stimulus to her creations. And it is here that van Herpen’s evolving aesthetic vision is most consistent, reflecting a personal desire to plunge into and plumb the depths of what modern technology offers the human experience, positively and negatively. We have been living in such a world for some time; so van Herpen’s work is a venture in making sense of our quickly changing temporal landscape. It is one that no longer quantifies life in futuristic imaginings but in the daily here and now, whether we embrace it or endeavor to escape.

MICRO DRESS from 2012 collection of metallic coated stripes, tulle and cotton. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      “Looking around me,” she has written, “I consider what I can’t see as much as what I can see, and that transformative focus creates freedom in my work. Each garment and every collection is an embodiment to new understanding and discovery, on the conceptual level, on the level of materiality and on the level of femininity. It’s my search for new forms of femininity through organic silhouettes, delicate craftsmanship, innovation and the collaboration with other artists, architects and scientists.”

In her collections, van Herpen uses 3D printing for garment construction and materials such as laser-cut acrylic mesh and resin. More recently in Lucid, from 2016, one of her more fascinating iterations, she chose lucid dreaming as the subject, where the dreamer, while exercising some sense of control, is aware of dreaming. “When I design,” she says, “the draping process most of the time happens to me unconsciously. I see lucid dreams as a microscope with which I can look into my unconsciousness.” In a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, Lucid manifests what van Herpen terms “the fine line between reality and unreality,” a useful theme that can be drawn throughout her collections. Astonishingly, one of the dresses was composed of five thousand TPU-92A-1 transparent hexagonal laser-cut elements, a thermoplastic polyurethane. This use on a grand scale of a modern material inspires some sense of awe.

From 2012, Micro is a collection inspired by scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner’s works. Gschmeissner uses Scanning Electron Microscope  (SEM) technology to reveal the plastic universe of microorganisms and how beautiful they are in their infinite diversity. With this collection van Herpen set about trying to make visible a world unseen by us but still an equally vital one, inhabiting and sharing the same plane as our own.

Gschmeissner’s photographs are taken of specimens that are chemically fixed to preserve their inherent structures, but van Herpen veered in a different direction, interested in taking another path, desiring rather to create more imaginative organisms than ones that actually exist. It too is a plastic world and the forms swirl, grow and change, bulge, encapsulate, shoot off into space. Whatever the collection, the overarching theme is repetition and reiteration. It is everywhere in van Herpen’s work and sharpens her desire to exalt and honor the inner and exterior movement that all living organisms possess.

 

RADIATION INVASION DRESS from 2009 collection of faux leather, gold foil, cotton, and tulle. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      2009’s Radiation Invasion marked the beginning of the challenging themes that resonate throughout her annual collections and van Herpen’s grappling with some understanding of technology’s role in society (and perhaps, rule thereof) and how it inevitably affects the physical body and spirit. The idea seemed to stem from an intercontinental phone conversation that caused van Herpen to question the unimaginable flow of digital information that takes place and how it is everywhere, ubiquitous in its presence, drowning us, but also lifting us to spheres we cannot possibly anticipate. She began to develop more thoroughly a simple concept based on repetition, endless repetition, communicating energy and powerful forces, both fascinating and repulsive. It has dominated her work ever since, possessing her, driving her passions.

How can humanity possibly survive in such an environment? Van Herpen’s answer seems not to be reticent: survive we must; just make it work for you in the best way creatively possible.

“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” shows at the Phoenix Art Museum,
Phoenix, Arizona, through May 13, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEWS. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

CLEB_Contributor.jpg

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Benesh reviewed the astonishing Iris van Herpen show at the Phoenix Art Museum this March, during a stay in the city to attend the Heard Museum Indian Fair. Both museums have fascinating and probing permanent collections as well as temporary, such as the van Herpen show at PAM and the jewelry of Richard Chavez at the Heard.

Tattoo Exhibition Volume 40.3

Tattoo-Title.jpg

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville bemoaned the ephemerality of tattoos: “These mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed.” How does one display—much less demystify—this “living parchment” in a museum setting? A touring exhibition organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris—and most recently seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (November 19, 2017 - April 15, 2018) —offers a novel solution: silicone torsos, arms and bottoms decorated with tattoos commissioned for the show from prominent contemporary tattoo artists like Chuey Quintanar, who was born in Mexico but moved to Long Beach, California, as a child, and Leo Zulueta, who grew up in Hawaii and draws inspiration from traditional Micronesian tattooing. (Zulueta refuses to copy traditional tribal designs faithfully, however, considering it disrespectful.) The Los Angeles installation highlights the city’s own rich tattooing history and contemporary skin art scene. Today, Southern California is known for the black-and-gray style of finely detailed, single-needle tattoos, which spread from East Los Angeles via the U.S. prison system.

      Some of these tattoos offer so much coverage that they resemble clothes more than ink. Tattoo traditions have much in common with textile production. Needles “embroider” the skin; carved tattoo blocks recall those used to block-print textiles. The Ainu women of northern Japan wear textiles embroidered with patterns similar to those used in their tattoos; a gorgeous embroidered robe is on display. The show privileges full-limb or full-body tattoos over the more familiar Pokemon characters, roses, or “tramp stamps.” One Ed Hardy design on display is a single giant squid covering the entire body, except the lower arms; it was created for a surgeon, who wanted to be able to roll up his sleeves to scrub in without revealing his tattoo. Japan, in particular, is associated with “bodysuit” tattoos; though they were outlawed in the late 1800s, they remained in favor with the yakuza, perpetuating the link between tattoos and crime that persists in Japan (and elsewhere) today. 

      As trendy as tattoos may be, they have a five-thousand-year history, covering almost every continent and every time period. The oldest known tattoo was discovered on the body of a fifty-three-hundred-year-old mummy found in the Alps. Tattoos have been used to identify, beautify, mark rites of passage or physical maturity, and confer protection, fertility, or healing. England’s National Maritime Museum has mounted excellent exhibitions on the seafaring history of tattoos, but this show’s anthropological approach allows for a broader geographic, thematic and temporal scope. It reminds us that “tattoo” is both a noun and a verb; if there is one thing these disparate global tattooing traditions have in common, it is that the process is as important as the end result. 

Tattoos have always been made and worn by men and women alike. In some tribes in Borneo, men carve tattoo blocks but women are responsible for the tattooing. Among the Ainu, tattooing is performed exclusively by and on women, including around the mouth. Indigenous Arctic women acquire chin stripes to indicate that they are ready to marry. Jessie Knight became the first full-time, professional female tattooist in the U.K. in 1921; she took several years off after she got married, returning in the late 1930s just in time to ink the men and women fighting World War II. 

Tattoos have functioned as signs of status as well as brands of shame, combining physical and psychological pain. In the nineteenth century, criminals were branded with tattoos. Simple pictures inked on the hands of prisoners in the Russian gulag told their life stories: their crimes, their years behind bars, their number of convictions. Victims of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were tattooed, for identification as well as humiliation. A haunting photo shows twelve-year-old concentration camp survivor Aljoscha Lebedew displaying his tattoo, a mutilation he would bear for the rest of his life. But many of these painful reminders have now been appropriated as badges of honor. Prison tattoos are a thriving and respected subgenre. Grandchildren of concentration camp survivors have voluntarily had their grandparents’ identification numbers inked on their arms as indelible memorials.

YONYUK WATCHIYA “SUA.” An exhibition print, from Bangkok, Thailand, 2008-2011. Photograph by Cedric Arnold, courtesy of Galerie Olivier Waltman. KORURU OR PARATA (gable mask) of carved wood, white pigment, paua shell, Maori, New Zealand, nineteenth century. Photograph by Thierry Olivier and Michel Urtado. WHANG-OD OGGAY. An exhibition print, from the Philippines, 2011. Photograph by Jake Verzosa.

TATTOOED SILICONE TORSO. Leo Zulueta, 2013. Photograph by Thomas Duvall.

      If tattoos seem to be everywhere today, they are also under threat. Several indigenous tattooing traditions were outlawed or erased by missionaries in the aftermath of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” when Western explorers and traders first encountered tattoos. In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric steel pencil that inspired some of the first electric tattoo machines, which were advertised as being faster and less painful than tattooing by hand. This technology—quickly adopted worldwide—popularized tattoos and paved the way for intricate new pictorial styles, but also led to the demise of time-honored techniques. Many artists working today have gone back to the old-fashioned methods. Traditional Maori tattooing—an exceptionally painful blend of tattooing and scarification, using chisels to cut channels into the skin, including the face—is enjoying a renaissance in modern-day New Zealand, a “so old it’s new” expression of cultural pride. But new technology is continually revolutionizing tattoo art. The show ends with a silicone arm sheathed in a glow-in-the-dark “sleeve” tattoo that can only be seen under black light in a nightclub.

The exhibition is wonderfully varied in its materials; in addition to silicone forms, video and photography, there is a wealth of historic tattoo-making equipment, from needles and blocks to small sculptures made of the compressed ashes of cremated monks or burnt religious manuscripts, used for making ink in Myanmar. If there is a fault to this otherwise extravagant display, it is of being too big; one can only look at so many electric needles before one’s skin begins crawling with revulsion—or itching for a tattoo of one’s very own.

     Get Inspired!

 
 

Campbell-Headshot.jpg

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving an award for the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she gets under the skin of the “Tattoo” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Beads: A Universe of Meaning Volume 40.2

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875.  Private collection. Photographs   by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway),   courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted.  GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940.  Private collection.  MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE   by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

MAN’S MOCCASINS by Iowa artist, 64.5 x 32.3 centimeters, circa 1875. Private collection. Photographs by Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Ojibway), courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian except where noted. GAUNTLETS by Plateau artist, 35.6 x 22.9 centimeters, circa 1940. Private collection. MOENNITARRI WARRIOR IN THE COSTUME OF THE DOG DANSE by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), circa 1840.

"Beads: A Universe of Meaning,” currently on exhibit at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, explores the diversity of Native American beadwork traditions practiced throughout the United States. Almost since their introduction to the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, glass beads have been used by Native artists to convey ideas about tribal, community and personal identity; wealth and status; beauty and spirituality; as well as about popular culture, resistance and relationships. Featuring more than seventy pieces dating from circa 1800 to the present, the exhibition presents beadwork as a fundamental medium of artistic, cultural and personal expression.

BAG DEPICTING A WHITE-TAILED DEER by Sandra Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), 2011. Private collection. 

      The first piece encountered in the gallery is an early nineteenth-century man’s outfit, consisting of a painted  hide shirt and leggings embroidered with porcupine quills and beads. The leggings resemble those worn by Perishka-Ruhpa in Karl Bodmer’s portrait, Moennitarri Warrior, In the Costume of the Dog Danse, painted in about 1840. The quillwork strips that line the shoulders of the shirt and the outer edges of the leggings are trimmed with the type of large blue beads that early traders and explorers first brought into Native communities after about 1670, with the opening of the North American fur trade. In exchange for beaver pelts, which were highly valued in Europe as a material for felted fur hats, French entrepreneurs provided their Native American trading partners a variety of European-made items. Metal tools and cookware, cloth, ribbon, and thimbles were welcomed and readily incorporated into Native life. But glass trade beads, whose lustrous colors evoked natural materials—crystal, shell, copper, and stone—that already held profound cultural and spiritual meaning, resonated in a way that other goods did not. Beads fit easily into existing ideas about ornamentation and design, and they required no preparation. As they became available, women increasingly combined them with traditional embroidery materials, such as bird or porcupine quills, to decorate clothing, bags, cradleboards, and dwellings, thus enhancing their families’ material and spiritual standing within their communities. They also brought honor to themselves: a woman’s artistic contributions in the form of beadwork and quillwork demonstrated her virtue, and was valued to the degree that women’s craft societies were equal in status to men’s military societies. Women who showed artistic promise were subjected to rigorous tests of skill, accompanied by extensive ceremonial initiation, feasting and recognition that involved the entire community.

MÉTIS CREE COAT, 76.2 x 71.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Although the cut of this coat suggests that it was made during the late nineteenth century, it is possible that the beadwork is earlier and has been repurposed from another garment. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

      A significant portion of the exhibition is devoted to beadwork traditions of the Pacific Northwest. By the early nineteenth century, Native trade networks had carried European and Chinese glass beads to indigenous people living in the Columbia River Plateau—the area comprising interior Oregon, Washington and western Idaho. The first migrant trains carrying Euro-American settlers began to arrive during the 1830s, after a wagon trail had been cleared from Independence, Missouri, to Fort Hall, Idaho. By the 1850s newcomers flooded into the territory, converting open land into farms and towns and compromising sites where Plateau women customarily gathered basketry materials and edible plants. After 1855 Plateau people were increasingly confined to reservations, and the annual cycle of foraging and hunting became more difficult to maintain. As women spent less time gathering, processing and preparing basketry fibers and traditional foods, they turned their attention to beadwork, developing a unique tradition that, then as now, encouraged innovative and individualistic design. Floral patterns, inspired by imagery on commercially printed cotton cloth, transfer-ware ceramics and other products traded from or seen in the possession of white newcomers, began to appear by the 1870s. Horses were the subjects of the first pictorial designs, reflecting local equestrian traditions that date to the 1700s. These were followed by depictions of other animals, birds, fish, and people. During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog. 

VEST by Plateau artist, 50.8 x 40.6 centimeters, circa 1900. The beads have been sewn onto commercial cotton fabric. Private collection. Photograph by Ornament.

 

 

In 1910 a group of Oregon businessmen organized the Pendleton Round-Up—a celebration of the town’s frontier heritage that featured horse racing and riding competitions. Modeled after popular entertainments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the success of the event depended upon the participation of Native American performers and demonstrators, who attended annually. In 1916 at the age of fifty-three, Nez Perce rodeo rider Jackson Sundown won the “all around” bronc riding competition, beating men half his age and securing his place as a legend of the sport. His victory roused tremendous enthusiasm among Plateau people. 

As other rodeos and round-ups followed, they not only became opportunities for Native people to gather and compete for prizes, they also inspired lavish displays of beaded clothing, accessories and horse gear. A horse collar beaded with bright orange flowers, made by Irene Onepennee during the 1950s, and a circa 1930 flat bag with the image of a bronc rider emblazoned against a bright blue sky, attest to the importance of these events and to Sundown’s continued popularity.

The mounting of an exhibition such as this one, in which the qualities of the featured pieces include fragility, weight and a range of ages and techniques, presents challenges that require a high level of skill and craftsmanship on the part of museum technicians, as well as on that of the artists. This is especially true in an institution the size of the Wheelwright, where staffing is limited and budget is always a challenge. For most installations (including this one), we rely on the expertise of a team of contractors: exhibitions designer Louis Emmanuel Gauci of Knoxville, Tennessee; lighting designer Todd Elmer of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and preparator Jack Townes of Estacada, Oregon. For this exhibition, Jack was assisted by artist and volunteer Cathy Short (Citizen Potowatomi) of Santa Fe.

 

WOMAN’S BEADED YOKE by Plateau artist, 132.1 x 101.6 centimeters, circa 1950. Detail shows the lovely beaded flowers enhancing the yoke. Private Collection. Photographs by Ornament.

      Normally the Wheelwright’s fifteen-hundred-square-foot changing exhibitions gallery is gutted and redesigned for each new project. For “Beads,” time and budget prevented us from building new casework from scratch, and we were challenged to adapt both storyline and object placement to a pre-existing design. We decided to place the shirt and leggings in a tall, narrow case at the entrance to the exhibition because they represent the beginning of our story. Their age and condition meant that they could not be displayed on a mannequin; instead they required the full support of a padded slantboard.

Using cotton fabric and polyester batting, Jack and Cathy designed padded inserts for each part of the outfit. Powerful magnets encased in tyvek pouches hold the shirt and leggings, with their inserts, on to a slanted panel of medium-density fiberboard upholstered with batting and polyester fleece. The result is that the outfit is fully, but invisibly, supported. Magnets are similarly used to mount bags, pouches, beaded cuffs, and other pieces throughout the exhibition. They safely bear the weight of fragile objects, and spare the expense of creating individual armatures for each piece.

Click on Images for Captions

During the twentieth century Plateau artists enthusiastically embraced images drawn from popular culture, ranging from glamorous “flappers” to Nipper, the RCA Victor dog.

      In an effort to emphasize that beadwork is a living (and thriving) tradition, the exhibition avoids a strict chronology, and frequently juxtaposes nineteenth-century pieces with contemporary work. A Sandra Okuma bag depicting a white-tailed deer shares a case with a nineteenth-century pouch bearing an image of a Federal eagle. Jaime Okuma’s beaded and ribbon-appliquéd coat is placed opposite a heavily beaded Plateau dress of blue wool trade cloth. A large case at the back of the gallery, devoted to beadwork made especially for children, holds a pair of circa 1870 Columbia River Plateau cradleboards with lavish floral designs, Jamie Okuma’s contemporary Baby on Board cradleboard, and Teri Greeves’s and Dennis Esquibel’s collaborative Ahday Chair. Modeled on the design of a Kiowa cradle, the chair is designed as a small throne for an ahday child. In Kiowa tradition, this favored child receives all of the best that a family can give—insurance that should the worst happen, one family member might survive. Greeves writes, “Though this practice may seem unfair to the other children within the family, I believe it has a very serious function in relationship to the fragility of life both in the past and the present. The ahday is the child that might have a greater chance of living, of surviving the brutality of genocide. The ahday becomes the beauty of life, a being to make beautiful things for, a being of hope in all that is beautiful in Kiowa life.”

KEN WILLIAMS POWWOW REGALIA, consisting of headdress, choker, vest, collar, tie, belt, shirt, breechcloth, leggings, beaded mirror bag, and Eagle tail fan that were provided by Williams’s many friends. Williams is Northern Arapaho and Seneca. Photograph by Ornament.

      To illustrate the importance of beadwork as a signifier of contemporary Native identity, the exhibition includes clothing and accessories currently in use by Wheelwright staff and associates. Arapaho/Seneca artist Ken Williams is a renowned beadworker, and also the manager of the Wheelwright’s museum store, the Case Trading Post. Ken’s knowledge of beadwork traditions and his expertise as a collector informed much of the exhibition, but museum protocol prevented us from including his work in the show. However Ken’s personal regalia—the outfit he wears for powwows and other events—is an assemblage of work by many other artists, acquired mostly as gifts from family members and friends. Ken generously agreed to lend it for the exhibition. 

While it is possible for museums to acquire specially designed mannequins made of archival materials, the cost of these is prohibitive. Instead, the Wheelwright has assembled a collection of female forms, purchased primarily at local “going-out-of-business” and garage sales. We customize these for museum use by padding them with polyester batting and Ethafoam, an inert polyethylene foam used extensively in exhibitions and to store museum objects safely.  To support Ken’s outfit we purchased an inexpensive, commercial male mannequin made of shiny white plastic. We expected to cover the mannequin with a neutral-colored knit material. But with limited choices at our local chain fabric store, and in consultation with Ken, we decided instead on a gold lamé jersey—a reference to Ken’s outgoing personality and his love of sparkling gold jewelry. Cathy Short set about creating a handstitched hood and gloves to cover plastic parts that would not be hidden by regalia.

The creation of the “Kennequin” (as it was dubbed by museum staff) was enjoyable for the exhibitions crew, but it also helped us to address ideas related to contemporary Native identity, and the continued importance of beadwork in Native American life and culture. One of the most striking components of Ken’s outfit is a feathered headdress that he received as a gift from Kiowa-Comanche elder, the late Jeri Ah-Be-Hill, Teri Greeves’s mother. When Ken received the antique Arapaho headdress it was in poor condition: the only salvageable parts were the feathers and a strip of beadwork. Ken removed these, cleaned them up, attached them to a new cap, and added decorative elements of his own—a treatment that both Greeves and Williams agree is an appropriate use of treasured antique materials. The spirit of the artist inhabits regalia, making it a living creation. Through renewal and reuse, it lives on.

REFERENCES
Berlo, Janet Catherine and Ruth Bliss Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Grafe, Steven L. The Origins of Floral-Design Beadwork in the Southern Columbia River Plateau. PhD Dissertation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999.
. Beaded Brilliance: Wearable Art from the Columbia River Plateau. Oklahoma City: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2006.
Penny, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1992.
 

“Beads: A Universe of Meaning” is on view at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian,
Santa Fe, New Mexico, through April 15, 2018.

 

Click Images for Captions

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Cheri_Falkenstien-Doyle.jpg

Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle is the Marcia Docter Curator of Native American Jewelry at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. As the curator of a small museum that originates all of the exhibitions it presents, she works with an exceptional team of designers, preparators, museum staff, and volunteers. Her current projects include exhibitions with printmaker Melanie Yazzie, and silversmith Norbert Peshlakai; as well as a catalog of the Jim and Lauris Phillips Collection of Native American Jewelry.

20/20 Exhibition Volume 40.2

SUZANNE AMENDOLARA: CAST STERLING SILVER ELEMENT, measuring 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.9 centimeters, for the “20/20” collaborative exhibition. Photograph by the artist.

Collaborations are a unique form of education: they bring new ideas to artwork, create a different purpose for making and force artists to take responsibility for creative decisions. As an artist making metalwork for more than three decades, I occasionally get caught in a rut or feel like my work is dated or insignificant. The problem-solving aspects of collaborative pieces help me to work through these challenges. For example, during the past several years, I have engaged in collaborations with Daniel DiCaprio, Renée Zettle-Sterling and Robert Thomas Mullen and much enjoyed how the discourse stretched my imagination. Working with elements created and handed to me by another artist to complete forces me to think in a different manner than I normally do when resolving a piece. It is also informative to see how other artists use forms that are particular to my work. Experiencing both vantage points of the collaborative process allows me to generate unfamiliar and fresh solutions in my own studio practice. In every single case, these collaborations were rich and rewarding experiences for both artists.

      Brigitte Martin, the founding editor of crafthaus, suggested that I expand and formalize my collaborations as part of an invitational exhibition project that she would co-sponsor. The works were to be shown during the Society of North American Goldsmiths Conference, at the Marion Cage Gallery, in New Orleans, from May 24 to 27, 2017 and online at the crafthaus website, crafthaus.ning.com, from September 23 to October 31, 2017. Our premise was to cast multiples of a single sterling silver element, then send one of them to each member of a group of artists with the request to complete the piece by October 15, 2016, using the shape in any way they chose. Measuring 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.9 centimeters, mine could be interpreted in numerous ways, yet still indicative of my own work, and it would be my only contribution to the show. The majority of the artists wanted to keep their piece a surprise and I saw most of them for the first time as I unwrapped their packages when they arrived to be photographed.

Click Images for Captions

      While the exhibition title was tied to our original intent of inviting twenty artists, “20/20” also inferred perfect vision or being able to see clearly. In a case of spontaneity, we kept the title even though the show went on to include twenty-one artists. Brigitte and I were concerned with seeing a broad range of solutions to our challenge and developed a list of artists who have a wide range of working styles. Entering into a collaboration, there needs to be total trust between the artists. Therefore, every artist was given complete control over their end of the project; they could forge it, cut it, solder onto it, color it, etc.

We chose artists who work in jewelry and objects in traditional ways (Tom Muir, John Rais, Todd Reed) and others who work with experimental and nontraditional materials and processes. Joshua Kosker made a series of jewelry from tangelo peels. Teresa Faris collaborates with her bird who chews wood that she then incorporates into her pieces. We invited jewelers, metalsmiths, enamelists, sculptors, and artists who work with wood and steel. Some artists, such as Alexis Spina, currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia, and Logan Woodle, an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University, earning his MFA in 2012, are emerging in the field; while others are well-recognized and established (Andy Cooperman, Marilyn da Silva and Thomas Mann).

Click Images for Captions

      It was also exciting to see the collection of pieces with markedly different approaches. A few to mention: Joshua Kosker used humor to create a “high end” bathtub stopper with rubber and sterling; Marilyn da Silva used the casting to create one of her quintessential books; Todd Reed encrusted the surface of the casting with diamonds; Andrew Kuebeck used an enameled decal of nude males; and Kathryn Osgood used her typical natural forms found in the Outer Banks with textural enamel and pearls.

Naturally, I was also interested in seeing how the artistic handwriting of each artist would alter my work. And those hoped for influences did appear. Adrienne Grafton’s piece and the way she builds her narrative and Andy Cooperman’s forms and surfaces were those that have gone on to inspire me. In general, I learned to look at forms from every possible angle and orientation including upside down, the cross section and using partial forms or impressions of form. It was also intriguing to observe how artists used color, surface, line, and texture with a variety of materials.

Our purpose for putting together the show was to teach the artists involved, as well as the viewer, about different ways of seeing. There were no preconceived ideas of what each artist would do, just the anticipation that they would bring their own aesthetic to the project. The results were beguiling, entertaining and a testament to the power of creativity.

Click Images for Captions

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Sue-Amendolara_Contributor.jpg

Suzanne Amendolara is a metalsmith and teaches Jewelry Design/Metalsmithing at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Amendolara served as President of the Society of North American Goldsmiths from 2011-2014, and is currently on the Board of Governors at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Her metalwork has been exhibited regionally, nationally and internationally in galleries and museums, and is part of the permanent collections of The Renwick Gallery and the White House Collection of American Crafts, Washington D.C.

Nadine Kariya Volume 40.2

PEONY FAN PENDANT of  cloisonné  enamel, fine silver, sterling silver, pearls, and gold-filled chain, 1975.  Photograph by Nadine Kariya.  NADINE KARIYA IN HER STUDIO.  Photograph by Kari Berger.

PEONY FAN PENDANT of cloisonné enamel, fine silver, sterling silver, pearls, and gold-filled chain, 1975. Photograph by Nadine Kariya. NADINE KARIYA IN HER STUDIO. Photograph by Kari Berger.

KINGFISHER BON VOYAGE PENDANT of carved boxwood, tin coaster, post-war Japanese porcelain fugu buttons, aquamarine, gilded wishbone, sterling silver, brass, fourteen karat gold, enameled iron, 2015. Photographs by Daniel Fox, Lumina Studio except where noted.

The Bainbridge Island Museum of Art’s exhibition of work by Seattle jewelrymaker Nadine Kariya is called “The Hammer and the Peony,” and the title is perfect. It evokes the idea that work—skilled, diligent, physical work—is required to create beauty. With her hammers, several of which share display cases with her jewelry, Kariya has for more than four decades used her skills as a master metalsmith to make jewelry that is astonishing for the complexity of its craftsmanship and its exquisite design.

      The show, curated and designed by Greg Robinson, the museum’s Chief Curator, includes about seventy pieces and serves as a retrospective of Kariya’s career. The exhibition is remarkable for several reasons, including that Kariya has made just about every type of jewelry you can name, from pendants and necklaces, to brooches, bracelets, rings, earrings, and cufflinks. She has made jewelry that looks tribal, such as the magnificent Dragon Stick Pearl Necklace, 2011, a regal composition of pinkish, oblong freshwater pearls and African brass beads. And she has made jewelry descended from the ateliers of European royal jewelers, such as the queenly Chalcedony Oval Ring, 2010.

Having supported herself for a couple of decades as a commercial jewelrymaker, there is not much that Kariya can not or will not design. Much of her work over the years has been commissioned, so she has often had to center jewelry around a stone or precious object given to her by a collector. Kariya obviously relishes the challenge. 

KINGFISHER CAUGHT BETWEEN MAN’S GOD AND MOTHER NATURE NECKPIECE of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, shakudo, carved boxwood, melamine and tin images, fourteen karat vintage snake, diamonds, steel cut beads, aquamarine, garnet, and braided leather cord, 2015.

      Noteworthy too is Kariya’s expertise in every technical aspect of jewelrymaking, from forging, fabrication and welding, to engraving and the alchemy involved in making cloisonné and alloys. She has also carved hardwood to create jewelry. And though metal is the basis of nearly everything she makes, Kariya has sometimes included found objects such as fossils, vintage treasures and animal bone. Her attraction to precious and semiprecious stones—often in majestic sizes—is a signature of her aesthetic.

“The Hammer and the Peony” starts with work from the early 1970s, including Voyager Brooch, 1973, the first piece Kariya sold after earning her BFA in Metal Design from the University of Washington. Made of amethyst, fine silver, sterling silver, and cloisonné enamel, the disc-shaped piece is about two inches in diameter and suggests an amethyst eye gazing into a dark sky. A fiery glow surrounds the oculus; perhaps the sun is in the background. There are white moons, or celestial bodies of some kind, below the oculus. Even in this first professional work Kariya’s talent as a colorist comes through in the brooch’s dramatic palette.

BIRTH OF ATHENA NECKLACE of sterling silver, shakudo, eighteen karat gold, negative quartz, diamond, elastic cording, 2017.

UME TV RING CONTAINER of sterling silver, cloisonné enamel, jeweled knobs, rotating antenna, 1976.

      Kariya’s skill with cloisonné is on display in other pieces from the 1970s, especially in a group of small silver boxes that could be containers for precious unguents. In Ume TV Ring Container, 1976, Kariya made a golf-ball size sterling silver television perpetually displaying a cloisonné screen of red plum blossoms, called ume in Japanese. The television knobs are small jewels. The antenna rotates. The box is charming but it is also a nod to the importance of television in 1970s culture, and a reference to Kariya’s Japanese-American heritage. Plum blossoms are a popular decorative motif in traditional Japanese art and design.

Among Kariya’s signature forms are rings and bracelets. Two large bangle bracelets made since 2000 are studies in complex alchemy and intricate surface embellishment. To make the bracelets Human Grid and Moonflower, Kariya used shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold; shibuichi, an alloy of copper and silver; and argentium®, an alloy of germanium and copper. The gold, silver and alloys create metallic palettes of surprising breadth and brilliance. In these bracelets and other pieces, Kariya uses the silver jewelry as a canvas on which to add decoration and pattern.

Until a few years ago, Kariya considered herself a maker of non-narrative jewelry. Her work had always been elegant and beautifully designed, but rarely imbued with stories or social commentary. Then in 2010 she was asked to participate in an exhibition in which each artist made work relating to a particular year from the twentieth or early twenty-first centuries. Kariya chose 2009 and made a piece about Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The piece is a suite of four brooches, each containing lines from speeches Obama made during the year. A white dove with an olive branch in its beak is the center of the suite. Obama’s words are engraved in spiraling ribbons held in a man’s hand, which emerges from the cuff of a peony-decorated sleeve. 

Click Images for Captions

      Kariya notes in her exhibition statement that the Barack Obama suite inspired her to make more narrative work. Since then she has created other ambitious narrative pieces. One is Kingfisher Caught Between Man’s God and Mother Nature, a necklace of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, alloys, carved wood, gemstones, braided leather cord, and a vintage gold snake. Prominent is the iconic image of God’s hand touching man from Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A carved wooden kingfisher is trapped behind the giant hands, and in back of the bird is a glimpse of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The Kingfisher is a recurring character in Kariya’s recent work, and in numerous traditional cultures the bird represents peace and prosperity. But in this large, ceremonial-looking neckpiece, the bird seems to represent humankind caught between the world we have created, with our laws and belief systems, and the natural world. In spite of its discomfiting environmental message, it is another beautiful piece. And as this thoughtful, serene exhibition demonstrates so well, beauty brings us joy, which is something we can always use more of.

SUGGESTED READING
Lorene, Karen.
Celebrating 70. Seattle: Lorene Publications, Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery, 2010.
Snyder, Jeffrey. Art Jewelry Today 2. Atglen: Schiffer Publications, 2008.
Updike, Robin. “Nadine Kariya: A Formalist Approach.” Ornament, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1999.
—. “Celebrating 70: Seventy Jewelers, Seventy Challenges.” Ornament, Vol. 33, No. 5, 2010.
—. “Nadine Kariya: Spiraling Arabesques.” Ornament, Vol. 34, No. 5, 2011.

“Nadine Kariya: The Hammer and the Peony,” shows at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art,
Bainbridge, Washington, through February 28, 2018.

Click Images for Captions

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Robin-Updike_Contributor.jpg

Robin Updike, a regular contributor to Ornament, is a Seattle-based arts writer who has been following Nadine Kariya’s work for many years. During that time Kariya’s elegant jewelry has been collected by some of Seattle’s best known metal arts patrons as well as those who simply admire beautiful, statement-making jewelry. Having supported herself for years as a commercial jeweler, Kariya combines outstanding craftsmanship with a highly refined aesthetic. Kariya’s current exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art is a feast for the eyes and the soul.

Royal Crests & Vajra Masters Volume 40.2

40_2_Crests-Cover.jpg

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is something of a labyrinth—a vast collection of galleries within galleries. On a morning in the middle of the week after Christmas, the Met was full of visitors from around the world drawn to the permanent collection as well as to various blockbuster offerings: a David Hockney retrospective, and “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” Two shows at opposite ends of the main building offered retreats from these throngs—and cultural revelation and enlightenment related to empowering adornments.

CREST (TSESAH) of wood, Bamileke, Cameroon, 91.8 × 57.8 × 33.0 centimeters, late nineteenth/early twentieth century. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photographs courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

       Tucked in among the displays in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas section of the museum is “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” (through September 3, 2018). The inspiration for the show was the Met’s acquisition in 2017 of an eighteenth-century monumental royal crest, or Tsesah, carved by an unknown artist from the Grassfields region of the Central African country. The museum borrowed three additional crests—out of a total of fifteen known extant examples—from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum for African Art, the Menil Collection and a private collection.

According to the curators, this first-ever display of more than one Tsesah in a single show offers an opportunity to appreciate their formal qualities “comparatively.” While the four crests share certain design characteristics, such as their “bombastic facial features” and soaring, expansive brows incised with linear patterns, they vary in size and condition. Some of them have been crudely but deftly repaired, yet they remain imposing, their earthy textures lending them a timeless quality.

In a “MetCollects” video interview about the Tsesah acquisition, Alisa LaGamma, the Pulitzer Curator in Charge for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, calls the Met crest “a sensational art form,” noting how it defies categorization: “it’s not freestanding, it’s not a mask, it actually was a crest that came out as part of a ceremony for the ascension of a new leader to the throne and his succession.” LaGamma remarks on the crest’s “out-of-the-box visual thinking” and how it was “original in its own time, but… remains fresh to this day.” 

African masks were of great interest to modern artists; one thinks of Picasso and others who found inspiration in their stylized visages. The Met display includes an installation shot from the exhibition “African Negro Art” mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 in which a Tsesah crest is shown displayed on a white pedestal. The Met exhibition also featured a twenty-seven-foot-long ndop royal display cloth; like the crests, ndop cloths were part of the “practice of power” in the Bamileke region of Western Cameroon and were tied to “long-standing regional exchange networks.”

Deep within the Met’s Asian Art section, the penetralia, as it were, of the northern end of the building, “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal” (through December 16, 2018)offers a stunning arrangement of five elaborate crowns, symbols of ritual authority worn by the hereditary caste of Vajracharyas, the highest ranking figures in Nepalese Buddhist community (the name is translated as “thunderbolt scepter master”).

VAJRACARYA PRIEST’S CROWN of copper, gold, turquoise, semiprecious stones, silver foil, Nepalese, 34.3 x 21.7 x 23.0 centimeters, circa fifteenth/sixteenth century. Rogers Fund, 1948. Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      The crowns in the show represent the five Transcendent Buddhas of awakened wisdom. The curators have arranged the crowns in a mandala configuration, with paintings and various objects of ritual performance surrounding them. Entering the darkened room is something of a religious experience—not a temple, per se, but a place of intense and remarkable sacred imagery and imagination.

The ornate dazzling crowns, which date from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, are made of gilt copper with applied repoussé medallions that have been set with semiprecious stones, crystals, rocks, and coral. They were worn by bodhisattvas, perfected beings possessed of compassion and spiritual wisdom. Four of the five crowns are from the Met’s collection; the fifth was borrowed from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Each conical crown varies in its iconography and decorative elements. A crown from Nepal’s early Malla period (thirteenth/early fourteenth century) features a series of diadem plaques that depict the bodhisattva Manjushri accompanied by smaller plaques of gift-granting goddesses. By contrast, the most recent crown in the show, dated 1717, has no figurative elements and is the most highly decorative, with a profusion of lotus flower plaques and floral bosses. Nearly all the crowns are surmounted by a stylized thunderbolt—the vajra—scepter, its five prongs sometimes resembling the beaks of birds. 

The pieces also vary in their construction, but the metalworking is consistently outstanding. Some elements are riveted to the crown, others are cast. The stones also differ from piece to piece: the VMFA collection crown features a diadem band inlaid with a rich blue lapis lazuli while several others are accented with turquoise. 

The crowns are complemented with an array of Nepalese objects equally stunning in their imagery and creation. Distemper-on-cloth mandalas offer elaborate representations of deities, including the wrathful Chakrasamvara with his embracing consort, Vajravarahi. A couple of mandalas depict the fearsome sword-wielding Acala (translated as “immovable”) who is said to be able to cut through the veil of ignorance.

Other objects in the show relate to the ritual offerings made by the Buddhist priests. There is an iron fire-offering ladle inlaid with gold and silver; a libation conch, which is used to pour blessed water during Vajracharya ceremonies; and a brass ewer with a spout in the form of the sea creature Makara.

In both the Tsesah and Vajra shows, one comes away with a sense of awe. Whether the impulse to create these astonishing adornments came from a need to display power or express belief, the individuals who carved and cast these objects were masters of their arts. The Met exhibitions help give them their due.

“The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” and “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal” show through September 3, 2018 and December 16, 2018, respectively, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Carl-Little_Contributor.jpg

Carl Little, after submitting his reviews for this issue, joked about the complexities of navigating the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art, saying that “I considered leaving behind a trail of bread crumbs.” He relied on guards to guide him to two remarkable shows: “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” and “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal.” Paintings of Portland, Little’s third collaboration with his brother David will be out in June. The two brothers also recently worked together on The Art of Arcadia, celebrating the founding of the national park in Maine.

Veiled Meanings Volume 40.2

DETAIL OF GREAT DRESS (BERBERISCA OR AL-KISWA AL-KABIRA) of silk velvet, gilt-metal cords, braided ribbons, Fez, Morocco, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S OUTER CLOAK (ABAYA) of silk with gilt-metal thread, Baghdad, Iraq, later 1920s/early 1930s. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. WOMAN’S ATTIRE of silk, silk velvet, cotton satin, and gilt-metal cord embroidery, Mashhad, Iran, early twentieth century. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

DETAIL FROM COAT OF RABBI SALIMAN MENACHEM MANI of broadcloth and gilt-metal-thread couched embroidery, Hebron, Ottoman Palestine, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

Housed in Felix Warburg’s former Fifth Avenue mansion on New York City’s “Museum Mile,” The Jewish Museum is one of the world’s oldest museums dedicated to the presentation of art and Jewish culture. Founded in 1904, and featuring collections from the ancient to the contemporary, its current focus highlights apparel from the collection of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Over twenty countries and one hundred examples of Jewish costume from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries illuminate the diversity and complexity of Jewish identity and culture in “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress.”

      Staged in a darkly lit room for protection of its textiles, the lighting serves as a successful aid to what turns out to be a fascinating and immersive ambiance. We understand that clothing serves to functionally cover our bodies (a form of shelter from our nakedness and to separate us from the natural world); but its cultural dimensions are far deeper and wider wherever it is worn, gaining ever more complicated meanings as it emerged from the mists of time. With Jewish migration historically worldwide, “Veiled Meanings” addresses this subject thematically in the exhibition’s four sections: Through the Veil; Interweaving Cultures; Exposing the Unseen; and Clothing that Remembers. Largely subsumed by non-Jewish cultures, it is not surprising that Jewish clothing was identical to, or a tweak of the dominant nationality, as well as having characteristics identifiably Jewish, such as badges, the color yellow, the Judenhut (the Jewish hat), and specific types of robes and face gear marking them as different from Christian and Muslim societies.

 

Click Images for Captions

 

      Female outdoor body wraps were the custom throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Through the Veil shows the degree that body wraps primarily masked female personal identity, shielding it from public scrutiny. As indicators of status or religion, one display of differentiation was the wearing of veils; in Baghdad, Iraq, Christian women did not cover their face, but Jewish women wore a fine-mesh black horsehair veil for more total concealment. 

Especially interesting is the amalgamation of cultural diffuseness brought about by migrations over time and place throughout the world. In the section Interweaving Cultures, there is seen a zesty embrace of contemporaneous internationalized fashions, motifs and materials in the making and wearing of dress. One delightful representative is an ensemble where the skirt was inspired by a ballet tutu. This shalita gained popularity and imitation after a European visit in 1873 by the Shah of Persia and his (favorite) wife.

As both a protection from evil and symbolic of fertility, a bride’s palms were painted with henna dye and reflected ongoing traditional beliefs. Sewn by her mother, the Henna Dress was made for Dakhla Rachel Mu’allem, who was married at eleven, and worn to the child’s henna ceremony prior to the marriage ceremony itself. The dress shows a mixture of cultural influences from the Ottoman coatdress worn by Muslim and Jewish women to the European-style gathered long skirt sewn to a long-sleeved top. Like this one with its decorative flourishes, many garments pointedly emphasized and amplified the breast area. Interestedly, and a curious conundrum, in a culture that was sexually restrictive and proscribed modesty as a critical indicator of the virtuous female, these dresses were not considered immodest. Today they might be considered a mixed message of what is a women’s traditional role in a culture experiencing worldly influences, vacillating between tradition and modernity.

WOMAN’S COAT (KALTACHAK) of brocaded silk, ikat-dyed silk and cotton lining, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, late nineteenth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

HENNA DRESS of silk satin, silk and lace ribbons and tinsel embroidery, Baghdad, Iraq, 1891. Photograph by Mauro Magliani, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. GROOM’S ATTIRE WITH AMULETIC SYMBOLS of indigo-dyed goat hair and brocade jacket and trousers with silk-floss embroidery, cotton shirt, artificial silk sash, Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, early twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu/Ornament.

      Two stunning garments, a woman’s kaltachak from Uzbekistan of brocaded silk and ikat-dyed silk, and from Iraqi Kurdistan a groom’s attire decorated with diamond-shaped amuletic symbols, are breathtaking examples of craftsmanship at work. In Zakho, from where the groom’s outfit derives, Armenian weavers were renowned for the high quality of their patterned goat-hair fabrics. The woman’s coat is a superb example of the compelling presentation that ikat-dyed fabric makes; and the combination of brocade and silk is elegant and luxurious. This kaltachak likely reflects the political and social changes that were taking place in Bukhara following the Russian conquest and Jews were free to emigrate to Ottoman Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century some one hundred eighty Bukharan Jewish families had resettled in Jerusalem and it is surmised that this extraordinary coat is from one of these families.

The importance of family in Jewish life, ensuring its continuance and stability, is another feature of the exhibition with its examples of children’s clothing. Symbolic weddings of five-year-olds were held in Moroccan communities on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and was meant to strengthen the children’s connection to the Torah and its commandments. Imitating a real groom’s attire, the boy’s suit here is decorated with hamsas (hand