Smithsonian Craft Show 2019 Volume 41.1

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April is always a perfect time to visit our nation’s capital as the city shakes off the withering cold of winter and looks forward to the rest of the year; that is, if one skips over the blazing heat and humidity of a Washingtonian summer. March 20 may formally mark the first of spring, but it is April that everyone truly embraces as a year reborn. Aside from the blossoming of its magnificent cherry trees, originally a gift of three thousand specimens from Japan in 1912, and celebrated by the wildly popular National Cherry Blossom Festival, the month is filled with one wonderful event after another. Savor this small sample of intriguing museum exhibitions currently showing, like “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Freer/Sackler Gallery, and “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” on The Mall, at the National Museum of African Art. Located steps from the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery hosts “Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery.” This exhibition of particular interest to those who love craft contains eighty objects from the 1930s to the present, drawn from its own craft collection, and selected by Nora Atkinson its curator.

But the month of April especially shines with that annual celebration of American craft, the Smithsonian Craft Show, at the National Building Museum, a much lauded architectural beauty and elegant setting for displaying wonders. Each year three invited jurors hone applications of approximately a thousand craft artists from across the country to those considered to have excelled in the handwork of their particular medium. The public is not only afforded the opportunity to meet and talk with the talented artists but to purchase one-of-a-kind works, selecting from twelve craft categories in basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood. Many of the one hundred twenty-one artists have participated in prior shows and are well known to serious collectors who look forward to their return, but there is also the precious chance to discover new work. For this year, there are forty-five first time exhibitors like Gregory Burgard (glass), Constance Collins (wearable art), John Guertin (wood), Bill Jones (ceramics), Katherine Maloney (ceramics), Jennifer Nunnelee (jewelry), Deborah Polonoff (wearable art), Tamra Thomas-Gentry (jewelry), Kent Townsend (furniture), Genevieve Yang (jewelry), and Jean Yao (basketry). These entrants reflect the host’s determination to keep the craft world energized with vibrant creations, emphasizing that it is a powerful and lasting artform, always renewing itself. 

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The Smithsonian Women’s Committee, which has sponsored the show for thirty-seven years as a very successful fund-raiser for the Smithsonian Institution, has in recent years established the Smithsonian Visionary Artist Award. Starting in 2014, among those recognized for their achievements have been Albert Paley, Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, and Faith Ringgold. For 2019 the recipient is Joyce J. Scott who holds a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship as part of many points of recognition in her career. In announcing Scott’s award, the Fellowship stated that her jewelry and sculpture “repositioned beadwork into a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices.” By taking in the “Connections” exhibition at the Renwick during the run of the craft show, Scott’s work can be experienced among other artists who have also helped give voice to American craft as an instrumental embodiment of this country’s complex soul.

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This year sees the return of jewelry luminaries Roberta and David Williamson from Ohio whose work portrays the organic world in its most graceful and blessed. Skillfully wrought sterling silver frames, found objects and antique prints enhance the body in statement neckpieces, in some instances recalling pectorals of former eras. Their iconography is a place of enchantment where the imagery best reflects humanity and other life forces. For those who know the Williamsons or are familiar with their work, it is clear they understand how the world harbors darkness, inequality and injustice, but the couple intends to leave their mark with jewelry that respects what is good and honorable about life.

Massachusetts artist Amy Nguyen is another  award-winning participant in the show. Noted for  her textile work, she employs the art of dyeing through the practice of Japanese shibori. Her handwork is  one of deliberative and careful process driven by a prayerful attitude brought to the cloth from genesis to fruition. Nguyen sets a high bar in her garments and this has been rewarded by her recognition as among the most accomplished in wearable art.

New Yorker Mary Jaeger is a wearable artist who layers cloth for warmth and comfort but also for a certain sensuality in her unconventional arrangement of shapes and cuts through interesting patterns and various textures. Her application of color does not follow the usual path but shows an intriguing sense for the possibilities they might bring to a finished piece.

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The Smithsonian Craft Show is a panoramic example, over its four days, of the diversity of craft in America today. Technical expertise and brilliant craftsmanship reside in the meticulously carved and glazed porcelain objects, in celadon, oxblood and imperial yellow, by Cliff Lee, from Pennsylvania, whose work is on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shown on the PBS series of Craft in America or honored by the Renwick through its Master of the Medium award.

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Also a ceramist, Irina Okula, from Maine, produces more unconventional pieces. With fragments unified by clay transformed into statuesque vessels, she designs forms  that consist of piecing together broken clay shards, like quilts. “I decorate each shard,” she says. “I try to make interesting and compatible surfaces that dance and complement each other, making for a blend of expected and unexpected play upon the surface.”

There is a sophisticated yet warm and personal aspect to Judith Kinghorn’s jewelry in high karat gold, silver and precious stones. A lifelong Minnesotan, Kinghorn says that her work is mainly intuitive, but she has clearly been drawn to the aesthetic of the natural world and influenced by the beauty and singular characteristics to be found in the upper Midwest. Perfectly realized golden floral forms radiate from her brooches and neckpieces, and one thinks of untamed fields of wildflowers and of bouquets ready to present to a beloved.

Woodworker Peter Petrochko works in Connecticut and has studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and fine arts at Silvermine College of Art. While studying design, Petrochko says, “I became enthusiastic about making objects of wood, and chose wood as my craft.” He is challenged, as are most craft artists by the many possibilities that their medium might hold, and for him that is the vessel, one that many artists find themselves drawn to, whether in wood, clay, metal, and fiber.

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From Florida, Lucrezia Bieler astonishes by the brilliance of her papercuttings. Following a tradition from Europe, they are wholly her own. Mesmerizing in totality, one is compelled to enter her personal space, drawn to what seem to be thousands of intricate cuts emerging  in black and white. She has said that “I am intrigued to  create something really beautiful from a simple sheet of  plain paper. It is like turning paper into gold.” Bieler’s  work is another example of where meticulous process, concentration and precision are paramount to the successful realization of a handmade work.

Holly Anne Mitchell works paper in an entirely different manner from Bieler. And it is a fascinating exercise to see how one artist changes the quality of a medium compared to another. Now a resident of Indiana, in 1990 while  studying metalsmithing at the University of Michigan she  began exploring newspaper as a source of expression. Her assignment was to make a piece of jewelry which did not consist of any traditional jewelry materials—so, no metal and precious stones. Such began her journey into paper as a resource, and since those Michigan days Mitchell has been increasingly sought by collectors who want to see the latest in her wry, not cynical, but thoughtful observations on the social and political nature of the modern world.

Partaking of a show like the Smithsonian is to support artist contributions to the innovations that have always been integral to this country’s cultural evolution. During changing times, like the one in which we now live, it is helpful to take some moments to remember that artists help point the way to a more ennobling worldview. It is all about building up, not tearing down, always, but most especially, during the inevitable challenges that life presents to us all.

The Smithsonian Craft Show hosts  its thirty-seventh annual event at the National Building Museum, 401 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, April 25-28, 2019. Visit their website at www.smithsoniancraftshow.org.

 
 

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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. The Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., is a destination that she looks forward to every year. From the plethora of museums in the city to the inspiring diversity of craft at the show (and of course, the company of good friends), this visit is one of her highlights. Drawn from her personal experience, this year’s article takes the reader through the show, touching upon artists from every media. Benesh also ponders the recent exhibition, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

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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.

 

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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.


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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!


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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.

 

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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.