This is a bizarre piece from our personal collection and one that has had us scratching our damn heads for quite a while now.
Although obviously constructed from quite oldish panels salvaged from a single dress, it has been deliberately and laboriously sewn into a shape that can only be described as baffling and utterly inutile... unless, to paraphrase Lovecraft, the intended wearer possessed brachiation and proportions quite unlike the normal run of earthly creatures.
The reverse is reinforced with pieces of hand-spun cotton plain weave (except for a single piece of lively kantha quilting) which presumably represent the original garment lining since the mirrors are sewn in through this layer. The glass segments are not of the murky early type (which you can see in the Banjara gala pieces here) so I'm lazily calling this a mid-century item.
While I would have loved to see the sadly deceased dress from which this item was constructed, there is something perversely satisfying about an object in your collection that resists your understanding.
It will sit over the back of a chair with the plain weave, mirrorless portions acting like 'shoulders', so my best guess is probably: mirror cover?
Or maybe some Banjara ladies just had effed-out dresses+homely chair issues too.
The heavy textures created by the puckered mirror stitching and its associated embroidery are taken to the next level by the addition of tiny pompoms on stalks and what appear to be lead-alloy or tin beads and plaques, the latter embossed with minute detail.
And it is ironic that illiterate, often marginalised women leading lives severely circumscribed by culture and religion have produced some of the most universally appreciated works of material expression. There is hardly a society in existence that has not valued personal adornment as a pillar of its collective representation; these textiles articulate the fundamentals of human existence- our immersion in natural chaos and our desire for order and distinction. That they are so often relegated in favour of 'higher' art speaks unflattering volumes about the perceptions and motivations of conventional curatorial practise.
Like all sensitive students of urban architecture and Brad Pitt, we wanted our new formal entrance gallery to respond to our environment. This particular environment leaks like a senior sister wife when the central gutter fills with hail, so it was important that everything cool went on one side so we can get buckets under the splits in the ceiling panels whenever that drip drip drip dripdripdripdrip sploosh wakes us up at 3.45am 😐
Not bothering to do anything to things has a lot to be said for it. Have you ever given a single flying furry fuck about the floor at someone else's house? Neither have we, so we chucked some rugs down and called it a day.
There are a couple of 'good' pieces here, but most of the items in this tableau were obtained for very little money from auctions etc. and many have no particular cachet beyond our personal enjoyment of their rustic or exuberant exoticism- just in case this comes across as our being materialistic wankers.
Now OG Rangda can repel all the inauspicious spirits and the Iban baby carrier and Kohistani head dress have a place of their very own instead of squatting unsatisfactorily in the lounge. We love to sit in the adjoining bedroom and peep in on that which we have wrought when the evening sun glows through the fanlight. One day soon we will actually have time for that, perhaps when the decadal spring clean we're halfway through is finally finished. Normal blogal transmission will resume next week.
* Ethnographic * Photoessays * Read the Book * Selected Ravings *
In this case, both kentes were stinky landfill anyway so we literally had nothing to lose and I thought we might as well squeeze some learnings out of this misfortune.
Older kentes are generally medium-weight silk with some cotton. In my experience, ethnographic textiles from the 20thC often feature both stable and unstable dyes, and so it was with this piece.
Never, ever actively scrub an older textile, no matter how much you'd like to. A stain is always better than a bald patch or a hole. Below: the loose dye and general dirt that came free.
You want to flush the soap and keep that rogue dye headed for the drain. If you have a nice smooth concrete driveway with a slope, take it out there, lie it flat and hit it with the garden hose (not too hard). Blast all that loose dye and dirt away before it can be reabsorbed by the wet fibres. Try to refrain from concentrating too hard on any one area or you could end up with patchy colour.
When the rinse water was looking cleaner, I let the fabric drain briefly in the bath. There is still a slight danger of dye bleed so keep an eye on it and don't be tempted to squeeze or bunch the fabric.
Ideally, silk should be laid out flat somewhere shady to dry because wet suspension can stretch the fibres and cause permanent deformation. But it's the middle of winter and and I don't have clean dry grass or a concrete pad handy, so this guy goes on the washing line. Never peg silk or vintage cloth and if your dyes remain stubbornly unstable, try to ensure the doubled-over areas don't come into contact with each other while still wet. Laid flat and straight on an old towel or sheet is best if you can possibly manage it. I should have laid a towel over this wire line but I didn't think of it.
So from a purely chromatic point of view, the result was perfectly acceptable. Much of the speckly mould staining departed and what remained was substantially diminished, along with that surface dirt dinginess. Not a hint of nasty mould stink remained, even to my very particular nose. Silk is always texturally affected by washing no matter what you do, but in this case the change to its handle was limited to a maybe 5-10% loss of that absolute virgin pliability via a slight contraction of the weave, which did not amount to noticeable shrinkage. I forgot to take pics before I gave the kente back but any differences were too subtle for the camera to convey anyway. There is no hint of vinegar scent after a few hours in fresh air, if you were worried about that. I haven't washed the yellow kente yet and I will update this item when I do.
Verdict? Both thumbs up to this treatment in the case of (non-significant) textiles that are otherwise too stinky or too dirty to tolerate. I was surprised at the decent colour retention and pretty sure I could have gone a wee bit harder with the soap concentration without detriment to the fabric. Your results may vary depending on your dyes and construction, but if your item is otherwise destined for the discard pile, you might as well roll the dice and give this process a try. Substantial portions of these kentes can now be salvaged for further use, and that is gratifying.
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The Last Living Headhunters
As collectors of other peoples' nice gear, we're always grateful to anyone who documents material cultures in situ. These days it's often for the last time before they are subsumed. We think Trupal did a nice job with these images.
See more of them here.
I still think it's worth sharing my amateur attribution process even if it is largely bollocks and that's what I'm doing here. We picked up this lovely suzani on the weekend which was fucking irresponsible of us because we are broke, but if we allowed impecuniousness to restrict our acquisitions we'd be living under a grain sack in an alley somewhere. Get off our dicks, man.
Sadly, it was this dynamism that caught collectors' eyes and tipped Uzbek, Kirghiz and Tadjik women off to the fact that there was a greater market for their domestic work which was historically only to be sold off in a pinch. Cue an avalanche of industrial dyes, synthetic materials, half-arsed drawing and sloppy execution; a quick flick through Etsy will familiarise you with the nasty tail end of suzani production.
I'm not an age-snob, though, and don't accept the generally-held view that older equals better, more valuable and more artistically worthy. There's plenty of shitty tat floating around with little but age and patrician provenance to recommend it. Agnostic curiosity fuels my interest in the history of the modest objects we collect.
Horse blankets are used to trick out one's pony wherever their tremendous value as companions is recognised. This one is 150cm wide at the flared end xs 125cm long, with an unusual leaf-green cotton ground and lavish chain stitch in flossy handpsun silk.
Green is the colour of paradise (pardaes/ferdaws) in Islamic tradition, gardens were viewed as aspirational luxuries by nomadic peoples and both notions are expressed in this design, which pleases me greatly.
Most of the dyes appear to be organically-derived and I say that for two reasons. They exhibit the wandering variation called abrash, from the Persian 'mottled', and that's the first thing out the window when commercial dyes are in play. Also, these shades are relatively easily achieved by tweaking a handful of humble dyestuffs. They aren't the insane clown posse colours- the Cadbury purple, sizzling lipstick red and Travolta black- that are the usual aim of synthetics. The orange is perhaps suspect, but it's not as hot and solid in life as it appears in some of these pics. Would a Central Asian lady really have reached for the Dylon to achieve a perversely naturalistic palette? It's a bit counterintuitive.
The embroidery is suffocatingly dense rather than loosely indifferent, nor are there the usual expanses of expedient plain stitch seen on commercially-intended pieces. If these are natural dyes, then this all-over chain stitch suggests an earlier date along with the absence of any machine sewing and artificial materials (as far as I can tell).
Except to say that common sense and lex parsimoniae scream obviously vegetal. Sorry- couldn't help it.
The internet hasn't coughed up any similar examples, so I'm going to take a punt and say Kungirat, circa 1930.
Is that crazy? You tell me.
Uzbekistan, circa 1830.
Recently passed in at auction after the bidding didn't break the lower est. of 50 000 euros.
Will fifty thousand of you bitches please buy my book STAT so I can fulfil my fucking destiny?
Have a heart.
Though I've always loved batik we possess very few examples and I was pleased to buy this tok wi or Taoist altar cloth locally for an extremely modest sum.
Peranakan Malays maintained the Taoist beliefs of their Han ancestors amid the Islam and Animist traditions practised by the surrounding peoples. Tok wi were used to decorate altar tables during important occasions. This one features a recognisably Chinese cast of auspicious characters; the lotus, the pearl-chasing dragon, the eight anthropomorphic Immortals and a pair of romping Qilin and Fenghuang birds. Together they represent longevity, good fortune and familial harmony.
These stalwarts of the Chinese pantheon have been interpreted by textile artists on the northern coast of Java, working in this traditionally Indonesian medium to produce these cloths for their wealthy neighbours.
I love the fierce acclaim expressed by the flanking qilin, the googly dragon and unapologetic palette, obviously derived from traditional Chinese famille rose (or vert) ceramics, with its brilliant interplay of rouge, fuchsia and jade.
Batik is a wax-resist technique, the fundamentals of which are covered by a fairly decent Wiki page. Areas of cloth are alternately protected from and exposed to dyes in sequence with the careful application of hot wax from a canting vessel. The wax inevitably cracks during the dying process, allowing spidery seams of colour to stain the underlying fabric (below right), producing the veining that is a signature of the technique. Some designs allow block-stamping but this tok wi looks like freehand or batik tulis to me.
There's a really beautiful slideshow of featured images. See it Here.
A year or so ago I was lucky enough to score a large cache of old Indian and southeast Asian textiles on a local auction site, and for very little money (because we po). As I began to ease the individual pieces out of their plastic shrouds it became apparent that we had done quite well. Enjoying them in the privacy of our own home feels rather selfish and we'd like to share these delightful works of art with a wider audience.
We began this series with a post on a couple of Banjara gala and encourage you to read that first for an overview of this sort of thing.
Domestic textiles, especially tribal work, have long been seen as the poorer cousin twice-removed of the princely silks and ikat favoured by prominent collectors and institutions, but with the latter examples being priced so far out of many enthusiasts' reach in recent years, perhaps these 'homelier' items are starting to get the attention they deserve. There's nothing basic about this gorgeous gem-like Baluch breast panel. The casual trade often just calls these pieces 'tribal Afghan' or 'Kuchi' but I'm going to stick my neck out with the specific attribution because of the characteristic nature of the motifs.
These are sections from voluminous robe-like dresses simply constructed from plain fabric- homespun or trade cloth- then embellished by the female relatives of the recipient. I don't know if these older panels were saved for use in newer garments and assume they're being salvaged mainly for sale these days, but exemplary tribal textiles and dowery work were historically treasured and recycled, for instance into appliqué covers and festive hangings.
The field is dominated by hooked designs that are variously interpreted as stars, spiders, scorpions, flowers or ram horns etc etc; as with all tribal iconography, some derivations are obvious and others are deeply obscured in the earliest cycles of shamanistic ritual practice and not even the peoples who utilise them are sure of the distinction. It is sufficient to say they are intended as protective amulets and their efficacy is derived from the very ancient principle of confusing the scrutiny of malevolent forces with visual sophistry. Note the imperfect symmetry in the outer guards; these seemingly purposeful misalignments are also found in rugs. You can see a detail of the reverse below.
I guesstimate this piece was made in the first half, maybe even the first quarter of the 20th C.
In contrast is this suspiciously tourist-friendly niqaab type-construction below (I have neither the patience nor inclination to unravel the intricacies of veiling terminology), recently acquired from a bazar in northern Afghanistan that began life as a circa 1980's dress front. Although I don't know which group produced this work, the material differences are obvious and the sizzling modern palette certainly underlines the gulf between contemporary and traditional dyestuffs. Personally, I enjoy both the mellowed harmony of the older piece and the eye-humping garishness of this later example.
* More textiles and ethnographica * Photoessays * Best of the Blog *
NZ Flax species are members of the agave family, which is widely exploited by a number of disparate indigenous cultures. BELOW Unknown wahine (Maori woman) wearing a traditional cloak made from pounded flax fibre (wiki).
BELOW a Kete, or 'kit' bag as they are popularly known, again made from flax fibre. Although there are quite a few fine old examples floating around, I believe that the best are distinguished not by age, but by their technical and artistic merit and many awesome ketes are being made today. I alternate between contemporary handbags and kete. You'll get around three years out of a well-constructed one before the corners start to fray and then you can either retire it to a wall somewhere or onto the fire or compost heap :) A dignified end. I've posted this piece before in an earlier photoessay from this gallery but you'll just have to deal.
Intention and context must be respected if we are to survive as a matrix of mature cultures and not just lurch from one pissy Twittermob/fundamentalist-da-fay to the next, because that shit ends in loss and tears.
Here's the band we acquired recently. We've loved tent bands and animal trappings for a long time, probably because they are the sort of honest, homely, noncommercial items that bear the most forthright imagery- symbols and compositions that you only really see on the oldest rugs and bag faces secluded in museums and snooty private collections. They speak to my deeply buried itchy feet, of loading everything onto something hairy and protesting and setting off somewhere else when it gets too hot or cold.
Unsurprisingly, the stuff woven expressly for sale is often generic and crowd-pleasing (witness the mind-numbing stream of gul rugs churned out by Turkmen weavers for the Russian market even before 1900) but I think it's safe to say the woman behind this band wasn't too worried about what a rug dealer might think of it.
Price-wise, tent bands really run the gamut from fifty bucks to several thousand dollars for the oldest and rarest, even when fragmented; they're one of the few areas in which the novice can still score a stone-cold bargain as far as graphic/authentic bang for the buck is concerned. We picked up these two lengths of the same 9m band (they're often cut for sale which is immensely annoying) for well under a hundy locally. There are lots of bog-standard Uzbek and Turkish straps kicking around but Kungirat stuff is a bit rarer so we think we did well. Perhaps they're not as commercial due to the madly extravagant, almost Dr Seuss-y nature of their motifs. Here in NZ such puzzling items tend to be onsold by returning tourists who, having been pressured into buying them as souvenirs whilst on trips through Turkey, rarely have any clue what they are. The touristy bits of Turkey seem to be a clearing house for random weavings sourced from all over the Middle East and Central Asia; most of it is dross but there's the odd whacky gem amongst all the rug-picker rejects.
BELOW Right side up. Good as new :)
The dyes are a rowdy mix of organic and industrial, with the former predominating, despite what I assumed at first glance. The red of the satin stitch blocks looks crazier here than in life so it could actually be natural, but some of the replacement orange looks hot-n-dodgy and there's the inevitable whacky greens and used-to-be-blue-now-shitty-grey failures here and there. BELOW LEFT The end (literally).
Disclaimer- I have a pretty superficial knowledge of Indian textiles and this series won't be any scholarly dissertation. But we do collect an eclectic range of Islamic and Asian material and have a very broad sort of meta-familiarity on our side, so hopefully our observations will be of some use. We both love this field and it has never been easier for the dufus or layperson to appreciate and acquire items from its immense artistic legacy.
The Banjara (or Lambadi/Lamani) people are a formerly nomadic tribe, largely (sometimes nominally) Hindu, distributed across India and are one of the putative ancestors of the Roma populations scattered throughout Europe. They've suffered their share of the socioeconomic disadvantages incurred by virtually all traditionally mobile groups compelled by policy and circumstance to take up subsistence agriculture, but seem to have retained a distinct identity.
It's safe to say they enjoy ornamentation. To my dilettante eye, their aesthetic has a lot in common with that of other designated 'tinker/gypsy' (I find these terms borderline derogatory but they have wide historical currency) and dissenter groups across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and into Central Asia such as the Kutchi, Kalashi and Baluch. It rejoices in the vivid hues and massed amulet devices of fortune and protection and declarations of portable wealth.
Settlement seems to instigate a pattern of divestment familiar to any collector of ethnographic textiles. The stuff that Nana wore loses its relevance as the cultural context is lost; these pieces are sold to traders who then move them on to tourists and western collectors. While this may seem a melancholy reality, in practise it has resulted in the preservation of a lot of wonderful material. I bought a collection of really nice vintage textiles from a lady who'd spent time in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, getting to know the locals and being gifted old family items as tokens of appreciation for the work she was doing. These two pieces are the first from that group that I've posted so far.
GALA WITH CHAIN-STITCH, LEAD BEADS AND COWRIES, KARANTAKA, EARLY 20TH C
A gala is a rectangle of embroidered cloth, usually homespun cotton in older pieces like this one, worn a little like a hood to protect the nape of a woman's neck while she's carrying pots on her head. It is secured via the tassels at the top. Cowrie shells are ancient symbols of the Feminine and divine protection and are used pretty lavishly in Subcontinental textiles. They also have a more practical attribute in that they weight the piece so that it sits well in situ. This one measures 35 x 27cm, excluding fringing.
In some traditions these older gamuts gave way to brighter 'chemical' dyes as far back as Victorian times, basically as soon as they were synthesised and distributed by western manufacturers. You'll see these azo and aniline colours, often solid greens, blue-purples and freaky reds, creeping in amongst the softer shades in rugs, clothing, scarves, tent and animal ornamentation from around 1870 onwards. Other groups held tight to organic dyestuffs until the last few decades and even today some of these mind-bogglingly old techniques are being revived, often through womens' craft collectives. Below right- rear detail.
GALA WITH APPLIQUÉ, SHISHA MIRRORS & COWRIES, MADHYA PRADESH, EARLY 20TH C
I'll be continuing this series so if textiles are your thing, keep checking back.
* More of the strange & the beauteous from our personal collection * Photoessays here *
As I've already mentioned, my father James (Jim) travelled from Australia to Papua New Guinea circa 1968 to work as a mechanic in that protectorate and trundle around with his failing, dust and fungus-ridden Soviet camera (he was an economical guy, lol), recording whatever took his fancy. Most of these images are of dubious technical quality for the simple reason that the shutter curtain in his crappy camera was falling to pieces; the originals are truly horrible to behold and I take my hat off to the Lovely R and his patient, respectful remediation. As I know little about the groups involved, I'll confine my remarks to personal observation.
You can find the first instalment of this series Here.
ABOVE & BELOW Confluence: observers, participants and regulators captured in the same frame. Even though we've pored over all these images for some time now, it's difficult to judge the precise level of tension that surely must have been a feature of these occasions, so confrontational on every level from physical display to subconscious perception. I suppose there are as many reactions to these scenes as there are individuals to enact and spectate them, but having once resided in a tribal area myself, I can tell you there would have been an edge to all this bonhomie.
I love this image; the random guy at bottom left gets me every time, and knowing my dad, he probably waved him into the frame right in the middle of the Asaro routine. Mad skills. They don't teach that at art school.
* More Photoessays Here *
You might not be able to make it out, but this is a fantastic mid-century Balinese mask we picked up from another collector a little while back. We think it might be one of the leyak spirits that form Rangda's entourage, or even Mata Gede, an associated monkey (?) spirit. It's difficult to find reliable accounts of the Balinese pantheon since many sources seem to contradict one another, but we are so in love with this piece; it is everything the later, more commercial masks are not- inhabited, expressive, idiosyncratic.
Like so many of these older masks one of teeth had been broken, so I modelled a new one out of polymer clay and attached it carefully. I'm not really happy with the result (it was a wee bit hasty) so I might re-do it some time soon and blog the process for anyone else out there wondering how to restore these incredible masks in an inexpensive and reversible manner. I'll post more pics of this mask some time soon, along with details from the Afghan and Indian textiles I picked up recently. I know I said I would ages ago, but *jumps up and runs out of the room*
* More ethnographica here *
I had to wait the whole weekend (!) to receive this parcel of 20th C tribal and old-skool textiles from a lady who had lived in northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, picking up pretties as she went.
At least 20 pieces. And yes, I am losing my shit right now, wandering back and forth through a wilderness of handwoven goodness whilst saliva runs from both corners of my mouth and my head is bursting with colours and stitches and sparkles and sequins and couching and... If I thought they could stand the rough treatment, I would roll around on them like the Southpark dad over that bed full of groupies.
Here is a small preview- I will blog the lot in the fullness of time as there are some glorious things and I don't believe this domestic stuff gets the respect it deserves. Some things are really quite old in themselves as well as representing some very archaic forms and ideas. I hope you enjoy them.
The truth, as they say, is out there. It's no easy thing to drag your asphyxiating culture out from under the three-tonne toad that is colonization. Some of my own ancestors ended up on the other side of the world trying to escape its clutches, stripped of their language and customary connection to their own forsaken island. While, in my opinion, the concept of tapu is still employed to underscore masculine primacy within Maoritanga, that may concede something to feminist scrutiny in the fullness of time. Looking over the objects in this gallery goes some way to restoring noa, the feminine principle, to its rightful status. (A word on pronunciation- I apologize for the omission of macrons; they're often not supported and end up corrupting the text.)
Above: Lintel panel, Bay of Islands. Many such pieces show women giving birth, symbolizing spiritual and existential passage. One of the many feminine articles representing noa, the sacred female principle.
Please respect the Otago Museum's copyright of these images. Do not reproduce without permission.
* More Photoessays Here *
Above: an Adaro sea deity from the Solomon Islands.
The freedom and breadth of perception that allowed the unknown artist to represent an oceanic spirit in the manner depicted above is pretty breathtaking, really.
The union of the entire fish with the anthropomorphic body, complete with strange, swirling tail and piscine mascots is a perplexing and poetic amalgam. Strange that the northern peoples of my own ancestry did not seem to have constructed or worshiped such intimate embodiments, despite being almost as dependent on the sea as the islanders of the Pacific.
Did christianity abolish such archetypes? Why have I never seen anything like this from them, even on cave walls? Maybe I just need to look a bit closer.
The solar motifs on the Austral Island house post to the left are far more familiar and indeed, almost universal.
These are pendents from the Sepik River region in Papua New Guinea. The one on the left is worn over the heart to protect it from arrows. That on the right is held in the mouth during battle. I cannot imagine my own reaction to someone rushing toward me with this figure gripped in their teeth whilst intent on my death.
Detail from a ceremonial scoop carved from hardwood, Austral Islands.
A necklace of human teeth and fibre, Kiribati.
Hanging from a wall at the rear of the exhibit, this was nonetheless the kind of object that necessitates contemplation, much of it spent sweeping my tongue over my own dentition and wondering how many people it required. I feel a strange dearth of offence or even empathy; it is a naked thing, oddly mute and aesthetically neutral though there is a distant beauty in its polished ivory and softly lustrous dentine. In imagining it around my own neck, I can almost hear the quiet, clattering little patter and click of the teeth as they shift with my movements. Some of them seem old and worn, others relatively untried.
The incisor to the bottom right was turning bad when it was removed. Was it sacred or profane? Respectful of the dead or contemptuous of their existence?
I prefer to contemplate such items in ignorance of their specific context.
* More Here *
As a child, I was once asked to choose a ring from amongst the massed rows of cheap silver on offer to the beach-going tourist in Bali. I chose a cuff-style piece with a single table-cut carnelian, unsure why I had done so in the midst of my infant personal aesthetic, but certain it was what I wanted. The ring has long passed into the yawning oblivion that trails us all but I have since learned that it was probably Afghani, traded southward from its Tadjik origin during the drug-greased Eighties and ending up on the black sand of that Hindu island. And when, much later, I thought about the kind of portable wealth that would hold the respect of the nomad brothers at the centre of The Blackthorn Orphans, I knew immediately that it would be the fabulous gilt and inlaid silver of the Turkic tribes that had once surrounded them in the remote lands of their birth. Who, having amassed a cache of this glamourous finery, would not devise whatever murmuring rationalizations were required to keep it?
This particular species of adornment has always moved me on a fundamental level. I love its brazen challenge to the urbanite and their snobbish notions of having invented taste. This jewellery wrenches the idea of luxury out of the hands of the staid and expands it exponentially, accommodating the necessary vulgarity of status display, of celebrating your personal victories and making them burn in the heart of those around you. Just as weaving ikat is known to the Iban as 'womens' war' because of its inherent conflict with the spirits depicted and the struggle with the techniques themselves, Central Asian silver is a special kind of visual, ritualized violence, something fierce and deliberate. It speaks of proud desire, subverting the modesty and relegation of monotheism. The motifs, though altered by exposure to the more jaded Classical and Chinese idioms, retain the ancient bones visible in the art of everyone from Dogon to Scythian to Celt and Inuit; the appreciation of plenty, the celebration of love and kinship, fortune and fecundity, our compacts with other animals and the elements that birth and consume us. These jewels speak of these things to everyone with eyes to perceive them.
And an interesting insight into the mania that afflicts the devotee. I understand completely...
The Metropolitan Museum of Art -Turkmen Jewelry: Silver from the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection
* More Photoessays Here * More Ethnographica *
If I asked you which country or culture the figure above originated in, you could be forgiven for nominating the Pacific Northwest; it is so reminiscent of Tlingit or Haida work that it's difficult to believe it was created on the other side of that vast ocean, namely the Massim region centering around Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. It is the ornate terminal from a long sago stirring implement.
The complex of island cultures to the east of the Papuan mainland are home to some of the most technically and artistically proficient pre-metallurgical expressions you are likely to encounter. The range of objects is gobsmacking, from the little black stone mortar to the left, to the enormous 'walking masks' required by the elaborate malagan mortuary ceremonies, and we have photographed some of the figures related to this practice for the next vol of this series.
These marks are horribly difficult to capture even under the best of conditions, being massively three-dimensional and, like all great works, arrogant in their disregard of the uninformed; in the displays they were also dimly lit, the largest piece defeating us on our first attempt to convey something of its baroque magnificence.
We shall try again.
Please enjoy the other pieces pictured here, and again, please respect the Otago Museum's copyright.
Nusanusa, a prow figure attached to the tomakos or enormous black war canoes of the Solomon Islands.
These craft are used in both fishing and headhunting expeditions around the neighbouring communities.
Nusanusa are usually carved of heavy hardwood and inlaid with hand-cut mother of pearl motifs, ensuring their power as a protective and auspicious ally on fishing runs and as an intimidatory agency on belligerent forays.
They have always reminded me of Baron Samedi, one of the senior loas from the voudoun tradition. They are piercingly, uniquely sinister, almost vampiric in their avidity.
Coconut bowl, Marquesas Islands
Below: the coral head of a coconut grater from the Cook Islands. Despite it's unglamorous domestic utility, it is a thing of unexpected beauty, the combination of stoic black hardwood, pristine flaxen binding and honeycombed coral an almost surrealistic arrangement of unrelated elements. To use the grater, you seat yourself on the stool built into the (unseen) end of the implement and slough the white meat from inside the halved nut with the coral. The lovely grain behind it is the belly of a huge timber feasting bowl.
Liliuokalani (pic onipaa.org)
Here are the second lot of pics from the Otago Museum, this time in colour. The theme for this group is fibre; Pacific peoples were historically able to exploit quite a large range of plant materials for both ritual and practical use, using everything from palm to pandanus to coconut, reed and mulberry bark, often dyed and ornamented with feathers and shells. To the northern eye, to a people trained to equate wealth with metallurgic resources these materials can at first seem humble, even homely, but when it is remembered that they were produced by small tribal communities in which everyone was well aware of the hardships, painstaking labour and sometimes hazardous tapu associated with the production of each item, there can be little doubt of the prestige which they conferred. Can there be any more unequivocal expression of royalty than that implicit in the feathered cloak above? It once belonged to Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha (Liliuokalani) 1883-1917, last queen of the Hawaiian islands. She may have been deposed by Marines in 1893 at the behest of the US government, but nothing can abolish the beauty and glamour of this astounding object in the flesh.
Bag, Santa Cruz, Solomon Islands.
The Santa Cruz islands are a tiny, far-flung archipelago off the south eastern end of the Solomons proper, which are themselves situated in the same direction from the tail of Papua New Guinea. They are remote, tropical, tribal and settled anciently by pre-polynesian Lapita peoples.
This bag bears a faint relationship to the ubiquitous billums favoured by PNG and northern Australian women but it's so unexpectedly extra that I'm at a loss to say much more about it. I am unsure if it is meant to be strung around the head or carried in the hand. I have never seen another like it.
(Vanuatu's largest island).
While this mask was labeled "Sepik Mask" and its adornments of rib bones (under the ears) and spear head (protruding from nose) are noted, I personally think this is an Abelam piece, strictly speaking. But like, whatever dude. It's an amazing thing, thickly smeared with pigments and adorned in the typically personalized and almost anarchic manner that endears them to mask freaks everywhere.
Fish hook and line, Tuvalu.
This hook is far more impressive than is implied in this image, it being about a foot long and intended presumably for some of the enormous pelagic species like tuna and shark.
Arm bands, Bougainville. Bougainville has been devastated by a disastrous open caste copper mine operated by the notorious Rio Tinto. Local secessionists brought the hammer down and closed the mine via sabotage in 1989.
:-) Direct action- the opium of the people.
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