Arch and Anth Museum, Cambridge: encounter something new

 

European art is so often the focus of our attentions. In museums, dominating university courses… it is fascinating but so much non-European art goes unnoticed. I certainly had my eyes opened a few weeks ago when a bunch of us at uni were lucky enough to have a private tour of the Arch and Anth museum in Cambridge by one of the current researchers.

 

Art and objects, objects and art… one thing that is clear when looking at the huge collection of anthropological artefacts in the museum is that there is a real blur between the two. There is an aesthetic as well as ethnographical value to these pieces.

 

Something that stands out most clearly in my mind are the Maori paddles that are a part of the founding collection in the museum. These artefacts were handed over by indigenous Maoris to Captain Cook on 12th October 1789. This was the first time that the Maori people had encountered Europeans and as recorded by the ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, the Maoris’ “very soon enter’d into a traffick with our people for [Tahitian] cloth… giving in exchange their paddles (having little else to dispose of) and hardly left themselves sufficient number to paddle a shore.”

 

Maori Paddles

 

The artefacts have an aesthetic value that is clear to see. The intricacy of the patterns on the wood are incredible as is the smooth carving of the wood itself. But they can tell us so much more…. They tell us what materials these people had available to them and the origin of the patterns can give a great deal of information about customs and beliefs. Furthermore, the manner of acquisition of  items  such as these by  European tribes is crucial. That these men were willing to exchange the beautiful paddles says something about the value they placed on them… and also their penchant for Tahitian cloth! In addition, it can say something about this indigenous community and their attitude to other human beings. This was their first encounter with men very different to themselves. Suddenly, there were large ships, men of a different racial background and dressed in totally different attire. Yet this Maori community did not attack… they took the opportunity to negotiate. Perhaps an example of early consumerism!

 

Most enlightening in all this is how these objects can be used as evidence of collaboration between European and non-European, ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ (I use speech marks here are these are contentious terms with their own loaded meanings). This gives a rather different portrayal of encounter- it was not necessary one of domination and destruction by European explorers and ‘colonisers’.

 

Going beyond written sources and delving into the study of material culture gives a more multi-dimensional view of the past and human relationships. It takes me back to the piece I wrote on the value of material culture in studying the medieval past (see John Baret- redeem me?) and once again underlines how valuable the material and visual sources are to our understanding of the past.
This can be applied to any object, regardless of its aesthetic value (although a bit of beauty is always good for the art historians among us). If you have a chance in Cambridge, take 30 minutes out of your day and have a look in the Arch and Anth museum and consider the artefacts in front of you in a way that looks beyond the surface. The number of anthropological artefacts in the museum are vast but the current exhibition taking place, ‘Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji’ is a great place to start. Like those explorers on Captain Cook’s ship in the 18th century, you never know what you may discover!

 

 

Source:

http://maa.cam.ac.uk/maa/

Around the World in Eighty Minutes: AHA alum Helena Roy reviews Genesis by Sebastião Salgado at the Natural History Museum

In a world where snap-happy Instagrammers are producing millions of edited photos daily (I admit it, guilty as charged), photography is becoming more and more popular, and, arguably, more and more ‘mainstream’. Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition at the Natural History Museum, however, is classic and revolutionary – a reassertion of what photography should be about.

Through the Natural History Museum’s cavernous hall, Salgado’s exhibition is tucked down a corridor – a spacious, minimalist room displaying photographs on recyclable structures.

The exhibition room at the Natural History Museum
The Genesis exhibition at the Natural History Museum

Leila Wanick Salgado (Sebastião Salgado’s wife, who masterfully curated the exhibition) says Genesis is “a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.” It is far too easy to spend forever wandering round the exhibition, admiring the mosaic of the world it shows. Genesis combines art with natural history, geography and zoology in one rich display.

Salgado’s photos show landscape and natural life on an epic scale. In the vast and remote regions he studies, nature reigns supreme. Though all the photos are in black and white, they are not static in the slightest, and instead lend Salgado’s subjects majesty, and a sense of powerful silence.

He redefines high-definition, and the motion he captures is just as intense as any shot in an Attenborough documentary. Genesis displays not just brilliant photography, but incredible natural history. It shows the extremities and eccentricities of natural world in full force.

Salgado’s shots portray animal life in a wonderful way. (He often photographs from a balloon to avoid disturbing animals with unnatural noise of engines.) There are portraits of a mountain gorilla, leopard or tortoise staring accusingly and emotively at you for intruding into their isolated world. The glowing eyes of hundreds of caimans light up the surface of the Pantanal Wetlands in Brazil (which house over 10 million of the species in total), while in another photograph, the tail of a southern right whale emerges solitary and butterfly-like from the surface in the Valdés Peninsula, Argentina.

Two lions – brothers – collapse upon one another under the shade of a tree after a night of hunting

Along with animals, Salgado studies human tribes, showing our species’ affinity with nature. A Yali Huntsman blends in with ferns in West Papua, Indonesia – the sinews of his body contouring the lines of the leaves. A sledge stands against a blank and barren Siberian landscape, driven by a Nenet woman with three reindeer as companions. Salgado shows their habits, rituals and lifestyle – connecting the viewer in London with people from the outermost corners of the globe.

The landscapes in the exhibition are unrivalled. Salgado magnifies the tentacles of carnivorous plants in Venezula, and zooms out on the huge mountains in the Brooks Range, Alaska, which slide down to shelter a river, minute by comparison. He gives a bird’s-eye view of Disappointment River snaking through a mountain range in Canada, and the Perito Moreno Glacier swelling to blanket a landscape in white, and slice a river in half, in Argentina.

The Brooks Range, Alaska

Genesis is not merely trying to convey nature’s beauty, however. Leila Wanick Salgado says it is “a call to arms”, and a “visual tribute to a fragile planet.” It forces us to think about climate change and our actions – not only our responsibility to protect the planet, but the guilt we all share for damaging it as we have thus far. For their part, the Salgados run Instituto Terra, a non-profit conservation organisation. But we all have a duty to not only conserve the natural world, but nurture it. As the Salgados say: “Governments can act to control… emissions, but only trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.”

Genesis continues at the Natural History Museum until 8th September

With thanks to the Natural History Museum and theupcoming.co.uk for photographs.

Delaroche and Damien Hirst: views on capital punishment – by AHA alum Helena Roy

Politicians, campaigners, philosophers, journalists and many others always clamour to express their views on sensitive ethical issues through the press. In conjuring an emotion and provoking a reaction, however, art can surpass this medium – on the issue of capital punishment, two pieces stand out to me in doing so.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles, flayed alive for refusing to worship Pagan gods. Damien Hirst’s St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain symbolises the greatness of freedom of speech and strength to say what you believe.

‘St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain’ by Damien Hirst

The sculpture conveys a key message: unjustified pain can be overcome to achieve greatness. Hirst says: ‘It has the feel of a rape of the innocents’, but despite this aesthetic the figure still steps forward and displays strength and defiance. The pose is neither timid nor physically hurt. His skin, draped over one arm, is carried as a trophy with the scissors, showing the insignificance of pain inflicted by those who are wrong, and celebrating how resilience against injustice can transcend the petty physical.

Whilst St Bartholomew was killed for obviously unjust reasons, I believe the message criticising capital punishment in general, remains. The taking of someone’s life intentionally is always murder, and even if the accused is guilty, they become a victim. The sculpture objectifies another key argument against using capital punishment: the killing of an innocent man while believing him guilty is an unforgivable tragedy. It also shows the martyrdom offered to those facing the punishment: rise above or defy it and you can be seen as heroic and brave, while your punisher is shamed.

Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, however, I think acquiesces to capital punishment, and to me this destroys its appeal. I cannot deny its artistic magnificence, but it is also cruel, painful and a true example of why capital punishment is so wrong.

 

'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' by Paul Delaroche, displayed in the National Gallery

Its historical reality heightens the sense of injustice. Lady Jane Grey’s reign lasted nine days – resulting in her execution, aged 16, along with her husband and father: to whom she was a mere puppet.

Painted with uncanny realism, the event is portrayed in a private setting. Although inaccurate, this makes the observer feel like a witness – not a historian observing an informative article. When the painting was first showcased in 1834 it caused a sensation – it is not hard to see why.

While most of the painting is in darkness, Jane is bathed in light – aesthetically asserting her innocence. Fresh straw lies around the block, there to soak up blood that will follow. This makes it even more devastating, as instead of creating a still scene in your head it creates a series of pictures, ending with the death of an innocent girl.

Delaroche’s masterpiece succeeds in conjuring the emotion of watching an execution – it has more emotional punch than many of today’s graphic films. It portrays a state of mind no human should ever be forced to experience: completely contradictory to human nature but the essence of capital punishment.

Jane’s innocence is, like Hirst’s piece, a key argument against using capital punishment. But what makes Delaroche’s work more upsetting is her resignation. Her acquiescence with the execution and passive acceptance – trying to find the block with her hands – gives the piece a sense of hopelessness Hirst’s does not have. Delaroche protests Jane’s innocence with his artistic technique and symbolism – but she does not.

The Streatham Portrait believed to be of Lady Jane Grey

By contrast to Lady Jane Grey, St. Bartholomew was obscure – as an apostle, not even his name is certain. However, in Hirst’s depiction he emerges from his insignificance and there can be no question of his power. His freedom and will, and the pleasure of exerting it and not submitting, as Jane does, makes the sculpture fantastic to witness. The fact that he is overcoming his punishment makes the pain and his killers insignificant, and him ‘exquisite’.

With thanks to mymodernmet.com and Wikipedia for photos.

The Exploration of Freedom: a Photographic Study of Contemporary Artist, Frank Bowling

Above, Left to Right: All Frank Bowling: Beggar in The Window. (1962) Who’s afraid of Barney Newman? (1968) Kaieteur (1968)

The other week I headed over to the Standpoint Gallery to listen to the 79 year old Guyanese artist, Frank Bowling, give an intimate talk about his latest London exhibition, entitled Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract.

I have decided to focus this photography blog on how the stylistically varied work of Frank Bowling marks both his physical and artistic journey. I also want to examine how his painting serves as a commentary on the marginalised lives of Black Artists during the 1950s and 1960s, with his earthy toned figurative paintings presenting images of violence and despair in the country where he was born. His later abstract works reflect his experiences in London and New York as he searched for new opportunities and methods, starting to allow paint to obtain a life of its own. This is illustrated very well in his Poured Paintings exhibition at the Tate Britain, a show I would also thoroughly recommend.

Bowling’s earlier, figurative works focus on the tragic aspect of human behaviour that he was exposed to during his upbringing before moving to the Western World in 1953. Paintings of beggars (see above) were used to personify poverty and weakness, demonstrating the instability of Guyanese culture. Bowling refuses to spare any detail of this sense of suffering: his brushstrokes are rigid, his colour palette is limited and, as the artist put it himself, he has chosen to ‘impair the traditional soothing’ that we expect from a painting, as we feel guilt for the man that begs at the window. Bowling is not afraid to separate the figure from the onlooker by using the window as a device to hinder our access, confronting the obvious division between black and white artists in the ’50s and ’60s. His painting is reminiscent of western artists such as Turner and Rembrandt, whom the Bowling admires, suggesting his desire for universality between different cultures.

The subject matter of beggars served as a common stereotype for the category of ‘Black Art’ alongside other subjects, such as landscape and childbirth. But now, in retrospect, we are able to see the Bowling’s battle with the ‘sweeping generalisations about cultural distinctiveness’ as he promoted the idea that there is no such thing as ‘Black Art’.

On moving to New York, Bowling grew increasingly more aware of the cultural limitations of his art: the post-colonial approach focusing on concepts of exile, migration and displacement gave the artist little flexibility in the subject matter of his paintings.

Scared to transfer entirely from figurative art to abstraction, he felt the need to incorporate fragments of his ethnicity into his series of Map Paintings, claiming he ‘didn’t feel brave enough to go straight into abstraction’; the implication here was that his integration into mainstream art was hindered by racial prejudice.

But finally, Bowling managed to shift to complete abstraction, where his art was no longer defined by his race or ethnicity and visual arts could be separated from other social concerns. For example in his Poured Paintings (see above) the subject matter becomes less of a concern to the artist, demonstrating his new confidence and status, rising above the need to incorporate iconography into his work. This process-driven approach breaks away from the conventional 20th century demand for logic and subject matter. He works without an easel, and pours the paint on a tilted board, ‘wet on wet’ giving it its own liberty to create forms independently, each colour falling and blending as it reaches the bottom of the picture plane.

Below, I have tried to replicate this idea of experimentation and portrayal of freedom photographically, setting a long shutter speed whilst moving the camera over coloured lights. We see there is no boundary between the piece and the observer, like we have experienced previously in Bowling’s earlier works. This is meant to suggest how the modern world allows for the participation of all cultures, inviting us to appreciate the work for what it is; provoking a sense of anticipated excitement for the future of art, as it aims to encapsulate the spirit of modernism – ‘Art for Art’s sake’, if you like.

 

Above: Lights 1, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 2, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 3, Marie Naffah

I must lastly mention that Bowling has finally sold one of his paintings for $275,000 after years of working as an abstract artist. Although the Guyanese artist proves very successful, I couldn’t help but think as I sat in a room of about 25 people listening to him speak, why is it that we grant his contemporaries so much recognition, for instance, Hockney- who arguably produces works of the same artistic merit? Is it acceptable that there is still an underlying struggle that takes place for a black artist in western society?


John Baret, redeem me? By AHA alum Maddie Brown

 

My last essay of term was on material culture and late medieval lay religion in England. Exhausted, and with my brain saturated with all the information I had stuffed into it during the previous seven weeks of term, it sadly was not a good essay. I feel this is an opportunity to redeem myself. Here goes…

 

The study of material culture can be split into three categories: the independent study of artefacts, the study of material artefacts in conjunction with written documents (such as wills) and finally the study of written documents that shed light on pre-existing material culture of which a written record is all that remains.

 

For the purpose of this blog and to compensate for my withered essay, considering the surviving tomb of John Baret of Bury St. Edmunds is interesting. This case study underlines the fickle nature of late medieval religion but more broadly highlights the pit-falls involved in the study of material culture, something that we all (as art history enthusiasts) should be aware of.

 

The cadaver tomb with the haunting skeletal effigy is still there today in St. Mary’s Church. It appears to be a mark of John Baret’s humble acknowledgment that he was an unworthy individual with a penitential debt that at death, remained to be paid. It could act as a spiritual reminder to the viewer, that their death was not all that far away and thus they should convert with urgency and express their Christian devotion with greater fervour. It seems likely that Baret believed himself to be fulfilling his Christian role in encouraging conversion in this way. More immediately, it is probable that it was designed to evoke sympathy and pity on the part of the spectator in a bid to secure the help of their prayers in pushing Baret’s soul through the fires of purgatory and into the afterlife.

 

 

From this purely aesthetic exploration, the reduction of the man’s penitential debt is the central spiritual concern here; the tomb is a spiritual reminder to the Christian viewer and a reflection of the man’s humility, is it not? Considering the physical features of this tomb in conjunction with Baret’s will, a more nuanced view of the man’s thought-process can be built up.

In his will, it is evident that Baret intended for the church to be redesigned for the construction of his tomb – hardly an act of subtlety by a humble man. Furthermore, when it is known that he was a rich and powerful cloth merchant, it is easy to understand that such an individual may have also been concerned with projecting his wealth and worldly status in order to secure his legacy as a successful, prosperous and preeminent trader. Indeed, on closer inspection of the tomb, on the fascia below the reclining effigy, a smaller carving shows Baret in life, dressed in fine clothes and wearing the silver “Collar of Esses” which the Lancastrian kings had bestowed on him. A royal connection could not be a more emphatic projection of worldly status.

Two things can be gleaned from this. Firstly, that late medieval lay piety was a fickle thing. Men were concerned with their spiritual well-being; fear of what the afterlife may bring and the desire to secure a place in heaven was central to Christian belief and practise. Yet at the same time, the projection and conservation of one’s worldly position was ever-present; a fascinating medieval contradiction.

Secondly and more broadly, this case study underlines the limits of studying material culture when focusing solely on the material artefacts that remain. Collaboration with documentary evidence is crucial as it allows the gaps in the historical jigsaw to be filled in with some confidence. Without scrutiny of this kind, the gaps would remain empty, and our knowledge of the past would be left similarly unfulfilled.

‘Collaboration’ seems to be the word to be stressed here. Collaboration between the art historian (for the deconstruction of the aesthetic qualities of artefacts) and historian, for this deconstruction to be given wider historical context and significance. Finally, collaboration here and now, between you, the reader and I, the struggling writer… have I redeemed myself?

 

Information source:

E.Duffy; The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional religion in England 1400-1580; 1992

Let’s Dig Up Some Dirt: Great Archaeological finds by AHA alum Maddie Brown

 

Word on the street, a carpark in Leicester…the site of one of the most exciting British archaeological discoveries in the 21st century? Really? Who would have thought it? On Monday 4th February 2013, scientists confirmed that they have indeed uncovered the grave of Richard III, the English king killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.

 

In response, I was asked to write this blogpost about some of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever. I’m a history student and as such I can appreciate the role of the archaeologist and their importance to the study of material culture. This should be easy…

I start chatting away to my friend who is studying archaeology and anthropology and ask her to give me some inspiration.

‘mitochonrial analysis…bipedalism…encephalisation’

I was lost… Quite honestly, I just had Indiana Jones in mind.

Ummm. Right. I suddenly realise that to pick a few of the greatest archaeological finds is going to be more of a challenge that I initially thought.

The possibilities are infinite. Just google it and you will see for yourself. After all, the study of the human past… there is quite a lot there.

So, to narrow things down, do I go with historical archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, biological archaeology, or do I stick with British finds? Browsing the Internet for just 10 minutes the discoveries I made were incredible. I have picked some of what I liked best.

Here are a few of the amazing finds that I have dug up (…sorry):

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls

 

A collection of 972 scrolls found on the shore of the Dead Sea between 1946-56. They consist of biblical as well as extra-biblical documents but are traditionally divided into three groups: ‘Biblical’ manuscripts (copies of texts that can be found in the Hebrew Bible), ‘Other’ manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period that were not included in the Hebrew Bible) and ‘Sectarian’ manuscripts (previously unknown documents that outline the rules and beliefs of groups within greater Judaism).

The manuscripts themselves have been dated to a timespan between 408BC to 318 CE.

Without going to deeply into this, consider the creation and circulation of these documents around 1000 years ago… Wow.

 

 

 

2) The Terra Cotta Warriors

 

This terracotta army was buried with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huan in 210-209BC in the hope that it would protect the emperor in the afterlife.
It was discovered in 1974 by local farmers in the Lintong District of Xi’an. Current estimates put the number of soldiers at over 8,000 and that doesn’t include the chariots and cavalry horses!

How long did it take to make all of these I wonder…?

3) The Mount Owen Moa

 

Found in the 1980s in New Zealand this is a complete foot of a Megalapteryx didinus. It was a form of flightless bird, native to New Zealand and it is thought that most, if not all, of the species had died out as a result of overhunting by the Maori by 1400.

This foot has been tested and is actually 3000 years old…. Yep. No need to say more. Amazing.

 

4) The Oldest Shoes

I love shoes. I look forward to the day when I have the money I can buy a pair of Christian Louboutins (keep dreaming Maddie).

Now it may not exude the style of some Louboutins but this 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe is extraordinary. Found in Armenia in 2010, it shows that even half a millennia ago, protecting the foot (and the importance of accessorising?!) was understood.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. 5. Oetzi the Ice man

 

Found in 1991, the whole genome sequencing of the human remain of Oetzi was completed in 2012. It is a mummified corpse of a man who was killed over 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps. Analysis of his DNA provided not only a unique window into Oetzi’s own life, but more importantly into ancient European migration patterns.

How they glean this information from analysis of a 5000-year old corpse is beyond me but the fact that we have such remains in our hands today is mind-blowing. Just think- 5000 years ago Oetzi was walking around like me and you!

 
   


I have no idea whether these are considered to be the greatest archaeological finds of our time but in a field all about discovery, the research for this blog was just that for me.

Have a look for yourself and see what you can uncover…