Ethnography by the Bay, Artifacts (Part II)

The observation Karen Armstrong makes about Palaeolithic peoples applies equally to many tribal societies today—

Today we separate the religious from the secular. This would have been incomprehensible to the Palaeolithic hunters, for whom nothing was profane. Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its counterpart in the divine world. Anything, however lowly, could embody the sacred. 

—Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (p. 15)

Along with the usual suspects on display at this year’s Tribal & Textile Arts show—i.e. African masks, numerous Oceanic shields and a number of  Colima figures—there were a few stunning and thought-provoking items, obvious and subtle invocations of the sacred. A small selection of these follows. 

Architectural Element, Borneo

borneo-dragon1

Architectural element (Dragon motif), Borneo (Kenyah tribe?), hardwood with pigment, probably early 20th century (courtesy Primary Source).

Located in the South China Sea just north of Java, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Not an independent entity, it is divided into four main precincts administered by the nations of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.   The island is a giant mountainous rain forest, and tribes traditionally live both in the highlands and along the river ravines. 

All interior Bornean peoples make use of carved and painted elements in the construction of their longhouses, granaries, mausoleums, and other buildings. While the gods don’t normally interfere with human life, the forest is filled with malevolent spirits. As spirits are thought to enter a building through the front door, a lot of Kenyah tribal carving takes the form of powerful figures placed on various parts of the building. In addition to carving beams and posts, they apply distinctive finials, like the one above, to the roofs of their buildings.  

This finial probably represents the all-powerful dragon or perhaps a lizard or other reptile. Surely a lowly forest spirit would be frightened out of its wits by this regal and imposing being. Additionally,  those spiked tentacles would  prevent a bolder spirit from slipping through. Although somewhat faded, lime enhanced pigments (similar to milk paint) are usually added for bold visual effect. 

Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea

fertility-figure-oceania

Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea (tribe ?), wood, (courtesy Michael Hamson Oceanic Art).

Unusual for her splayed pose, the robust articulation of this female fertility figure visually demonstrates what anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea have long observed—that tribal men are generally in awe of women’s natural fertility.  Except for the articulation of female sexual organs, the figure is without surface ornamentation found on so many of the objects from Papua New Guinea. The lack of design enhances the eye’s focus on the purity of the form and lends uniqueness to the object. 

Fumi-e, Japan

fumi-e

Fumi-e, stone and cast bronze, before mid-19th century (courtesy Axel Michels).

Fumi-e (fum-ee-ay), literally “a stepping on picture,”  was a representation usually of Christ on the cross or the Virgin Mary used during the Edo period by religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate (rule of  Ieyasu Tokugawa)  of Japan. 

The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan when they first landed in Kyushu in 1542.  The Japanese barons on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade particularly for their supply of new kinds of weaponry. They tolerated the subsequent Jesuit missionaries, thinking that their presence would diminish the power of the Buddhist monks.   In 1629, however, persecution of Christians (Kirishitan) began in earnest in Nagasaki, and scores of monks were martyred.   During this time, suspected Christians were required to step on a fumi-e, the idea being that true believer would never defame the religion by stepping on an icon. If individuals would not renounce their religion, they were tortured and even killed. Executions sometimes took place on Mount Unzen, because bodies could be dumped into its volcano.

The use of the  fumi-e was officially abandoned in April 13, 1856, when the Japanese opened their ports to foreigners, although some remained in use until Christian teaching was placed under formal protection during the Meiji period.

What makes this particular fumi-e rather unique is that it doesn’t depict the crucified Christ. Rendered in the style of of 12th and 13th century Greek and Byzantine icons, it may be a rare depiction of the triumphant Christ (seated upon the throne) or possibly an image of St. Peter or St. Paul.

For a round up of unusual textiles at this year’s SF Tribal & Textile Arts show, see Ethnology by the Bay, Part I

 

Wider Connections

Mark Johnson—Art Borneo

More Kenyah finials

Tribal Arts Magazine—The Kenyah-Kayan Tradition

Upper Sepik (Papua New Guinea) Shields

Fertility Goddess (Aiwai Meri)

Lawrence Ethnographic Collection—Upper Sepik River

Haiku Topics on Fumi-e

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One Response to “Ethnography by the Bay, Artifacts (Part II)”

  1. pdtillman Says:

    Thanks for these two interesting posts. Was this the 2016 show, At Ft. Mason? So there’s more than textiles?

    Maybe next year. Conflicts this year…

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