Archive for the Folk & Tribal Art Category

Venetian Red Notebook: Allen Tupper True, Painter of the American West

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Illustration, Painting, Public Art with tags , , on September 2, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Allen Tupper True, Self PortraitAllen Tupper True, Self-Portrait, undated
Photo courtesy Anne True

Colorado artist Allen Tupper True (1881-1955) was a muralist, easel painter and illustrator. His paintings have a distinctive and unique palette that beautifully capture the color and light of the American West. As a young man, True studied with illustrator Howard Pyle and he later apprenticed with renowned Welsh muralist Frank Brangwyn.

Allen Tupper True, HuntingPartyAllen Tupper True, The Hunting Party, 1914
Photo: Ira Schrank

Inspired by the beauty of the western landscape and his admiration for the people of the western United States, True produced a wonderful body of work that also provides an important historical record. He was a student of all aspects of the American West, including Native American culture and the stories and lives of pioneers, trappers and miners. His knowledge was not purely academic—whenever possible, he lived the life he painted. True had a profound understanding and respect for Native American culture and religion. His oil paintings give us a first-hand look into their daily lives and his sketches and watercolors of their clothing and design motifs provide accurate and invaluable documentation of these artifacts.

Allen Tupper True, JicarillaSpringAllen Tupper True, Jicarilla Spring, 1913
Photo: Ira Schrank

Allen Tupper True, Mounted Indians Passing TeepeesAllen Tupper True, Mounted Indians Passing Teepees, undated
Photo: Ira Schrank

Among True’s many public and private commissions were murals painted for the State Houses of Colorado, Wyoming and Missouri.

Allen Tupper True, Homesteaders, WYAllen Tupper True, Homesteaders, 1918
Mural, Wyoming State Capitol
Photo: Marcia Ward

Allen Tupper True, History of WaterAllen Tupper True, History of Water in the West
Sixth in a series or eight murals for the Colorado State Capitol, Denver Colorado, 1934-40
Photo: Marcia Ward

A three-part exhibition of Allen Tupper True’s work at the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western Art, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum opens in October 2009.

Recommended reading: Allen Tupper True: An American Artist by Jere True and Victoria Tupper Kirby. This biography, written by his daughter and granddaughter, narrates True’s life and work by means of letters, diaries and family history and is lavishly illustrated.

Allen Tupper True, Indian DesignAllen Tupper True, Sketch of Indian Design, undated
Photo: Ira Schrank

Venetian Red Notebook: Windows on Russia

Posted in Architecture, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Travel with tags , , , on August 19, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Russian Window

Russian folk art reached the height of popularity with the builders and woodworkers of rural Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. From simple peasant cottages to log-built estates for wealthy merchants, timber houses were decorated with elaborate painted wood carvings. Russia is sometimes referred to as a nation of woodcutters, and this tradition is evident in the wooden houses in the Golden Ring, the historical towns and cities that lie to the northeast of Moscow. These towns represent one thousand years of Russian history, a time and place that saw the lives of great figures in Russian history unfold, including Alexander Nevesky, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. It was in these towns that the Russian Orthodox Church first took hold, so there are many wonderful examples of Russia’s greatest architecture—monasteries, onion-dome churches and cathedrals.

In the rural houses of the Golden Ring, elaborately carved wooden decorations also appeared on the edges of roofs and balconies, but were most beautiful as window surrounds. The carvings were uniquely Russian, an amalgam of Russian folklore motifs, Baroque embellishment and the graceful linear quality of Art Nouveau. They combine flowers, leaves and geometric shapes with stylized depictions of  birds and animals, as well as mythological creatures, such as the Sirin—a creature of Russian legend that has the face and chest of a woman and the wings and feathered tail of a bird, most often an owl.

SirinSirin, Lubok picture, 19th century

These pictures, from a Golden Ring travel brochure, show the inventiveness of the  wood carvers. The houses and the window surrounds were painted in wonderful colors which highlight the beauty of the designs.

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Windows

Russian Window

The three pictures below were taken by a friend last year on a trip to Russia.

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir, 19th century

Russian Inn
Russian Inn near Vladimir

Russian House SuzdalRussian House, Suzdal
Photos: Courtesy Victoria Tupper Kirby

In many areas of Russia, these wonderful embellished houses have fallen into ruin, a staggering number have been lost. In the Golden Ring, quite a few have been restored on site, while others have been moved to “open-air museums” and are a popular tourist attraction in northeast Russia.

This window surround was included in a recent exhibition, Carved and Colored Village Art from Tsarist Lands, at Pushkin House, London that was held from May 18th-June 10th, 2009. Note the two mythological bird figures on the top.

Russian Window—Pushkin House
The catalog from the show, by Robert Cenciner and John Cornall can be found here.

Russian Windows, Pushkin House

Venetian Red Notebook: Kuba Cloth, the Geometry of the Labyrinth

Posted in Christine Cariati, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Textiles with tags , on August 7, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth, a raffia cut-pile embroidered textile, has been made by the Shoowa, a small tribe in the kingdom of Kuba, in the Kasai, (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for hundreds of years. These textiles, embellished with stylized abstracted designs from nature, combine line and surface in an invigorating way that creates movement and depth. Traditionally, Kuba cloth had many uses—as currency, for dowries, clothing, religious rituals and shrouds. The textiles were highly prized and conferred status.

The embroidery is done on a tightly woven plain weave cloth with very fine, softened raffia. The cloth is woven by the men, the embroidery is done by the women. Dyed in earth tones of red, yellow and orange with vegetable dyes, the raffia is pushed down and up through the cloth with a steel needle, then cut in even tufts. There are no knots, and it is packed so densely that the individual tufts are not visible. The textiles combine several tones of color which contrast to form optical geometric motifs that are complex and eye-catching.

The Kuba people have strong design traditions that combine a complex number-based script with the repetition of geometric motifs that are also used in tattoos, body scarification, architecture and basketry. The interlocking diamonds, lines and squares create spatial variations that enliven the cloth with movement. The women work the cloth from left to right, top to bottom, without any preliminary drawings. The single initial element of the design defines the character of the whole piece.

These textiles are unique, yet the visual motifs are very evocative of patterns we see in Western art and craft—they call to mind traditional weaving patterns such as twill, chevron, bird’s-eye and diamond weaves and there are echoes of Byzantine textiles, Art Deco motifs, mazes and labyrinths, M.C.Escher, as well as roads, landscapes and cultivation as seen from an airplane. The visual inventiveness of these works, with their parallel lines, concentric circles, chevrons and diagonals, set off by the tonal shadings, make these textiles endlessly interesting to look at—you always see something new, different patterns and connections constantly emerge.

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba1 cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

To study in detail about the complicated origins and history of Kuba cloth, Venetian Red recommends Georges Meurant’s Shoowa Design, African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, Thames and Hudson, 1986. The 12 examples of Kuba cloth in this post were all taken from his beautiful book.

Doin’ the Lord’s Work

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , on March 11, 2009 by Liz Hager


I’se just doing the Lord’s work. It ain’t got much style. God don’t want much style, but He gives you wisdom and speeds you along.

—William Edmondson

Ever since the Renaissance, when luminaries placed man at the center of the universe, societies have placed little value in tampering with one of the period’s most cherished tenets, namely that creative genius emanates solely from the individual. Every once in a while, however, a humble commoner comes along to remind us all of what the ancients knew only too well—that artists are merely conduits for the divine (or creative, if you prefer) force.  William Edmondson was such an uncommon commoner.

Some time after loosing his janitorial job in the early 1930s, Edmondson saw a heavenly vision. A disembodied voice called him to pick up his tools and start carving a tombstone:

I knowed it was God telling me what to do. First He told me to make tombstones. Then He told me to cut the figures. He gave me them two things. . . The Lord told me to cut something once and I said to myself I didn’t believe I could. He talked right back to me: “Yes, you can,” He told me. “Will, cut that stone and it better be limestone, too.”

This wasn’t Edmondson’s first vision. He described to a chronicler a time when he was 13 or 14 “doing in the cornfields,” when he saw “the flood.”  There was little doubt in Edmondson’s mind then: “I ain’t never read no books, nor no Bible, and I saw the water come. It come over the rocks, it covered up the rocks and went over the mountains. God, He just showed me how.”

Though he had no formal art training, Edmondson took this divine directive seriously. At the age of 57, Edmondson began using a hammer and a railroad spike on left-over limestone blocks or pieces he found at building demolitions. Soon the yard adjacent to his Nashville house began to fill up, first with funereal, and later garden, sculptures. Over a 17-year period he would carve over 300 pieces. He sold work to local church parishioners, and many of his pieces ended up in Nashville’s local black cemetery, Mount Ararat (today part of Greenwood West). Some are still there.

In 1935, Edmondson’s work came to the attention of Sidney Hirsch, a Vanderbilt (George Peabody College for Teachers) professor, poet and playwright and collector of ethnographic items from around the world. Hirsch struck up a friendship with Edmondson, bought pieces from the artist and introduced him to his friends, who bought sculptures.  One set of Hirsch’s friends introduced their friend, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the Edmondson. She ended up taking hundreds of photographs, eventually showing them to her friend Thomas Mabry, one of the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1937, labeling Edmondson’s work “modern primitive,” Mabry brought his work to the museum, making him the first African-American artist to have a solo show at MOMA.  The following year, Edmondson’s work included in the “Three Centuries of Art in the United States,” exhibit placed at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.  In 1941,  Edward Weston “discovered” Edmondson. And so a few more pictures were taken.

Edmondson regularly referred to his works as “miracles.” Not unlike most other artists, he drew inspiration from the beings that inhabited his world, whether neighbors or nurses, crows or squirrels. But he also drew heavily from his understanding of the Bible—crucifixions, preachers, arks, angels, and lambs—and occasionally from the imaginary realm (mermaids).  William Edmondson even rendered a portrait or two—Eleanor Roosevelt and boxer Jack Johnson (a bald man, to whom the sculptor gave a curly head of hair).       Above all, Edmondson was interested in the figure, though not in a wholly realistic rendering of it (some of the figures are barely liberated from their blocks).  He was partial to pairs—Adam & Eve, Porch Ladies, “Mary & Martha”—perhaps the result of Biblical examples (the animals of Noah’s ark) planted firmly in his mind. Whether two- or four-legged, Edmondson’s creatures bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, and one imagines them all as members of an extended family, citizens of Edmondsonia if you will. Although they may all look alike, the sculptor has imbued each with his/her own separate and quiet dignity.


Since the art world rediscovered Edmondson’s work in 2000, many have made much about the proto-abstract nature of his work; some have conjoined him with Brancusi and modernist sculpture. Surely,  Edmondson would have been bemused by those kind of distinctions; after all, he was doin’ the Lord’s work. Although his work garnered attention in New York, in Nashville his pieces continued to sell for as little as $5 and $10.

Edmondson died in 1951, after ill health forced him to give up sculpting. He was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery.

Although his work is today in the collections of  The American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian,  the Hirshhorn, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Montclair Art Museum, and the Newark Museum, today William Edmondson today lies in an unmarked grave, his headstone long since gone and any records indicating its location burned. That’s strangely befitting for a man who did not seek fame or fortune, never credited himself for his abilities, but gave his creative life over to a higher force.

Wider Connections

I Heard God Talking to Me

“American Monument” (Artnet)

Cheekwood 2000 Edmondson Exhibition

Louise Dahl-Wolfe at Stanley + Wise

And Beyond. . .

Roberta Smith—Altered Views in the House of Modernism (NY Times)

Claire Lieberman—Stone: Mystery or Malaise (Sculpture Magazine)

Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists

Gary Alan Fine: Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

Ethnography by the Bay, Artifacts (Part II)

Posted in Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

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


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, 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, 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

Ethnography by the Bay, Textiles (Part I)

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2009 by Liz Hager


Asafo Flag, Fante tribe, Ghana, early 1900s (courtesy Owen Hargreaves and Jasmine Dahl; photo ©Liz Hager)

At noon on Friday, the opening day of the The 23rd San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts show (2/13-15), the light foot traffic inside the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason appeared equally-divided between the serious collectors and the dabblers interested in furthering their ethnological education.  Along with scores of the perennially-popular Persian & Turkish rugs, Uzbeki ikat munisaks, antique suzanis, African masks, Oceanic shields, African masks and the scattered Kaitag embroideries were a number of unusual and stunning pieces.  

Asafo Flags, Ghana

Asafo refers to the centuries-old “people’s militia” of the predominently Fante tribe in Ghana. Today asafo is not so much a standing army, but an established social and political organization based on martial principles. The tribe makes extensive use of pictorial symbols, which essentially form a system of writing. Similar to proverbs, this syntax preserves and passes along the tribe’s culture. The symbols appear on textiles, pottery, metal castings, wood carvings and architectural elements.  

According to Rebecca Maksel in “Dueling Banners” (Smithsonian Magazine, link below) the cultures of Ghana “boast a repertoire of more than 3,000 proverbs, although only about 200 of these are depicted on flags.” Each company had its own flag—emblazoned with a unique color scheme and symbols—usually commissioned by each captain for the day of his investiture. Flags were displayed during special occasions, festivals and funerals. The above flag from the early 1900s is typical of the form the flags take—a cotton cloth has been appliquéd and painted, in this case with symbols of a tribesman, stars, a flag-like design at the top, and the Union Jack. Is this an historical theme having to do with some specific event under British rule (Ghana did not gain independence until 1957)? Or does it represent the derivation of the company’s source of power (the stars)? 

Pah-soe, Burma


Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (lower body wrapper) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)


Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (detail showing typical plaid “fringe”) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

The pah-soe is a voluminous wrapped skirt worn by fashionably dressed Burmese gentlemen on festive occasions. This piece is made in the typical way of silk woven in tapestry weave, or  acheik-luntaya (in which the weft does not run selvage to selvage, but is placed in small sections).   The garment was woven in two narrow strips and sewn together.  It is finished off with plaid “fringe,” which seems to be the style for these garments.  This is one of the most gorgeous silk weavings on view at the show—its luscious purply indigo color not well captured in the dim lighting of the booths. 

Ritual Cloth, Nigeria


Ukara, Leopard Society, Igbo Tribe, Nigeria, plain weave/stitch/resist on cotton dyed with indigo, 20th century (courtesy Cathryn Cootner, photo ©Liz Hager).

Like the Asafo flags, this Igbo pictorial cloth is a sophisticated form of communication. The Igbo Leopard Society was a secret society, perhaps established in Nigeria as early as the 1600s, but which flourished mainly in the early- to mid-20th century mostly as a form of shamanism. The shaman transformed himself into an animal (ngbe or leopard) and conversed with the other animals on behalf of the society.  The central society ritual consisted of masquerade processions and dances, in which members wrapped themselves in leopard skins and ukura skirts.  

According to Amanda Carlson in African Folklore: An Encyclopedia (p.299)—

Leopard Society members, who pursue excellence and expertise in the artistic and intellectual facets of nsibidi {symbol language of, among others, the Ejagham and Igbo tribes}, create brilliant displays with their secret knowledge, which once gave them the power to enforce the laws of the society at large. On ritual occasions, members create a dramatic presence by wearing a ukara cloth, which they tie around the waist to form a long skirt…  

Ukara cloth has an array of signs that uniformly cover the surface of the cloth and refer to titled positions within the society, secret rituals, and philosophical concepts. Read as a whole the cloth is a synopsis of the Leopard Society and a symbol of membership. 

This ukara, a bold design of indigo and white, is particularly dense, which causes the eye to linger in order to register its individual components. Despite a multitude of figurative and geometric symbols, the rigid grid assists the eye in both reading the whole design and seeing the individual parts. The design seems to undulate and flow; the indigo and white cause the symbols to pop forward or recede into the background. 

Kantha (Quilts), West Bengal


Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave, West Bengal, ca. 1940. (courtesy John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)


Tiger motif—Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)


Yankee Sailor motif? —Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

Kantha are quilted cloths made from old saris, dhotis, and lungis. Used as bed covers or wraps, kantha can from three to seven saris thick, quilted together with the simple running stitch. This stitching gives the kantha a finished effect similar to an American-style quilt, although sari silk imparts a luster and richness not present in the latter bedcover.  The kanthas pictured here are made predominantly of cotton, but that in no way detracts from their value as exquisite and breathtaking textiles.

A long talk with renowned textile authority and dealer John Gillow revealed the engaging story behind the kantha above.  Like many kantha this was produced as a dowery piece, most likely for the daughter of a wealthy (rice) farmer. She may have worked on it, but likely other women of the plantation did the majority of the work. Like many kanthas, this features the central lotus motif. The fancifully-conceived animals that surround the lotus would have been been familiar to the Bengalis—a tiger, a crocodile, peacocks, fish, as well as farm animals. West Bengal is a cultural cross-roads of sorts, hence the Buddhist lotus flower mixed in with an Islamic water carrier (lower left),  women in Hindu-style lengha(?) skirts (lower right), and what Gillow hypothesizes is a “Yank” sailor above the women.   (This being executed in the mid 40s during or after the war.)  The challace (above left) is traditionally filled with rose water, which along with betelnut, is a welcoming gift in Bengali homes. 

Kanthas were also executed in the most stunning of geometric designs. The upper photograph of the two below demonstrates the subtlety of a well-executed reversible design.  As the lower photographic detail shows, great care was taken to continue the stitching design into the background. The hours of work that must have gone into the creation of these extraordinary quilts is mind-numbing. 


Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)



Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)


Wider Connections

Tribal Arts homepage

Asafo Flags (images)

Smithsonian on Asafo flags

Inscribing Meaning—Nsibidi 

John Gillow’s books on textiles

Cloth as Metaphor Exhibition

Kantha stitches


Sacrificial Lamb?

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on July 26, 2008 by Liz Hager


Figure of a Crawling Baby, Olmec, 1200-900 BC,
ceramic, paint and pitch, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2″
(photo © The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Last weekend, after securing my entrance time to the Dale Chihuly show at de Young, I received an unexpectedly treat, an extra 40 minutes of unplanned time. I decided to spend it with a few of my favorite friends at the de Young, the pre-Columbian figurines. No matter how often I visit them, these figures remain fresh and vigorous.  They are a demanding lot—to fully enjoy their company I find I must pay full attention to the ancient world they inhabit,  a world full of mysterious, incomprehensible rites and unanswerable questions. Invariably I notice some new detail about them that propels me down a new and thrilling path of discovery that links us over the centuries.  Our relationship is ever evolving. In this respect, the Pre-Columbians are the best sort of friends.

I submit to you the chubby fellow above, a relic of the Olmec culture. I had always thought of him as an effigy—a representation of a dead child, a remembrance for grieving parents. He is adorable in his particularly babe-like pose; and I imagined his distressed parents. This time around, however, I noticed the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet. Odd. The Museum label offered no explanation.  Certainly there was more to the story of this child.

The Olmecs populated the Mexican Gulf lowlands from from around 1500 BCE to 400 BCE. With their hallmark complex social organizations, ingenious construction methods, and system of writing (the first in Mesoamerica) experts consider the Olmec to be the earliest civilization in the Americas. Our modern introduction to Olmec art is almost always through through one or another of their colossal basalt heads, those neckless warriors with characteristic flattened noses and downturned  “jaguar” mouths (so-called because they resemble the fierce snarling of that big cat, I suppose).

Olmec Head, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

A tiny cousin of the giant heads, Crawling Baby one of a larger (but not huge) group of “hollow babies,” crawling or sitting infant-like figurines, which have been unearthed over the years throughout the Olmec territories, now present-day Mexican states of Veracruz, Tobasco and Puebla.  Although hollow, these figurines were not used as vessels.

Baby Figure, Olmec, 12th-9th century BCE
Ceramic, cinnabar, red ocher; 13 3/8″
(Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Incredibly naturalistic in comparison with later Mayan and Aztec sculpture, the de Young baby nonetheless displays the typical stylized elements of the art form—elongated head, impressionistic features with winged eyes, and paw-like hands.  These features make him seem more like a miniature adult, which would seem to indicate a purpose beyond simple effigy.  The elongated head is a most interesting element; generally,  it is thought to reflect the practice of head binding, a customary way the Olmec differentiated their elite.

If Crawling Baby represents the elite class in Olmec culture, he probably had a ceremonial purpose. Perhaps the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet tie are clues to the his specific use.  The Olmecs were the first people in the Americas to bury offerings with their dead. Other types of infantile figures appear throughout Olmec art as obvious sacrificial objects. Additionally, the Olmecs had a healthy belief in shamanism; the jaguar was a most potent spirit.  Figures in crawling poses are believed to have been emulations of the jaguar, who, among his many roles, transported bodies to the underworld. Thus these figures have come to be viewed as symbols of the transition from life to death.

Was Crawling Baby meant to be a stand in for an infant in a sacrificial ceremony or, worse, the effigy of an infant sacrificed?

Wider Connections

Michael Coe, Ed., The Olmec World—Ritual and Rulership
Colossal Sculptures at La Venta
Tribal Arts Magazine

Santos y Milagros: Retablos and Ex-Votos

Posted in Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , on July 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

San Luis P., Retablo (commissioned by Inocensio Medina?), 1972, enamel (?) on tin. (Photo courtesy the Author)

TRANSLATION — “I give thanks to the Virgin of San Juan of the Lakes and to Christ the King of the Mountains for the miracle granted of restoring my father’s health.  During the 6 months of being ill with an illness, a dangerous one.  He waz (approximates the misspelling in Spanish) going to be operated on and that was not necessary.” 

When I met my husband many years ago, besides being interested in him, I was fascinated by the small ex-voto he possessed (above), the first I had ever seen.  Retablos (or retablos santos) and their first cousins, ex-votos, are small devotional paintings of saints (retablos) or miracles (ex-votos), introduced into Latin & South America through Catholicism on the heels (or should I say “on the hooves”?) of the Conquistadores. These simple, sometimes surreal, pieces of folk art are very much a part of the larger art traditions at work in Central and South America since the Spanish arrived. The particular brew of indigenous cultures, Spanish colonialism and Catholicism has made for some fascinating, even intoxicating, outcomes over the centuries.  

Initially, only the wealthy could afford retablos, as they were painted on expensive materials, such as canvas, wood, or copper. By the early 1800s, however, cheaper tin-plated steel became widely available, and these paintings provided an accessible way for the masses to possess, in the case of a retablo, an icon of a saint on the home altar that would ensure health, fertility, or general good luck.  When an individual was rescued from dire circumstances (e.g.saved from drowning, severe illness, death, etc.),  a specially-commissioned ex-voto documented the intercession from Christ or the appropriate saint. Executed largely by untrained artists, ex-votos unlike retablos,  contained the story in childish scrawl (complete with misspellings), which only adds to their naïve and utterly enchanting quality.  Although the tradition endures, the popularity of these paintings as devotional items pretty much peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A robust collectors’ market thrives, however, spurred on, I suspect, by the legitimacy conferred on this art form by major museums in Mexico City (Museo Franz Mayer, Museo Nacional de Antropología,both fantastic places to visit on any trip to DF) and the American Southwest. The retablo collection at New Mexico State University totals over 1700.   

Want more?

Colonial Arts —A reliable Bay Area source of Spanish colonial artifacts and a source of great retablos images.  I’ve always visit their booth at the annual Tribal Arts Show.

Art & Faith in Mexico: The 19th Century Retablo Tradition

For a wonderful connection (with pictures) between Romania’s Merry Cemetary and Mexican ex-votos—Paula’s Backlog

Tomorrow’s Headlines?: Oil & Textiles in Daghestan

Posted in Book Review, Central Asia, Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2008 by Liz Hager

Kaitag Embroidery, Daghestan, 18th century, silk thread on cotton (photo courtesy Mehmet Çetinkaya Gallery)

I’m on a Central Asia kick these days and reading some first-rate contemporary “travel” writers who follow in the great 19th-century tradition of Westerners to the East.  Last month, I dove into another of Robert Kaplan’s always-rewarding books; his latest, Eastward to Tartary (Tartary being the Victorian identification of the Turkic lands east of the Caspian to the River Oxus, now the Amu Darya, and the longest river in Central Asia). It’s limiting to categorize Kaplan as a travel writer.   His insightful “reporting” on a variety of current events provoked by his travels belies the incredible historical and political education one gets as his reader.

On the surface, Tartary is the account of Kaplan’s 1998 journey throughthe many lands of the  Byzantium and, later, the Ottoman Empire. We know them as the former Soviet bloc countries—e.g. Hungary, Bulgaria, etc.—and Central Asian republics (the “stans”), as well as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel).  The book is anything but superficial. It is an eye-opening discourse on potential flashpoints across the region, where tribal peoples struggle to modernize into nation-states in the face of ancient animosities and a deficit of leadership. Until recently these places received little attention, but given their natural resources (we’re talking oil & gas here), their future might be, as Kaplan notes, “tomorrow’s news.”   This prescient observation, noted while the author was in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is worth quoting in its entirety:

“From what I learned over the next two weeks, I was left with the queasy apprehension that what Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century; an explosive region that draws in the Great Powers.” 

And this statement near the end of the book had me rechecking the copyright on the book (it is 2000); to my mind it couldn’t have summed up our problem in Iraq any better:

“While there is no hatred so ingrained that it cannot be sedated by prosperity (as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once told me), the building of a middle class from a nation of peasants requires strong and wily leadership more than it may require elections.”

So, what does all of this have to do with embroidered panels from Daghestan? Maybe nothing or maybe a lot.

Daghestan is one of the former Soviet republics; now part of the Russian Federation. It sits on the Caspian Sea just north of Azerbaijan and east of Chechnya. It’s a mountainous country with southern flatlands but like a lot of its “stan” cousins, it’s extremely arid. Crops can only be cultivated through irrigation; thus, prior to the modern era, like most of the other Central Asian countries, Daghestan was populated principally by nomadic tribes, who mostly raised livestock. As was true of tribal peoples in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the Daghestani ethnicities developed their own textile traditions. The Kaitegs (sometimes referred to as Kaytaks) were among the most prominent of tribes and it is their brightly-colored embroideries with anthropomorphic and primal shapes that gained favor among collectors in the West. Unlike the Uzbeki pieces, Kaitags use the embroideries only for ritual occasions—birth, marriage, death.

Based on the country’s strategic location, one can imagine that ethnically diverse peoples tramped through Daghestan; thus similaries in the embroidery can be drawn to the traditions of Persia, China, Turkey.

These beautiful works are in their own contradictory way both serene and fiercely alive. They belie the fact that post-break up Daghestan has had its fair share of troubles. It too struggles in ways not unlike the countries Kaplan visited. (For more detail, I refer you to the linkages below.)

Oh, and I forgot to mention that Daghestan has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.

Kaitag Embroidery, East Caucasus, 18th Century, silk threads on cotton ground (photo courtesy Sotheby’s).

Kaitag Resources:

J. Barry O’Connell

Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan

Daghestan Resources:

Central Asia-Caucus Institute

All Academic

The Jamestown Foundation


Part II to follow: my thoughts on Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia.

My Own Piece of Paradise: Uzbeki Suzanis

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , on June 16, 2008 by Liz Hager

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

When the de Young Museum reopened in its new building in October 2005, a stunning 19th century suzani greeted visitors from a prominent hanging spot in the textile galleries. It was beguiling, and since then I have returned to that suzani time and again, alternately smiling as the electric oranges and reds of its poppy design wash over me and marveling at the intricate and extensive needle work. 

Inspired to learn more about this tribal art form, a whole new world opened up to me, one with a rich marker in history Alexander’s armies, Silk Route caravan camel drivers, Sufi dervishes, Khans, Russian Generals and nomadic warring tribes—the Uzbeks, the Turkomans, the Khazahks, the Kyrgyz—all vying for control of what amounts to a few choice oases in a vast desert. 

Suzani is the common term for embroidered dowry pieces (coverlets for the bridal bed, but also for made to decorate horses, tables, walls) that have been produced for hundreds of years by women in the central Asian countries, the various “-stans,” formerly known as Soviet Republics, but Uzbekistan is generally considered to be the birthplace of the suzani. 

The word derives from ancient Persian word for needle, no doubt a story in itself about the influence of ancient Persian culture in this area. According to tribal custom, a suzani was started when a girl was born. Panels of cloth were hand-woven (most often left uncolored, but sometimes hand-dyed). Each female family member took up embroidery of a separate panel, traditionally using hand-spun silk thread stitched in chain, satin & buttonhole styles. As soon as the bride-to-be was old enough (which turned out to be pretty young), she too took up the work. Each suzani has its own distinctive pattern, because patterns are the bride-to-be’s unique communication to the world. A tree of life, a fanciful garden, the designs are liberally sprinkled with stylized pomegranates, tulips (native to Turkey), and carnations, suggesting a little bit of paradise in the desert.  Often the various motifs carry secret messages, sentiments like “my mother-in-law is a witch” or “my groom’s a wealthy man.” Once the panels were complete, they were sewn together to make the larger bedcover.  Conventional wisdom has it that the quality of the work was a predictor of a girl’s potential value as a wife. However, in all good suzanis you will always find a intentional “mistake” or two. Since only God is perfect, no bride-to-be would tempt the Fates with perfect work.  If you look carefully at the detail below, you will find the error in my indigo suzani.

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

In our world of machine-made, this hand-made form survives for now in Central Asia. I feel lucky to own a few suzanis of my own. Although the cloth is no longer hand-woven, authentic suzanis are still hand-stitched. Uzbekistan is still a fairly desolate and rural country, but in the last decade there has been pressure to modernize. I wouldn’t begrudge any country the opportunity to improve its standard of living, but in the face of the relentless pace of globalization, I am already mourning what seems likely to be the inevitable disappearance of this sweet and honest folk art.

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