TYSON: Eloquent objects can teach us about other cultures

Oct 19, 2012

On Wednesday, we unpacked materials for the museum’s next exhibit, which opens Nov. 2. It is called "Form and Function: Ethnographic Art from Africa, Asia and the Middle East" — and it will feature about 75 items from the collection of Grand Haven native David Baas.

But getting back to the unpacking. It has been a lot like Christmas morning.

Even better, because I would never in my wildest dreams receive gifts like these. Wooden boxes carved with subtle patterns and textures. Baskets in all shapes and sizes, covered and uncovered, with some sheathed in leather and a particularly gorgeous one coated with layers of muted red lacquer. Bronze tea pots and coffee pots. Ceremonial masks and wooden head rests that — although I can’t imagine using one of those latter instead of a nice, squishy pillow — are like small pieces of abstract sculpture.

So, yes, I love objects. Especially objects that wordlessly tell about other cultures, from other places and other times. For one thing, they are beautiful even when — or maybe because — they are the kind of everyday, utilitarian things that will be in "Form and Function." Often, they’re of the sort missing from our modern Western lives.

It’s not even the kinds of things that they are — although not too many of us use betel-nut crackers and camel saddles on a regular basis. What I’m getting at is the ways in which they’ve been made, and the ways in which they’ve been used and cared for.

If anyone is going to swoon over many of the items on view, I’m guessing it will be local craftspeople — people who really understand the resourcefulness, skill and patience that went into their making. But so will people who love antiques and vintage materials, given that almost all of these things were made in the late 19th and early 20th century.

What makes these objects special, in ways that anyone can appreciate, is the way they communicate human touch on a universal level. In other words, even though some of us might not presently feel much kinship with Saudi Arabian culture, many of us still can relate to the patina of a well-used coffee pot or the sheen of a venerable leather tote bag.

One of my favorite pieces is a deep bowl that was carved from the cross-section of a small tree. It may not communicate the sort of information that an academic wants to obtain, but it gives me what I want and suspect a lot of other people want: a sense of human hands. It speaks of fingers modeling and palms shaping a material. This is something that brings a whole other dimension to daily life, in a day when so much of people's time is spent in virtual reality, or perhaps touching nothing more than a keyboard or the buttons on a Game Boy.

It also communicates a sense of using, handling and caring for something. The bowl mentioned above, along with several others, has a surface that use has left silken to the touch and — thankfully for viewers who won’t be able to touch it — silken to the eye.

Many of these bowls also have been repaired with wire staples, instead of being discarded. This reminds me of that great post-World War II British saying, "Mend and make do." Given my own need to live within a budget, it’s a good one to remember.

People in the cultures who made and used these things did not participate in the disposable consumer world that most Americans have lived in for at least the past 60 years. They lived life with fewer useful things that also are incredibly beautiful. Not too long ago, most Americans lived quite happily with less stuff, and a lot of things we made for ourselves. It might be that older visitors to "Form and Function" will remember those times and think of things that they, themselves, used back in the day.

Still, it’s important to remember that modern Western conveniences and economic values have been adopted by many of the people who produced these items. Japan, for example, is one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations — and the little wooden chest that we will be showing no longer represents its material culture. It may be that the few nomadic peoples still living in North Africa continue to make bags from leather and woven fibers for everyday use.

But, even as they struggle with cultural and political change, countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have their cities, their automobiles, their off-the-rack clothing and plastic food containers just as we do.

Which is something else that these things communicate: a reminder of current events and how they connect us, whether we like it or not, with the rest of the world. And how objects that we think of as art can tell us quite a lot about other cultures — and maybe, in the process, remind us a bit about where we come from.

— By Janet Tyson, a member of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum staff.

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