A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
MAKING collections connections...
Ramona Morris presents an alternate point of view
In general, collecting "fashions" go in cycles, with one type of object, or region, or period receiving attention and then another. The competition for choice pieces can be fierce as prices rise and availability diminishes. No one wants to be left with the crumbs!
How many times have we heard that "collecting isn't as much fun as it used to be..." Prices are too high, desirable objects are too scarce, and the stress of competition often replaces the joy of discovery. How can someone build an interesting, cohesive collection under these conditions? What can we do to bring fun back into collecting?
One approach that can be very rewarding is to develop "connections" that transcend time and region. This approach can lead to new avenues of connoisseurship. It can open one's eyes to innumerable possibilities, all highly individual, depending only on one's chosen theme.
One intriguing approach would be to trace universal symbols; those designs that keep turning up in cultures across vast distances and thousands of years. One can see how the spiral design could have been reinvented many times -- it is based on a form that recurs often in nature, the curve of a ram's horn, the curl of a fossil ammonite. Beautiful examples of this design occur in the embroidery on Hausa robes, and in the swirls on prehistoric Caddoan ceramics. Concentric circles could be the echo of tree rings, moon dogs, ripples in a pond or, more fascinating, the results of phosphenes on the human eye. What do they represent to the Australian aboriginal when they appear on the churinga stones, or an Eskimo when they are carved into a mask?
Utilizing natural forms can't explain where the swastika came from - a purely artificial construction found for at least 3,000 years in many reincarnations. And who thought of the eye or circle on the hand? This design is found from Tibet to Alabama, and is a totally cerebral concept.
Searching for examples of these designs from various sources could lead one to totally new fields of collecting and scholarship.
Another approach could be through relationships in form, finish or function.
Why do we find a particular type of finish on ceramics throughout the world at a particular stage in a culture's development? It is not like the shape of an adze where form follows function producing the most efficient design for its use. Ceramic finish is surface decoration in its purest sense. Does the human mind work within a set series of patterns, a worldwide concept of texture, a cerebral ideal of form?
Why is it that an extremely sophisticated shape, the stirrup spouted jug, is found in isolated areas of North, Central and South America over a period of at least 2,000 years with no intervening examples? Was its development a result of the movement of people and ideas from the coast of Ecuador to the mountains of Peru and to the Valley of Mexico, the American Southwest and the Mississippi Valley? A thousand-year gap appears, or a voyage of thousands of miles, but the later forms still mimic the earlier ones. This shape also turns up on the west coast of Africa among the Teke and Mangbetu of Zaire.
Another intriguing example of similar form is the star shaped stone mace head design reminiscent of the European "morning-star" that can be found in an area encircling the Pacific Ocean. Variations in the shape are echoed in copper and wood as well. These are undoubtedly a localized development rather than copies of European trade goods, as they occur much earlier than their European counterparts. Are there examples to be found on the route from the Pacific to Europe? Where are the earliest examples found, the most unusual materials used?
A collection using those criteria can be built without compromising the quality of the aesthetic. Every culture has multiple layers of refinement. Does the object show the touch of the maker's hand, the inner vision that is his/hers alone, or shared within a group, is there balance, refinement, whimsy or surprise? A collection using "connections" as a premise is only limited by the imagination of the collector.
The Sioux have a phrase for it..."Mitakuye Oyasin - We are all connected".
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