25 Jul, 2009

Turning token gifts into treasured art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

A new exhibition shows how holiday curios can become highly artistic and culturally significant collectables

For travellers, a souvenir is a local gift, a beautiful memento, or a curio bought for its shock value. But for indigenous peoples around the world, creating souvenir art can be a matter of cultural and economic survival, with traditional crafts adapted for tourists and collectors, while inspiring artists in faraway countries. The Devon Guild of Craftsmen prove this with Token Values, a new exhibition of ethnographic objects loaned from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM). Works on display from far-flung corners of the globe, include Peruvian earrings made out of iridescent beetles, jewellery bands worn by nomads in Oman, and a beautiful 19th century Japanese vase that could have influenced art deco.

Alongside them, West Country artists pay homage to these souvenirs with their own interpretations of traditional crafts with ceramics, textiles, jewellery and basket-making that pays respect to the original artefacts, from artist to artist. Arguably, the difference between what’s considered art and what is regarded as craft is highly subjective. RAMM’s ethnographic curator, Tony Eccles, appears not to distinguish between the collection of works on offer in the gallery. “A craftsperson or an artist – what’s the difference? Well, it’s how you see art. These baskets [made by Tasmanian Aborigines] are hand-woven one-offs … why shouldn’t they be valued at millions?”

Most of the time, as the exhibition shows, there’s no sign of who stitched, wove or carved a souvenir. Even if they’re treasured as items of value or works of art, they’re rarely attributed to anyone by name. And yet, these tokens – which also include a Polynesian tattoo design on banyan tree bark and a Nigerian bronze cast of a king on horseback – can encapsulate the identity of the society that produced them. They are often crafted from local materials loaded with meaning, mirroring a tight relationship with the natural world in which nothing goes to waste.

“People from other places look at insects and plants in a different way,” says Eccles. “There’s a deep connection between the landscape and the people. It’s not just physical, it’s a very deep spiritual thing. It’s a profound contrast with our throwaway society. In our secular world … it’s not God who makes things beautiful, it’s money.”

Ancient spiritual symbols, for example, are woven into the fabric of the delicate Guatemalan huipil, or blouse, on display here. Despite 500 years of persecution and prejudice, most indigenous women in Guatemala still wear the embroidered blouses which declare their identity as descendants of the ancient Maya. Yet, it takes these women at least four or five months to make a huipil, weaving by evening, after a day of chores that usually start around 4am. Now they’re in competition with factories – mostly owned by Europeans and the Chinese – which mass produce blouses for a dollar or two. Sometimes it’s down to the individual to put up a fight: Eccles says the Ugandan artist who made the barkcloth cushion cover, on display in the exhibition, Sarah Nakisanze, successfully took a company to court for using one of her designs without permission.

Different regions and peoples have always borrowed from each others’ cultures. Islamic art influenced the great Arts and Crafts movement pioneer, William Morris, and the European art deco style that would emerge in the 1920s was already portrayed by earlier Japanese ceramics – like the 19th century one in this exhibition.

Making souvenirs has become an important source of income, as well as a way of maintaining culture in the face of colonisation and mass production. But traditional craftsmen often alter what they make, in the knowledge that their culture’s craftwork is being bought or collected by outsiders. It’s common for the spiritual content to be toned down, or left out, even when the object’s purpose was once religious. The Iroquois of the US, for example, changed the designs of beadwork (originally used to denote power and mark treaties) – to market them to tourists. In turn, the new patterns were incorporated into the special beadwork that native craftspeople continue to produce for their own communities as contemporary art.

Sometimes, of course, part of what the tourist wants from the souvenir is a cheap, portable representation of a sacred token. Like the dreamcatcher circles that adorn new age shops from Brighton to Hebden Bridge, sold as a pan-Indian spiritual solution for nightmares.

Likewise, this exhibition includes two small 19th century clay rain-god figures known as munas, that have been produced for more than 120 years in the Tesuque Pueblo region in the US state of New Mexico, but shifted long ago from sacred art to tourist curios – Chicago confectionary manufacturer Gunther Candy even gave the figurines away with its boxes of chocolates in the early decades of the 20th century.

Souvenir art it seems is immensely adaptable, accommodating a combination of what will please tourists and the image the artists want to present of themselves. In this exhibition, the ethnographic objects – some just a few years old, others dating back a couple of centuries – are shown with equal respect to the modern craftwork on sale next to them, with many never having been displayed before. Eccles hopes visitors will see the exhibition as a celebration of cultures and perhaps, as a positive response to the changing demographic of Devon. “Locally, identity has changed a lot, but culture is nothing to fear. We need to celebrate our similarities,” he says.

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