Ornament Bookshelf 37.5
Patricia Rieff Anawalt. 2014. Shamanic Regalia in the Far North. Thames & Hudson: 192 pp., hardcover $29.95.
The harsh environment known as “Beringia”—after the Bering land bridge that once joined present-day Alaska to eastern Siberia—is the setting for this absorbing tale of cultural cross-fertilization. Anawalt, former director of the Center for the Study of Regional Dress at the Fowler Museum, examines the shamanic regalia of aboriginal Arctic groups in Siberia, with its highly evolved reindeer-based economy; the Arctic and present-day Alaska, where remarkably artistic hunters lived in “collaborative reciprocity” with their marine prey; and coastal present-day British Columbia, where stable food sources allowed a complex social hierarchy and value system to develop. These groups shared strong genetic and cultural links, including a reliance on shamans for services from healing to ensuring good weather.
Shamanism—“the art of influencing events through the aid of spirits”—required the aid of appropriate regalia, as well. For a shaman, looks mattered. Though the shamanic gift was understood as being spirit-given, a shaman without a costume was no shaman at all; the regalia—loaded with charms, embellishments like beadwork, fur, embroidery, and feathers, and representations of the animals (and humans) that served as helping spirits—channeled and reflected his (or her) power. It was cumbersome (weighing up to fifty pounds) and noisy, with clamorous bone and metal ornaments; the sound was said to attract friendly spirits. “Indeed, one of the marks of a true shaman was the ability to handle the heavy, ungainly attire easily,” Anawalt writes.
Much more than everyday dress, shamanic regalia acts as a time machine, retaining and reflecting ancient beliefs that may now be heavily diluted, if they still exist at all. For example, the belief that shamans’ souls could leave their bodies and travel to other parts of the cosmos was often represented by costumes featuring pieces of iron and copper positioned to represent ribs, a physical manifestation of metaphysical dismemberment. Elements embodying mystery and power such as veils, masks and rare materials were common to all the shamanic cultures discussed here. But the differences between the costumes are as striking as the similarities, testifying to each group’s unique relationship with the natural world, whether redwood forests, frozen tundra, or icy seas.
The book is generously illustrated with maps, drawings, photographs, and surviving artifacts. Most of the regalia pictured comes from the Russian Museum of Ethnology and the American Museum of Natural History, and was collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under difficult and sometimes controversial conditions. Though custom often dictated that shamanic regalia be buried, burned, or left to rot after use, clearly that did not always happen. Even today, its perceived powers—both beneficial and destructive—demand special handling. When the author attempted to examine a Tlingit shaman’s necklace in the Museum of the Far North, she was denied permission; tribal leaders had stipulated that no woman could touch it.
Anawalt indulges in some fascinating tangents, discussing secular objects like dance masks and an intricately decorated Yup’ik bentwood hunting hat; it was believed that beauty attracted game. The stories of the anthropologists who collected them are as intriguing as the objects themselves, and remind us that their histories and provenances are filtered through sometimes eccentric outsiders.
While specialists might quibble that this concise study over-simplifies a broad span of space and time, general readers will appreciate Anawalt’s clear and compelling overview of an elusive and misunderstood subject.
Alban Von Stockhausen. 2014. IMAG(IN)ING THE NAGAS. The pictorial ethnography of Hans-Eberhard Kauffman and Christoph Von Fürer-Haimendorf. Arnoldsche Art Publishers: 452 pp., hardbound $95.00.
Perhaps no one person popularized the Nagas of India and Burma more than the Austrian anthropologist, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, in his photographs and writings of the late 1930s. His imagery and words about the Nagas embedded in the West the concept that still resonates today, of a striking people, often scantily clothed, who practiced headhunting and wore magnificent ornaments, even though most of these diverse groups are now converted, conservative Baptists who no longer practice their culture nor wear any of their former adornments.
This large and heavy book, the dissertation of the author, describes in great detail the circumstances behind the photography of the eminent Austrian anthropologist and his much less known German contemporary Kauffman, and also reviews other newer photographic books on the Nagas. Importantly, von Stockhausen discusses the role and value of photography and film in anthropological research. Anyone with an interest in ethnographic dress and ornaments has no doubt utilized photographs as data, as I have in my writings about the Nagas, where I tried to compare via visual images how the various tribes wore certain ornaments or combinations of them. While the veracity of a photograph still seems to hold true, some of the newer photographs may not reflect actual Naga styles of dress, since underlaying traditions/beliefs may no longer exist.
>While the section on dress and ornaments is brief in this book, there are many, usually small, black and white photographs throughout the volume showing Nagas in every day and festival clothing and jewelry. These, and the accurate descriptions and naming of the various wearables is invaluable to any serious student of personal adornment. The high cost of this book may restrict its availability to institutions and libraries of higher education, but it is well worth reading for anyone with interests in the Nagas, dress and jewelry and anthropological photography.
Robert K. Liu
Ursula Ilse-Neuman. 2014. Multiple Exposures: Jewelry and Photography. Officina Libraria in collaboration with The Museum of Arts and Design: 250 pp., hardbound $49.95.
This handsomely produced catalogue was prepared as an adjunct to the Museum of Arts and Design’s landmark exhibition of the same name, the first to examine how contemporary jewelry artists utilize photography as both muse and artifact. More than eighty artists from over twenty countries are presented as they contend with issues such as changing views of beauty and the human body; social, political and cultural issues; memory and desire; and the relationship of jewelry to society and personal identity.
An essay by Ilse-Neuman, curator of the exhibition, is further supported by the museum’s chief curator, Lowery Stokes Sims; Dutch author and jewelry curator, Liesbeth den Besten; photography expert, Mark Durant; curator of decorative arts at the Toledo Museum of Art, Jutta Page; Metalsmith editor, Suzanne Ramljak; photography historian and critic, Lyle Rexer; and German author and critic, Ellen Maurer Zillioli.
The lineage of photographs in jewelry is honored from its earliest days in the 1830s as a revolutionary medium. It seems that photography has always been an inspiration for illuminating the human experience whether it marks our reflections on life or documents the doings taking place on Spaceship Earth. In combination with jewelry it is definitely a win/win and flourishes as a potent force in the artistic lexicon. A fulfilling, as well as stand-alone, accompaniment to the exhibition, which passed into history in October 2014, the catalogue is a touching reminder that it, too, has engaged in preserving memory.
Carolyn L. E. Benesh
Catherine Mallette. 2014. Art Jewelry Today Europe. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.: 256 pp., hardbound $50.00.
It is difficult to understand the perceptions behind producing a book, although widely practiced today (see Lark Books as another example), where the authorship is based on a few paragraphs spread across two pages. It must be a fairly straightforward, cost-effective form of packaging. Show photographs of an artist’s work, supplied by them. Each artist (sixty-one in Art Jewelry Today Europe) receives a few pages accompanied by personal statements about their work. The artist gets a high, and so do their associates, friends and family, because there they are documented in print (which is a good thing). The book comes out, receives a modicum of sales and then heads directly to a book store’s remainder pile.
Is there room anymore for thoughtful content in today’s publishing world? There must be, but it is not to be found in books such as these, which to my mind is a form of vanity press.
C. L. E. B.