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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society

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Patrick Hunt: Ceremony is almost always invested with dignity where we think we can slow down time, and mark a moment as more important than another.

Nasser Rabbat: A ceremonial is always a spectacle and it’s meant to be as such. And in this context, art is actually serving as the support of that spectacle.

When you go to a museum you are looking at objects that are totally detached from their context. You look at them as art, and you start seeing their formal quality, their artistic qualities.

Mary Nooter Roberts: They are products of aesthetic genius, but many of the objects were not necessarily made as art originally.

Nasser Rabbat: These objects were not produced to be put on a pedestal or to be put in a glass box.

Mary Nooter Roberts: In point of fact, most of these objects were made for a purpose.

Segment Title: Masks and Ritual

Patrick Hunt: Around the world, masks are worn in ceremony, in art, in drama, as well as carnival, as celebration. Masks make a profound statement of transformation.

Roy Hamilton: If you go into Balinese communities today, you’ll see beautiful masks. The Barong is a spirit guardian of a Balinese village.

It takes the form of a mask and once every six months on the Balinese calendar, the community gathers and the Barong is taken out of its storage space. It’s blessed. Mantras are said over it.

And people pay homage to it. The Barong dispenses its blessings for the community’s well-being. It can chase away sickness. It can dispel evil forces. And it actually makes a progression through the whole community and it’s honored every step of the way.

And then the highlight of the ritual happens that evening when the Barong is actually danced.

Dancer: Before the dance, I had said a prayer asking permission from the spirit of the Barong. If the Barong is willing to have me dance it, it will feel light.

Roy Hamilton: At the climax of the dance, a spiritual presence enters the dancer.

Dancer: At that moment, I felt the divine power enter me.

Roy Hamilton: That is the sign to the community that the Barong is present and will offer protection to the community in the months that come.

Mary Nooter Roberts: Once a person has entered the arena of the masquerade performance, they are no longer that individual. They become transformed. Rites of passage are moments of transition and transformation, where a person undergoes a change from one status or identity to another. And very often a work of art will facilitate that transformation.

So, for example, among Mende peoples of Sierra Leone in West Africa, there’s an entire association dedicated to women’s initiation rights, an association called Sande whose role is specifically to guard and transmit the knowledge pertaining to women’s worlds. And at various points during these initiation rights, masquerades were staged that would announce the completion of certain stages of learning.

And what is so remarkable about Mende masks is that they are one of the very rare examples where masks are commissioned and danced, performed by women.

And you’ll notice often that there are rings around the neck. The neck appears to have these tubular rings.

A woman with lines around her neck is considered to be extremely beautiful. That is very true among Mende, but there’s also the suggestion that because the spirits reside within the deep, dark pools and lakes, that when a spirit emerges and pokes her head through the water, it creates concentric circles on the surface of the water. And these rings are a reflection of the emergence of the spirit.

One of the things that we’ve heard is that the Sande Association has played a critical role in healing and in helping young women who have endured some of the brutalities of the civil war to transcend those difficulties. And so it continues to update its purpose and play a role in people’s lives today in Sierra Leone.

Segment Title: Ceremonial Arts of Power

Mary Nooter Roberts: There are all kinds of ceremonies and rituals and pomp and pageantry all over the world that you could look at as a mode of display. And in the realm of status and prestige that’s very, very common.

Patrick Hunt: When a king wants to display power, there are many means at disposal. There is a famous portrait of Louis XIV by the court portraitist of the time, Hyacinthe Rigaud, where he shows Louis XIV in a majestic statement of power. You see the Sun King in this magnificent robe with the fleur-de-lis on it, and fur trim, and the king looks out slightly down his nose at the viewer. One of the most fascinating aspects of this portrait is where the king’s hand rests on the pommel of a sword, it’s Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne. This is the sword that is used in coronations of French kings. You could not be a king of France without this sword as part of that ceremony. So it was no accident that Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne, is in that picture, fastened to Louis XIV.

Nasser Rabbat: When you start looking at the objects that are displayed in ceremonials, everything is of the highest quality, of the most expensive material. And this applies across the board. There is no West and East in that.

One object is not a ceremonial object in its original form. It was most probably ceremonial in the sense it was a banquet object which is actually a huge metal bowl that was taken in 1249 from Egypt to France and it became the baptistery of all the French kings. And it went back to become this highly, highly, highly meaningful object, where all the kings of France were baptized until the French Revolution. And it’s a copper basin that is carved with images of the sultan on his horse and all the emirs, all the princes around him in their ceremonial dresses.

The Mamluk period is quite an interesting period. Here we have, in Egypt and Syria, we have an empire that is based on a meritocracy among a group of ex-slaves. They created probably the best military empire of the time.

But they were socially unstable because this is a one-generation aristocracy. You always import slaves, you always train them, and Malmuk them and the next generation of the aristocracy is going to come out of these new trainees.

So it needed a lot of pageantry, a lot of ceremonials around it in order to constantly remind the people of its power, of its wealth, of its legitimacy. So they developed fabulous ceremonials.

Patrick Hunt: In the material and ceremonial arts of any culture you have to use art to maintain the status quo. Power has to be conveyed. Ceremonial art conveys that power.

Santhi Kacuri-Bauer: To really understand the art of the Mughals, you have to see it within the context of the ceremonies.

Red Fort was established in 1648, and its function was to serve as the capital for the Mughal Empire. The reason why Shah Jahan had it built was because the other two capitals were too small for the kind of ceremonies that he imagined happening.

These ceremonies were very essential because the Mughal Empire socially was so heterogeneous the nobility was from very different religious backgrounds. It was important for him to create a social order. And this was symbolically enacted on a daily basis during his darbars.

The daily ceremonies that took place at Red Fort were so important to the Mughal emperor. It consolidated his rule. It helped stabilize the society. It also had the added importance of having people perform the hierarchy. And once it was performed, it was also represented by court painters in the chronicles of the emperor.

And it just helped punctuate his power and importance, and the hierarchy that he ruled over.

Segment Title: Costume and Performance

Tavia Nyong’o: The relationship between ceremony and enactments of social power in contemporary society is an interesting one.

Mardi Gras is the most immediately identifiable annual ritual event in American public life. It’s a version of carnival, which is celebrated throughout the world, of the pre-penitential festival, which is associated with the ritual calendar of the Catholic Church. And it has specific American characteristics.

Mardi Gras krewes, which echo social and racial hierarchies in the city, and the Mardi Gras Indians are two of the most recognizable faces of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Ceremonial art objects acquire their significance and value through their use during the course of the event that is occurring. You have the various gifts that are thrown from the floats—beads, doubloons, coconuts—these are avidly collected and pursued by revelers. And then more recently, the Mardi Gras Indian costumes are now collected and displayed in museums because they are themselves such extraordinary examples of ceremonial creativity, ritual and creativity.

New Orleans is part of the U.S. South, part of the Confederacy, and the dominance of white over black has been a really critical part of New Orleans’s history. Mardi Gras really becomes a way of performing the multiple ethnic and cultural heritages of the city, of New Orleans, and also of staging some of the racial and class conflicts.

Judith Bettelheim: Defining Carnival depends on who you are, where you are, what historical period. So Carnival is an organized event that is public, that is performance-oriented, that includes incredible aesthetic innovation.

If we’re looking at Carnival in the Caribbean, the first thing one does is look to the colonial heritage of the particular countries. And then you see historically what the population did in terms of street performance.

All over the Caribbean what you find are people who appropriate convenience in terms of how can we dress? How can we act? How can we get away with doing this under a slavery system? Under a dictatorship?

There is a fascinating character in Haiti named Chaloska, and it refers to an infamous general, Charles Oscar Etienne.

This person murdered a significant amount of political prisoners, and so in Carnival they develop a character that speaks to this event. But it also can speak to any similar kinds of events that have happened since 1915.

Masquerader: You are accused of telling the truth! You are charged with not giving us what little you own!

Judith Bettelheim: The young men playing this character can always say, “Oh, we weren’t talking about anything that happened today or yesterday, we were just talking about an important event in Haitian history.”

Why is Carnival important? It’s because it’s art by the people themselves, for the people themselves. We’re seeing live art, performance art.

Tavia Nyong’o: Rituals are meant to establish the fact that you are being presented and interacting with an object, which has a kind of aura around it.

Burning Man is a contemporary, I would say, post-modern festival held annually in the Nevada desert. And its purpose is to create a kind of temporary autonomous zone in which artistic and creative expression is at a premium.

The Burning Man effigy, which is at the core of the iconography of the festival obviously bears a lot of resonance with anyone’s idea of what a kind of ritual or ceremonial art would be in society.

The principle behind gift-giving or an alternative economy is that we can kind of step out of a commodified culture in which we consume passively, rather than actively create, and discover the creative principle that has been allowed to lie dormant in most people in contemporary society.

It’s a sort of a newly invented ritual. But all these are very self-conscious. And its purpose is not to recreate something, but to invent something within the present, to kind of propose an alternative to everyday reality.

The idea that everyone is a creator then shifts the relationship between the individual and the art object because your own body becomes the art object in terms of the ways in which people designed themselves, the fashion they wear. So this idea of breaking down the border between art and life is very important.

Andrew Bolton: The idea of the dressed body as a performance is something which is about artistry. It becomes a performance, I think, the dressed body more than anything else.

When you think about the eighteenth century in particular, when women were dressed in very wide dresses, as a, there’s an understructure called a pannier, which widened one’s hips. And the idea of moving a dressed body through a very densely decorated interior was really about sociability, it’s about aristocratic sociability.

A lot of those pieces were really ceremonial. They were highly formal clothing. They were worn in specific contexts, which often meant that one would have to pass through a doorway sideways. We have one in the museum, which almost measures seven feet in width. And yes, you’re right, it’s not practical. It’s called elbow panniers because you could quite literally rest your elbows on them. So when it comes to formal and ceremonial clothing, it’s much more about spectacle and ceremony. So practicality is less a function of clothing than it is about showing off one’s wealth, showing off one’s position.

Anne D’Alleva: We need to look at the performative context. The way art performs and is performed during rituals for birth, rituals for death, during political rituals and a variety of human contexts, and so that it isn’t divorced from our actions, whether those are ritual actions or daily actions.

So to look at a feather headdress from Hawaii, one of the things we want to think about is not just that headdress in a museum context, where we might look at the form and we might look at the colors and we might look at the symbolism. But to think about that as an object that is worn, an artwork that is worn, that moves in space, that is worn during warfare, that is worn during religious ceremonies and how those different performative contexts where it’s worn and it acts and it engages really changes how we understand it, instead of in the context of the static museum display.

Tavia Nyong’o: The museum itself is a context and has a pedagogy and there are purposes to which objects are put. And so an object that has a ceremonial purpose or value in one context, say its original context, doesn’t lose its context in the museum setting; it’s given a new one. And that new context is often a kind of educational or pedagogic purpose.

Segment Title: Ceremony and the Museum

CHiXapkaid (Michael Pavel): I’m CHiXapkaid, Dr. Michael Pavel, from Skokomish Indian Reservation. Currently an associate professor at Washington State University, but also a Traditional Bearer on the Skokomish Reservation in the traditional society.

The idea of pulling together this Soul Recovery exhibit is years in the making. Many communities throughout the native lands are suffering at the hands of colonization and oppression. And that deep-seated sadness has evolved into depression, so that the whole family kinship and network has been somewhat disrupted. This ceremony, in fact, was about providing aid to a particular individual who may have lost their soul, but it was also about gathering the community to work in one mind, one heart, one spirit, for the purpose of something good, something that we could see that would contribute to the worth of living.

Kay-UAmihs (Winona Plant): I’ve been working with the ceremonies all my life. I can remember being five and traveling in secret and being told, “Don’t talk about what happened.”

And I can remember when we could actually participate in our ceremonies openly, and what a rejoice that was for the families not to be in hiding. I’m thankful that my children don’t have to do that.

Sm3tcoom (Delbert Miller): We are making a place of teaching, a place of training. We’re making storyboards that are describing the entire Soul Recovery ceremony.

We will use this as a type of family tree or genealogy. And so we’re going to use these as a training ground for our children. And the people that are deciding to come back into our culture.

CHiXapkaid (Michael Pavel): There’s something about giving back that gives each of us a sense of worth. It means that we value life so much that we’re willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure other people enjoy it, too.

All the spirit boards that we see being brought in are individualistic. They have their own identity. They represent the spiritual guardian power of each Indian doctor, and they’re important for each step that a person has to make from here in the land of the living to the first land of the dead.

The other items are particularly meaningful, too. As we begin to see the headbands that are around each of the carved figures, those were actually worn by the Indian doctors. The basket that has imitation huckleberries represents the enchanted huckleberry. The little doll that represents a soul container, actually what the soul was put in, when they traveled back from the first land of the dead to this corporate realm—all these items work together to create the ceremony.

As these things are being placed. They have a particular order, which means they have a particular purpose. As you see these items that were just days before art pieces now becoming living art pieces, becoming sacred art pieces, becoming part of a ceremony, you begin to understand this incredible link between the artistic endeavor, the intellectual endeavor, and the spiritual endeavor.

You have to have sadness. That’s part of the range of emotion. But inter-generational sadness? No. No, that has to stop. This ceremony is meant for that reason—to stop that sadness. To stop the time when people are leaving this world before their time. To bring forth the chance where people wake up and they give into their promise. We are not just talking about the recovery of the soul of an individual, but it’s about the soul and the salvation of our society.

Nasser Rabbat: Ceremony is actually the way a society would express its highest organizational aspiration and art comes in as, if you want, the envelope of that, and perhaps also the carrier of specific meanings within this larger context.

Tavia Nyong’o: I think that for the contemporary museum-going, even though they’ve seen, say, a particular famous work of art many many times in reproduction, that the society, the spectacle, and media which on the one hand distances us from the original piece of art, also brings us closer because it provokes that kind of desire and curiosity to make the pilgrimage to see the actual object itself.

Mary Nooter Roberts: These objects were meant to elicit life. Whether they were of ceremony or ritual or just of daily life, they were part of life. They allow us to reflect on humanity and on shared human concerns, but on the very different ways that so many different peoples of the world have found solutions to the same kinds of problems.

Patrick Hunt: What we human beings do with ceremony is we intensify the moment in which we want to convey our most important social reinforced values. So that ceremony is a vehicle for what we think is important.

People across the world engage in a wide range of ceremonial rites and spectacles. Some of these are religious, others political or social. Through these practices and the arts that accompany them—costumes, masks, vessels, ancestor figurines, altarpieces, staffs, and other objects and images—people across cultures define identity, build community, express belief, negotiate power, and attend to the physical and spiritual well-being of both individuals and societies.

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Expert Biographies

David Bernstein, Ph.D., is a professor of European and English History at Sarah Lawrence College, where he specializes in social, religious, artistic, and cultural history of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Courses he teaches include Art and the Sacred in Late Antiquity and Medieval Europe, The Medieval Foundations of English Art and History: An Interdisciplinary Workshop, and From the Catacombs to Chartres: A Research Seminar in Christian Iconography. Author of The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry, Bernstein has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He holds a B.A. from Brandeis University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Judith Bettelheim, Ph.D., professor of art history at San Francisco State University, specializes in arts of the African Diaspora, Afro-Caribbean culture and festivals, multicultural American art, and Cuban art. She has worked in the Caribbean and in Cuba for various projects, including the exhibitions “Caribbean Festival Arts” and “AFROCUBA: Works on Paper.” She is the author of Cuban Festivals: a Century of Afro-Cuban Culture.

Andrew Bolton is a curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has curated several exhibitions including, “Bravehearts: Men in Skirts,” “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century,” “AngloMania: Tradition,” and “Transgression in British Fashion,” and “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” Bolton is a regular contributor to newspapers and journals and has written many books to accompany his exhibitions. Prior to joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bolton held positions in contemporary fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the London College of Fashion.

CHiXapkaid (Michael Pavel), Ph.D., is an artist and traditional bearer for the tuwaduq Nation. CHiXapkaid currently serves as a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education at Washington State University. He was previously a co-director of Oksale, a teacher preparation program through Washington State University and Northwest Indian College. CHiXapkaid has authored and co-authored many books, reports for foundations, and articles including, “American Indian Stories Enrich Intervention” in the ASHA Leader and “The American Indian and Alaska Native Student’s Guide to College Success.” In addition, he has served as a consultant for organizations such as Save the Children and the Muckleshoot Indian Nation and has received grants and honors from a variety of institutions. A frequent lecturer and a member of many committees and organizations, CHiXapkaid holds a B.A. from the University of Puget Sound and a M.Ed. and Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

Christa Clarke, Ph.D., a specialist in historic and contemporary arts of Africa, is senior curator of arts of Africa and the Americas and curator of arts of Africa at the Newark Museum. Prior to this appointment, she served as the first curator of African art at the Neuberger Museum of Art and was a curatorial advisor for the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Kreeger Museum, and the World Bank. She has held teaching appointments at George Washington University, the Corcoran School of Art, Rutgers University, and Purchase College, SUNY, and fellowships at the National Museum of African Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clarke is the author of several exhibition catalogues and articles, including an essay on exhibiting African art in Art and Its Publics: Museum Studies for the New Millenium and The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators. A forthcoming book co-edited with Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display, examines the impact that museum practice has on the formation of meaning and the public perception of African art. Clarke received her B.A. from the University of Virginia and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.

Anne D’Alleva, Ph.D., is an associate professor of art history and women’s studies at the University of Connecticut. D’Alleva is the author of Art of the Pacific IslandsSacred Maidens and Masculine Women: Art, Gender, and Power in Post-Contact Tahiti. She has also written several books on the discipline of art history. These include Look! The Fundamentals of Art HistoryLook Again! Art History and Critical TheoryHow to Write Art History, and Methods and Theories of Art History. D’Alleva’s work has earned her grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She received her B.A. from Harvard University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Roy W. Hamilton is curator for Asian and Pacific collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. In this capacity, he has developed and executed many Asian and Pacific art exhibitions. Hamilton is the author of several books, including The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in AsiaFrom the Rainbow’s Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines, and Gift of the Cotton Maiden: Textiles of Flores and the Solor Islands. In 2006–07, Hamilton received a curatorial fellowship from the Getty Foundation for his research on the textiles of Timor.

Patrick Hunt, Ph.D., teaches art history, mythology, and classics at Stanford University and serves as the director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Hunt has led archaeology exhibitions worldwide, including the Hannibal Expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society. He has been honored as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has authored numerous publications, including Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History and Myths for All Time. Hunt is also an avid musician, composer, and artist. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology.

Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of art history at San Francisco State University. Her areas of interest include South Asian visual culture, colonial and postcolonial cultural theory, contemporary Asian art, Asian American art, and Islamic art and architecture. Among the courses she has taught or developed are Arts of Asia, The Islamic World, and Asian American Art. Her current book project examines the modern spatial significance and history of Mughal monuments in India. Kavuri-Bauer received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Kay-UAmihs (Winona Plant) is a traditional bearer of the tuwaduq Nation, traditional native plant gatherer, and artist. A first generation Twana Dancer, she received a B.A. from Evergreen State College. Kay-UAmihs is the personnel manager for the Skokomish Indian Tribe.

Babatunde Lawal, Ph.D., is a professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where he specializes in African, African American, and African Diaspora art. Lawal has conducted field work in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Republic of Benin, Brazil, and the U.S. In addition to his position at VCU, Lawal has taught at several other universities in the U.S., Africa, and Brazil. His publications include The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in African CultureEmbodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, and several articles in leading art journals. Lawal holds a Ph.D. in art history from Indiana University.

Mary Nooter Roberts, Ph.D., is a professor of culture and performance in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA and is a prominent scholar of African art. Roberts was formerly the chief curator and deputy director of UCLA’s Fowler Museum, and senior curator of the Museum for African Art in New York. She has organized and curated numerous exhibitions and authored articles and books on African art and culture. “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,” co-curated with her spouse, Dr. Allen F. Roberts, was hailed by the New York Times as one of the ten best of 2003 and the accompanying book won both the Herskovits Award and the Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Award. Other books and exhibitions that she and her husband have collaborated on include Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, which won the College Art Association’s Alfred Barr Award for Outstanding Museum Scholarship and A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection. Roberts received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Tavia Nyong’o, Ph.D., is associate professor of performance studies at New York University. He is the author of The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory and articles in the NationSocial TextRadical History Review, and Women & Performance. He has received fellowships from the Javits, Ford, and Marshall Foundations. Nyong’o has a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Nasser Rabbat, Ph.D., is the Aga Khan Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to being an architect, Rabbat is a historian with a focus on Islamic architecture, urban history, and post-colonial studies. His books include The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk ArchitectureMaking Cairo Medieval, and L’art Islamique à la recherche d’une méthode historique. He serves on the boards of several organizations devoted to Islamic studies and delivers lectures around the world.

Jeff Spurr is an Islamic and Middle East specialist at the Documentation Center of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University. An authority on historical textiles, Spurr is on the advisory committees of several art institutions. He is also an active leader in efforts to restore libraries in Bosnia, and more recently, Iraq. Spurr is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he pursued studies in art, archaeology, and anthropology.

sm3tcoom (Delbert Miller) is a cultural leader in the Skokomish House of shLanay, member of the swadash (medicine society) and the sha’laqW (warrior) society, a cultural bearer, or x3ch’usadad (cultural teacher), artist, lecturer, storyteller, grandfather, and husband. He continues to fight for native hunting and fishing rights, as well as environmental and sacred sites issues. This work includes his involvement with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. He conducts ceremonial reburials of ancestral remains and leads other ceremonies involving ancestors, repatriation of artifacts, and language preservation. sm3tcoom is currently employed with the Education Department for the Skokomish Tribe, where he continues to learn, study, and teach the history of the tuwaduq people to young and older students. As a member of the Skokomish Tribe, sm3tcoom has never moved away from his ancestral territories and currently lives less than one-fourth of a mile from where he grew up. This proximity has allowed him to remain in close contact with elders (many of whom are gone now).

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2