Mexican Calaveritas

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In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2. Many families set up an ofrenda or offering to the spirits of loved ones who have passed away.   It often includes favorite foods and drinks, flowers, candles, images of saints and the remembered ancestors, personal items, and other objects.   In urban areas, skulls and skeletons are popular elements of ofrendas. In addition to sugar skulls, miniature skeleton figures like these, known as calaveritas, reenact scenes from daily life. They represent the ancestors and things they liked to do, bringing back happy memories of the deceased.   These calaveritas are currently on display in Life After Death: The Day of the Dead in Mexico.

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Bassa Reliquary


This reliquary comes from the Bassa peoples in Liberia. For the Bassa, death marks the transition from being a member of society to existing as an ancestor. Though dead, ancestors are not completely cut off from their living descendants. Bassa families gather the bones of their deceased relatives into a bundle so that they can continue to care for their departed family member as well as continue to receive their guidance and blessings. Such bundles are topped with sculpted heads that evoke ideals of beauty, wisdom, and serenity. This reliquary is currently on display in our newest exhibit, Visions of Home: A Celebration of Gullah Art and Culture, illustrating the theme of Family.

Indonesian Shadow Puppet

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This mid-to late 20th century shadow puppet is currently on display in our Musical Narratives of the Southwest Pacific Rim exhibit, which explores the performing arts of the Southwest Pacific Rim thorough musical instruments, masks, puppets, and dance costumes from Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa.

These shadow puppets often portray characters from Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  This particular Indonesian puppet represents the character Arjuna in the Mahabharata, the longest Indian epic.  Arjuna, one of the 5 Pandava brothers, is one of the protagonists of the epic and is known for his skill in archery.  Puppeteers provide the movement, voice, and sound effects for the character.  The show is often accompanied by a small gamelan performance, a traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia.  Video of a performance is included in the exhibit.

Chinese Scroll Painting

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This early 20th century Chinese scroll painting is currently on exhibit in Incredible Journeys: The Life Histories of Museum Objects, which focuses on how the featured artifacts came to be at the MOA.  The painting is in the Northern Song style, which, rather than depicting the subjects in three-dimensional detail, aims to show how the objects in the painting and in real life are alike in spirit.  The style plays on the dichotomy between realism and abstraction.

The scroll was collected by Marion Dudley, who lived and worked for the YWCA in Hong Kong and Shanghai between 1927 and 1947.  She collected dozens of paintings, silks, porcelains, and other decorative objects. Chinese society was experiencing cultural and political upheaval during the period Dudley lived there.  As a result, many artists sought to preserve traditional aesthetics while also incorporating Western techniques.




Yoruba Gelede Mask

Gelede Mask webxThe Yoruba peoples are found in the West African countries of Nigeria and Benin. They consist of many distinct ethnicities, but are united by similar languages, common religious practices, and shared history.

This Yoruba mask was used as part of the Gelede masquerade celebrating female ancestors and elderly women. For the Yoruba, mask performances, along with music and dancing, are a way of recognizing female status. Without the kind of attention provided by such spectacle, the spirit world is thought to lash out and punish the living.

Gelede masks are composed of two parts: the head and the superstructure. The head is the abstracted and idealized feminine face. Its expression is serene, demonstrating the timelessness of the spirit world. In contrast, the superstructure represents the ever-changing physical world. Its forms update with new trends and fads. This mask features a leopard, a symbol of power. This type of mask is worn on top of the head, with a veil covering the dancer’s face. This mask is on display in the MOA’s newest exhibit, Death at the Crossroads: A Dramatic Reading of Yoruba Art.

Chinese Christmas Card

Christmas Card

This Christmas card comes from the collection of Marion Dudley, who was a missionary with the YWCA. She lived and worked in China from the mid-1920s until World War II. The card includes images of men lighting firecrackers and a traditional Chinese dragon dance. These activities are usually associated with Chinese New Year, which falls in late January or early February depending on the lunar calendar. The dragon dance brings good luck for the coming year, while the firecrackers scare away evil spirits. In this case, these traditional festive images are adopted to celebrate the birth of Christ.