December 2nd, 2014 | Artifacts
This seven-piece nativity scene was made in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, just north of Santa Fe. Santa Clara potters are renowned for their highly polished blackware, which they have been making since the late 19th century. Pueblo women make pottery with a technique largely developed during the Classic Pueblo period (1050-1300 CE). Although the nativity set pieces were each molded from a small lump of clay, Pueblo pots are made from coils of clay that are then smoothed into the final shape without the help of a potter’s wheel. The shiny finish is created by the artist rubbing a smooth polishing stone over the piece repeatedly. The pieces are finished in a reduction firing during which the artist smothers the fire with horse manure, which traps thick smoke around the pieces. The carbon in the smoke turns the clay black. The process has many possibilities for problems, and only three out of five pieces emerge from the fire without damage, making Pueblo blackware rare and highly collectible.
November 10th, 2014 | Artifacts
This Iban ceremonial textile, known as pua kumbu, was made in the town of Kapit, in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. The Iban people, known as the Sea Dayak during British colonial rule, are the largest ethnic group in the state of Sarawak.
Most pua kumbu are woven on back-strap looms by women. The decorative pattern is created by Ikat dying, a tie-dying process during which the individual threads are dyed before being woven. This pattern contains human-like figures known as engkaramba. In the past, these powerful figures could only be woven by wives and daughters of chiefs. They are representations of deities in the Iban’s shamanistic religion and can offer protection from danger. The act of weaving is a deeply spiritual undertaking that establishes an Iban weaver’s womanhood and status. Specific patterns like this one are often passed down from mother to daughter.
Pua kumbu translates as “grand blanket;” however, the pieces are very rarely used as sleeping blankets. Pua kumbu are recognized as sacred cloths throughout Iban mythology, dictating their use in rituals and ceremonies. In one creation myth, the pua kumba already existed at the beginning of time, and the first man and woman were brought to life by the Ancient God underneath it.
Although the cloths maintain these historic connections to shamanism, now the textiles also serve as a symbol of indigenous identity, separating the Iban from the majority Muslim Malay population.
September 16th, 2014 | Artifacts
Children in Mexico grow up playing with skeleton toys like this one. The toys teach them about mortality, but also make sure their first impressions of death are cheerful. Craftsmen have made toys specifically for the Day of the Dead since at least the mid-1800s. Folk artist Gumercindo España Oliveres, known as Don Chinda, made this toy, as well as the other toys on display in our current exhibit, Life After Death: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. He has been making toys with the help of his wife, children, and grandchildren for over 40 years in Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas, Guanajuato. His toys often have some element of movement. As this one rolls forward, the skeleton on the cart sits up.
July 3rd, 2014 | Artifacts
This carved wood tobacco container with a stopper, known as dinga gutta, was made by the Gond people of India. The Portuguese introduced tobacco to India in 1600, and its use quickly became widespread. This container was likely made to hold snuff, a popular form of finely ground tobacco. It was made in the Bastar District of central India. The Gonds are a group of aboriginal people with a population of over 2 million people. Although some of the population speaks Hindi rather than their native Gondi, the Gond are not beholden to the Hindu caste system or other Hindu restrictions. They practice their own religion which centers on a group of clan or village deities and ancestor worship.
May 30th, 2014 | Artifacts
This small wooden animal carving is known as an itoom and is used as an object of divination among the Kuba people, who live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When practicing divination, Kuba diviners, called ngwoom, make an inquiry and then rub a small wooden disc with a smooth base and a projecting knob over the back of the itoom. The answer to the ngwoom’s inquiry is determined by where the disc sticks as it is rubbed across the itoom’s back. You can see that the back of this carving has been worn down from use. Common animals represented by itoom are crocodiles, warthogs, lizards, and dogs. You can see this artifact on display in the new exhibit A Glimpse of Africa: Five Cultures from the Continent.
April 3rd, 2014 | Artifacts
This colorful textile made by the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands in Panama is known as a mola. Molas form part of a Kuna woman’s traditional clothing with the brightly colored panels applied to the front and back of a blouse. Molas are made of several layers of different colored cloth, which are cut away to form the intricate design, in this case a sea turtle. The layers are then sewn together with nearly invisible stitches. These textiles are the best-known representation of Kuna culture to outsiders, and to the Kuna people are a symbol of ethnic pride.