MUSEUM CLASS: Observations on Mounts at an African Art Exhibition

December 22, 2012
Saturday

We spent last weekend in Ann Arbor, MI to attend Robin’s graduation from the University of Michigan. She now has a master’s degree from the School of Social Work, aka the School of Social Justice, with a specialty in geriatrics and hospice. So very, very proud of her!

I also had time to visit the University of MI Museum of Art (UMMA), which I practically lived in as an undergrad, and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, ditto. This time, I not only enjoyed looking at the art and artifacts, I paid special attention to how the items were displayed, and how the mounts were constructed.

It was eye-opening! Lots of thoughts spiraling in my little brain this week….

First, the UMMA. They had a semi-permanent display of a private collection of African art, mostly wood carvings: Masks, sculpture, fetish figures, ceremonial canes, etc. These objects are from UMMA’s own collection, and borrowed from other museums and from private collections.

The exhibition is called “African Art and the Shape of Time”. I bought a copy of the exhibit catalog. Interesting read (though, of course, dense writing and slow going.) Having just spent 14 hours in a car with my daughter, who is extremely sensitive to issues surrounding culture, class and gender, I was struck by the attitudes toward the continent of Africa popular in European and American academia in the mid- to late 20th century. In 1956, one writer states that there simply was no African history before European contact and colonization. In the ’60′s, when a notion of an African oral history was forming, many Western academics still dismissed the idea of an African history prior to a European presence there. All was “darkness”. Of course, this makes sense. If you want to exploit a continent’s resources without regard for its many cultures and people, it’s easier if you refuse to acknowledge them as “real” and instead portray them as “primitive”, “less evolved” and “timeless” and “unchanging”.

I’d never thought of that before. It makes me uneasy, which means my own prejudices and thinking patterns are being nudged (if not outright walloped.)

But that’s a conversation to have with my daughter. For now, I describe some of the artifacts that caught my eye aesthetically, and how their mounts were constructed. Although ribbons of these past considerations show up clearly in how the artifacts themselves are treated when mounts were made.

I’m going to republish these observations and musings in my blog, too, with pictures of my truly awful drawings. (Note–as soon as I FIND my drawings….) No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I’m not sure it’s ethical to even reproduce the images in the catalog. I may eventually contact the publisher (UMMA) to see if I can use the catalog images, but for now, you have to make do with my scribbles.

General observations:
Most mounts were created to “disappear”, as Tom and Brad mentioned many times. Brass rods were painted one color to blend with the object where it made contact, and another to blend into the display background.

Most of the mount bases seemed to be made of wood.

Most astonishing for me was that many of the mount structures appear to be embedded into the wood of the artifact itself! So bizarre to see that, after all our lengthy discussions and readings emphasizing that the artifact we display must be protected and preserved–it is our first priority. First, do no harm.

I also wonder if all the mounts were made created for the exhibition, or if each donor had provided their own mounts. It occurred to me that most of this collection had been procured in the late ’60′s and early ’70′s–around the time one of my art history professors urged us to enter the field of African Art as a specialty, as it was “wide open”. Not much was known about African art, and it was a field we could make a name for ourselves in.

I’m guessing many of the mounts would have been made in a (relatively) haphazard fashion. That is, made by an blacksmith, perhaps, commissioned by the collector(s), but not necessarily with the tenets now held by mount-makers. That could account for the somewhat brutal drilling of the artifacts to accommodate the mounts.

More disturbing was the thought that maybe nobody thought of these objects as important historical relics, but more as attractive, beautiful “folk art” pieces. Just as I might hammer a nail in the wall and casually hang up a strand of antique trade beads….

OTOH, I gained a great idea on how to create mounts for my artwork that wouldn’t compromise the outside of my display boxes. Some of the mounts for smaller artifacts had bases that were screwed into the floor bottom of the display case. Aha! I could attach my mounts to a base, then install both object and mount into the case. No exterior bolts! I could stabilize the interior mount foundation with screws just long enough to engage the box’s wood bottom, but not penetrate through to the exterior. Yay!

The first artifact that caught my eye was a mask depicting perfect female beauty–almond-shaped eyes, delicate nose and chin, lips slightly parted, with braided/knotted “hair” made from what looks like a combination of cloth, string and fur.

The mount was a simple thick rectangular wood block, with an especially sturdy wood upright. This upright held a half-done block. At first it looked solid, like a hat block, but then I saw it was actually hollow. For all the world it looked like half a coconut shell. The upright fit into another wood cross-piece that held the actual dome. It was really hard to tell if this half-dome was part of the mask, or simply supporting the mask. I was the only person in the room trying to peer behind the artifacts, and up into the artifacts, and I got quite a few curious looks….

The second item was a ceremonial carved wood staff just under 4 feet tall. It was displayed in an upright position. The mount seemed to be free-standing–not bolted into the floor of the display case, nor attached to the back wall. It was a painted metal base, about 4″ square and 1/4″ thick, with a single rod upright about 6-8″ tall. The upper set of arms completely circled the staff. The lower set completely circled….a large 2″ “nail” that had been drilled or hammered into the tip of the staff!

This mount was unobtrusive, painted black to blend in with the staff color. But it seemed like this might not be a particular safe treatment in the case of an earthquake or the case being whapped. I know from experience that even a a 4″ square steel base can be knocked over pretty easily, especially if the object is top-heavy (like this staff is, with a carving of a seated young female figure.) My cats do it all the time!

I think a taller upright, with the arms supporting the staff in a couple of places along its length, and perhaps underneath the carved figuring, and a bigger base (in thickness, and in area) might have been better choice….

Another item, a wood headrest, had a beautiful mount. It was a simple T-mount, with the upright modeled to match the shape of one curved leg! It was almost invisible from the front view. The weight of the item was supported by the curved arms of the T crossbar. I thought it was simple, elegant, discreet, and seemed to cause no damage to the artifact.

But the next display was disappointing. To display two carved wood puppet heads (a ram and a hyena), the mount had been inserted right into the wood base of each mask! I kept looking to see if the base was actually a part of the mask, or simply a well-formed wood support. It really appeared to me to that the mount maker had drilled into the wood artifact. Oy.

Another mask mount showed me how even the same set of artifacts (in this case, wood masks) called for unique supports. One mask had a simple painted steel stand (flat square base, single upright.) The topmost arms (the T cross bars) fit into the small holes that were drilled along the back rim of the mask. (I believe these were holes fro either lacing the mask in place on the bearer’s head, or to attach cloth or some other covering so the back of the bearer’s head wouldn’t be seen.) Another arm below the T stretched forward into the face of the mask, so that the mask would tilt back slightly.

I don’t know what to think about this method of display. This is pretty standard in contemporary mask stands. At least no new holes were drilled into the mask. I decided it’s okay. Not the best solution, but not the worst, either.

I have to say, I found that looking carefully at how the objects were displayed, and how the mounts were made, really enriched my experience at the museum. It’s like watching a movie–yes, the actors are the focus of the film. But appropriate costuming, great sets and backgrounds, powerful music and special effects add immensely to the total presentation. They shouldn’t overshadow the actors and the story, but they do contribute heavily to the total experience.

About these ads

1 Comment

Filed under art, museum class

One response to “MUSEUM CLASS: Observations on Mounts at an African Art Exhibition

  1. Lisa

    Re: Total experience–about 30 years ago at the Provincial Museum in Victoria, BC, there was (and still may be) a display of native button blankets and possibly masks, too. They were set up as if people were wearing them and the surrounding area was darkened, as if inside a lodge. Maybe they had flickering light, as if from a fire, because I remember especially the sparkling of the mother of pearl buttons sewn to the capes. It helped me to realize that they would have been amazing to watch as they danced around a campfire in a ceremony. It’s also possible that there was drum music and singing–seems like it. Pretty remarkable, and obviously a great memory to have lasted this long. Thanks for triggering that memory!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s