Special Exhibition: “Beauty in the Useful”

When a functional object is also artistically made, a special delight is brought to the senses because an otherwise mundane object is now something to behold, something to admire as one admires a painting. Indeed, many utilitarian art objects are collectibles (think Georg Jensen silverware, for example), and ‘one-of-a-kind’ pieces can command high prices in auctions.

The idea of the useful being beautiful is not unique to the modern Western world. This special exhibition shows that it also prevails in tribal societies, cultures that are far removed from ours.

Consider the three objects above. They are from different parts of Indonesia, the focus of this exhibition. From left to right, they are: a basket made by the Iban Dayaks of Borneo, a belt hook made by the same people, and an intricate comb from Sumba island, carved from tortoise shell.

The basket is woven from rattan and is decorated with hard-to-decipher scroll motives that hark back to the remote past. The belt hook is worn by men to secure their personal weapons and other items. It could have been a spartan hook, with nothing artistic about it. But in the hands of the carver, the hook takes the shape of a bird, symbolically a creature of the “upper world” and this turns a mundane object into an elegant work of art. The comb was once owned by an aristocrat woman in Sumba, one of the islands in the vast Indonesian archipelago. The craftsman has cleverly shaped the comb to follow the natural contours of the tortoise shell, then embellished it with a flourish of animal motifs such as the stag and roosters, each of symbolic importance to the people of Sumba. The silver band that wraps the central portion of the comb is incised with “power symbols”, namely horses and a crescent-shaped headdress in the middle. This band marks the comb as a item of royalty as well as a precious heirloom object to be passed down the generations.

More objects like these are showcased in this exhibition. In fact, well over thirty works from various parts of Indonesia are represented. A few objects come from the Philippines and Taiwan. Their connection to Indonesia lies in their ancient Austronesian heritage (the introduction to the exhibition will explain more).
Take your time to go over the objects one by one. I have organized the collection by island groups. We start from the westernmost island of Sumatra and the surrounding island of Nias, then move east to the large islands of Borneo and Sulawesi before heading south to a string of beautiful islands known as the “Lesser Sundas”, reaching as far as the Maluku, better known historically as “Spice Islands” and to Irian Jaya in the western half of Papua New Guinea. Then we change direction and head north to the Philippines and Taiwan, the birthplace of the Austronesian heritage.

Click the following link to view the exhibition: https://edfwm2013.wixsite.com/website-2

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