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Object of the Week: Bulul

Hailing from the Philippines, bulul figures are perhaps the most common and well-known of Ifugao sculptural traditions. An isolated and landlocked province surrounded by rugged and precipitous terrain, Ifugao and its people long resisted Spanish colonization, which left much of their culture, religion, and artistic traditions intact.

For the Ifugao people, known for their elaborate terrace farms and complex irrigation systems, rice is a cornerstone of daily life. Representing a rice deity, bulul are highly stylized and carved from a single piece of wood. Standing bulul figures are often depicted with hands resting on their knees, slightly bent, while the arms of seated bulul figures are typically folded. Most often carved in male and female pairs, figures could also be androgynous.

The figures are understood as fundamental in ensuring a good harvest, as well as guarding the season’s crop from thieves. They also represent the harmonious union of oppositional elements and the promise of good fortune. Every harvest, bulul would be brought out to share in the bounty of rice, chicken, pig, and rice wine. The rich, mottled patina of the bulul in SAM’s collection demonstrates its use in various rituals and ceremonies, which would include smoke and grease from food offerings.

Bulul can be venerated and passed down for generations, ultimately overseeing many harvest seasons, as well as a number of ceremonies celebrating the abundance and generosity of the earth.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Bulul, late 19th, early 20th century, Philippines, wood, 22 x 6 x 6in., Gift of Georgia Schwartz Sales, 2003.96

Object of the Week: Foolish Extravagance

This etching by Francisco José Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), titled Foolish Extravagance, is part of series titled Los Disparates (The Follies) from 1815/16–1823/24. Completed by an artist who lived through the oppressive Spanish Inquisition, among other sociopolitical events, each print from the series variously address themes of foolishness, misrepresentation, abuse of power, and fear.

Disparates was published posthumously in 1864 by The Royal Academy of San Fernando, from the 18 (of 22) plates in their possession. When The Royal Academy first produced this edition, they did so under the title Los Proverbios, sending scholars on a quest to match the prints with their respective proverbs. Later proofs by the artist—with handwritten titles beginning with the word “disparates”—shifted their meaning: these images were not illustrative of proverbs, but rather of follies. In the time since, the series has evaded clear interpretation, and “any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty.”[1]

In Foolish Extravagance, four bulls twist, jerk, and careen one on top of another, seemingly free-falling against an amorphous black background. Offering little information, this black void heightens the sense of disorientation and absurdity that the image conveys. Lacking any rationalism that would be signaled by a horizon line, or other compositional cues, this and other etchings from Los Disparates evidence an absence of reason and coherent meaning.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Foolish Extravagance, 1815, Francisco José Goya y Lucientes, aquatint and etching, 8 5/16 x 12 3/4 in., Manson F. Backus Memorial Collection, 35.133
[1] Douglas Cushing, “Beyond All Reason: Goya and his Disparates,” Blanton Museum of Art, February 23, 2015, https://blantonmuseum.org/2015/02/beyond-all-reason-goya-and-his-disparates-2/.

Object of the Week: Couplet

Oracle-bone script (jiaguwen) is a form of Chinese writing that emerged during the Shang Dynasty—dating from the 14th–11th century BCE—and is considered the earliest known form of systematic Chinese script.

Some of the oldest oracle-bone inscriptions were short texts inscribed on the flat shoulder blade bones of oxen and shells of tortoises. Such bones were used for divination, a process which involved the inscription of a question with a bronze pin—lending the script its characteristic angularity—and then heating the bone to reveal cracks, which would be divined for answers.

The symbols used eventually became words, which were later developed into a Chinese script that is recognized today as part of China’s long tradition of calligraphic arts. This work by Rao Zongyi, titled Couplet, utilizes the ancient script, brought to life for a contemporary audience.

Rao—a poet, calligrapher, painter, and scholar of the humanities—produced the couplet in 1971 while a visiting professor at Yale University. Composed by Rao, the poem describes in red ink a kun-style operatic performance by Chang Ch’ung. Together the two scrolls read: The wind makes the snow dance amidst the sunlight, the music hangs like clouds on her garments.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Couplet, 1971, Rao Zongyi, red ink on paper, 74 5/16 x 14 3/16 in., Gift of Chang Ch’ung-ho and Hans Frankel from their collection, 2010.9.6.1-.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Time-(B)

Two identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course, the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.

Ever a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both time and photography in one fell swoop.

Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate

Time-(B), 1980, Kenji Nakahashi, ektacolor print, sheet: 11 x 14 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kazuo Kondo, 95.35 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Tsuba

A tsuba is a hand guard of a Japanese sword, mounted between the handgrip and the blade, to protect the user’s hand. Either carved or molded, they also help balance the sword, which is comprised of a number of complicated—but equally important—components.

While highly practical in its purpose, there is, as with all things, room for ornamentation and embellishment. This 19th-century example in SAM’s collection, made of copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, depicts an elegant nighttime landscape. Under the arc of the crescent moon, the spray of gold plants and flowers appear to be basking in the moonlight, also gold.

Prior to the 17th century, the functionality of a tsuba was more important than its decoration. From the 17th century onward, tsuba became more elaborate, with carving and molding techniques more sophisticated. Designs on tsuba—such as this one—often draw their subject matter from Japanese folklore and nature, and importantly signal the status of the sword’s owner.

Currently, on view in SAM’s third-floor galleries, this tsuba is part of the exhibition Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai, which explores lesser-known aspects of samurai culture, including patronage of the arts. From the tea ceremony to Noh theater, the samurai class helped advance various artistic practices in the service of showcasing both their military might and cultural prowess.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Tsuba: Plants in Landscape and Moon in Inlay, 19th century, Japanese, copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, 2 5/8 x 2 1/2 x 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 34.95. Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Object of the Week: Milk Container

The fall weather has arrived and, with it, decorative gourd season. [1] This Pokot gourd, however, is not purely decorative or ornamental, but carries with it important food traditions and community symbolism.

Like this elegant vessel, inscribed with geometric patterns, such milk containers are made by Pokot women to contain a thick, yogurt-like dairy beverage (also known as mala ya kienyeji or kamabele kambou) that is prepared from cow’s or goat’s milk, and mixed with the ashes of the cromwo tree—a tree endemic to western Kenya. Produced by Pokot communities for generations, the beverage is prepared by fermenting milk inside dried hollow gourds, later adding cromwo ash for its antiseptic properties, aromatic flavor, and distinctive color.

To make the gourd vessel, the hard skin of a calabash gourd is hollowed out, dried, and smoked using cromwo wood. The milk is then poured into the gourd, whose natural bacteria magically assists in the fermentation and acidification process. Once the milk begins to coagulate, whey is removed and fresh milk is added. This process repeats for one week, with the addition of an occasional shake.

Historically a staple of the Pokot diet, ash yogurt’s presence has decreased significantly due to shifts in livestock farming, as well as other environmental and economic factors. While the yogurt beverage is still made by some families, it is far less abundant. Still, the tradition persists. As poetically described by a food activist and scholar of global fermentation processes: “the gourd itself is the vehicle of perpetuation.”[2]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Colin Nissan’s “fist-pumping celebration of fall” was first published online by McSweeney’s in 2009 and has since proven to have consistent longevity on the internet, in no small part due to the efficiency with which the essay captures the American mania for autumn.
[2] Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), pp. 181-182.
Image: Milk container, Pokot, gourd, leather, and metal, 7 1/2 in., diam.: 4 1/4 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1053

Object of the Week: We Are All in This Together

The words “we are all in this together” announce themselves in bold, sans-serif force, asserting the urgency and agency of the message. Created by artist Mark Mumford in 2002, the work—whose title is the same as the text—was created in the context of and in response to the protests that took place before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As with many artists who work with language, Mumford is interested in the slippages of syntax and the ways in which words carry a multitude of meanings. In the case of We Are All in This Together, the message can be read as either empowering and uplifting, or apathetic and resigned. For the artist, “meaning hovers on the threshold of realization, and where the knotty relationships between seeing and reading, reading and believing, believing and seeing are given a full and lively expression.”

Currently on view in the Brotman Forum, the work transforms the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum into a shared textual experience that is visible from the outside of the museum as well. Though made over 15 years ago, the work carries more political significance than ever. The words especially ring true today—a day designated for climate strikes around the world—when millions of people will march for urgent climate action. As is the case with any issue, we can choose either action or resignation; whichever you choose, there’s no denying that we are all in this together.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

Images: We Are All in This Together, 2002, Mark Mumford, vinyl lettering produced from CD formatted for a MAC with both a FreeHand and an EPS version of the artwork, dimensions variable, Gift of Carlos Garcia and James Harris in honor of Kimberly Richter Shirley, 2003.60 © Mark Mumford. Installation view, Seattle Art Museum, 2019.

Object of the Week: Four Seasons series: Indian Summer

In Indian Summer, a bucolic scene is obviously staged. There is a printed mountain backdrop, a cut-out cardboard deer, fake plants, and Western-themed props strewn across a manicured bed of Astroturf. The Native artist Wendy Red Star sits poised amid the artificial flora and fauna. She wears traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) regalia and stares stoically into the distance.

Indian Summer is from the larger photographic series Four Seasons, which includes Fall, Winter, and Spring. When I first viewed Indian Summer, I was reminded of bright, color-saturated storefronts with eerie mannequins and design sets—frozen behind walls of glass. In Four Seasons, Red Star plays on the commercialism of Native identity and satirically recalls the dioramas of Native people exhibited at natural history museums.

Red Star was raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, and received the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award in 2016. Through reclamatory, unsettling, and playfully witty art that is also collaborative and intergenerational, Red Star dismantles the narratives of Natives by white photographers, archives, and media: depictions that remove Native agency and preserve stereotypes of Natives as stoic, passive, and distant.

In an interview with SAM, Red Star reflected on her role as an artist and cultural archivist: “Native voices have historically been silenced, unable to explain or even place our own narrative within the larger society. As a Native person I have witnessed the lack of inclusion for Native artists in particular in the contemporary art world, many of whom struggle for inclusion in important exhibitions.”

“Also troubling is a prevailing but antiquated expectation of what Native art should be, whether from the 19th century or the 21st. This leaves many Native artists feeling segregated into categories of “traditional” work and without a place in the contemporary art world. I consider my practice and the act of annotating, revealing, and erasure a reclamation of my own history and identity. The act is so much more than a rejection of the colonial gaze, it is a deliberate act to take authority and rewrite histories in humanist way.”

This week, fireworks, barbecues, patriotic fanfare, and heavy traffic usher in another 4th of July holiday. Prior to yesterday’s processions at the White House, Trump had tweeted “It will be the show of a lifetime!” ensuring more tanks and military planes. In the wake of continued injustices toward immigrants in this country, it remains precisely that: a show. Ongoing histories of racism, genocide, nativism, and imperialism get to masquerade as nationalism under a venerating sheen of red-white-and-blue. On the cultural archive of Native experience and presence, Wendy Red Star removes and probes these veneers of unaccountable histories—dismantling and rewriting false colonial narratives to engage Native voices past, present, and future.

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

Images: Four Seasons series: Indian Summer, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.4. Four Seasons series: Fall, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in.. Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.1. Four Seasons series: Winter, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.2, ©️ Wendy Red Star. Four Seasons series: Spring, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.3, ©️ Wendy Red Star.

Object of the Week: untitled (cosmos)

As the first official week of summer comes to a close, a palpable shift has taken place. With longer days and later nights, more time is already spent outdoors, whether on a porch, patio, or campground. Personally, summer often equates with more time spent looking at the night sky, along with a whole host of other associations—certain smells, foods, activities, and feelings.

In untitled (cosmos) by William Cordova, a fragmented expanse of black space is peppered with stars and planets, evoking the universe. Closer inspection reveals that among these celestial bodies are also archaeological artifacts and other suspended objects. Functioning then as a fictional astronomical and astrological map, it references the relationship that ancient cultures, such as the Inca, had with the cosmos—determining, or at least heavily informing, human events and actions.

Like the act of observing the night sky, the fragility and fugitive nature of this photographic map—held together by mere electrical and scotch tape—serves to remind us of our own ephemerality, and perhaps even make space for the contemplation of time and space, spirituality and identity.

Born in Lima, Peru, Cordova moved to Miami at an early age. He later lived in Houston, Chicago, and New York, but Peruvian cosmology, Andean architecture, and his personal history continued—and continue—to inform his work. Often working with found and discarded materials, Cordova’s varied and multimedia practice also means to address the economies of certain materials and objects, “challenging the functionality of art as a purely aesthetic pursuit.”[1]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] “William Cordova,” Sikkema Jenkins & Co., https://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com/william-cordova.
Image: untitled (cosmos), 2006-09, William Cordova, exposed photo and paper collage, electrical and scotch tape, 61 × 86 in., Gift of Dennis Braddock and Janice Niemi, 2018.15. © Artist or Artist’s Estate