All posts in “Object of the Week”

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
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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.

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Object of the Week: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan

From very far away, one sees the softly rendered image of a still life, complete with various citrus fruits, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Their shapes are loose and open, lacking definition aside from the sharp color contrasts between the bright yellow of the lemon, orange of the carrot, and deep black of the background. As one moves closer to the work, peering intently at it, the fruits and vegetables in the window sill reassert their construction in a pointillist fashion. Each “brushstroke” turns out to be a dot of distinct color, contributing to the ambiguous outlines and shapes.

However, the work is not a painting with layers of dots of color. Rather, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz created Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan by layering cut and hole-punched paper scraps from magazines into a collage. To add yet another dimension to the work, Muniz then photographed the collage, which resulted in the final work: an enlarged chromogenic print. This photo is based on a still life by Juan Sanches Cotan, a notable Spanish Baroque painter, known for his austere yet deeply realistic still lifes.

The optical relationship between part and whole has been something that has interested Muniz for many years:

It’s like the fur in Vermeer’s painting of The Woman Reading a Letter at the Frick. You get up close and you can’t see fur anymore, just a blur of brushstrokes. Then you go back and it’s fur again. . . . I think art without pretenses of being more than a visual exercise can indeed be powerful and complete.1

Throughout his career, he has used elements such as sugar to construct portraits of children working on sugar plantations, peanut butter and jelly to recreate the Mona Lisa, and garbage to depict pickers in one of Brazil’s largest garbage dumps. His works connect past and present and create illusions of famous and recognizable works.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Vik Muniz, “Bomb Magazine: Vik Muniz by Mark Magill.” Vik Muniz. Accessed September 10, 2019. http://vikmuniz.net/library/vik-muniz-by-mark-magill.

Image: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, after Juan Sanches Cotan, 2004, Vik Muniz, Chromogenic print, 72 x 99 1/2 in. (182.9 x 252.7cm) Gift of Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Jane Davis, Barney A. Ebsworth, Henry and Mary Ann James, Janet Ketcham, Sally Neukom, Virginia Wright, and Ann Wyckoff in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa, 2004.93.

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Birdcage

Object of the Week: Birdcage

In a scene from the 2008 Disney animated movie, Mulan, Mulan’s grandmother holds a caged cricket, closes her eyes, and crosses a bustling street in China. Like the pet cricket in Mulan, the practice of domesticating and keeping animals in cages such as crickets and birds traces back to China’s earliest records.

This birdcage in SAM’s collection, pictured here, was likely created during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or Republican period (1850-1920). In China, a pronounced appreciation for bird keeping arose during the Qing dynasty. During this period, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) particularly enjoyed raising pet birds, and the emperor’s fascination subsequently permeated China. As aviculture spread throughout the country, many men would stroll through the early morning streets, swinging their birdcages back and forth like a pendulum. To this day, Chinese bird keepers swing cages to encourage birds to grip to their perch, an exercise which prevents birds’ feathers from falling off.

As much as aviculturists value their birds, they equally value the craftsmanship of the birdcages. The maker of this birdcage remains unknown. Crafted from hardwood, ivory, and metal, intricate carvings and patterns are etched into the wood. Ivory insets depict beautiful landscapes, evoking scenes of the world where the bird once flew free. Also notable is the cage’s design, which reflects recognizable architectural features of a pagoda, such as steps trailing up to the door and the two-storied structure. Pagodas originated as sacred places to preserve Buddhist relics, and this distinct structure can be found throughout China’s built environment.

While intricately handcrafted birdcages have diminished recently due to industrialization, the cage markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong continue to thrive, allowing this rich artistic tradition to live on. See this work on view at SAM in Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China.

Lauren Farris, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Image: Birdcage, 1850-1920, Chinese, wood, metal, ivory, 26 x 12 1/2 x 12 1/2in., Gift of Henry and Mary Ann James, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.11.
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Object of the Week: Yuka

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older. To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.

While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear. Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they lose their youth.

In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal fear of aging.

For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.

With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.

See this photograph in person at the Seattle Asian Art Museum when it reopens in early 2020!

Isabelle Qian, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Yuka, 2000, Miwa Yanagi, chromogenic print, Plexiglas, Dibond mounted on aluminum with text panel, 63 x 63 in., additional text: 15 5/8 x 15 5/8 in., Gift of Janet Ketcham, 2004.33, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

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Object of the Week: Bullet

As we have seen too many times in recent weeks, a single bullet can destroy a life, a family, and a community. In this photograph by Harold Edgerton, a bullet is frozen in time and space, its trajectory and destruction momentarily bound.

Born in Nebraska in 1903, Edgerton studied electrical engineering at MIT. His academic background, coupled with his interest in motion and high-speed photography, allowed him to produce images that made visible the imperceptible. After earning his PhD in 1931, Edgerton developed and improved upon various stroboscopic models—a repeatable flash device better known today as a ‘strobe’—ultimately applying for 45 patents between the years 1933 and 1936. The high-powered repetition of the strobe allowed Edgerton to effectively freeze objects in motion in order to capture them on film, resulting in iconic photographs that bring together science, technology, and art.

The history of photography is inextricable from the history and development of military technology—to borrow from French theorist Paul Virilio, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye”—making the bullet a fitting subject for Edgerton to capture.[1] In this photograph, printed in 1961, the bullet serves to represent technological achievement and photographic mastery; today, however, it is hard to see a single bullet as anything other than destructive, especially when they are rarely singular, more often multiplied in the hundreds and deployed in seconds.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989), p. 20.
Image: Bullet, 1961, Harold Edgerton, gelatin silver photograph, 9 1/2 x 8 5/8 in., The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, 96.48 © Edgerton Family Foundation
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Object of the Week: Mirror with the Judgment of Paris

Homer’s paired stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey have fascinated artists and creators for centuries, generating art, literature, and music. One such artwork, The Judgement of Paris, is an Etruscan piece from around the 4th–3th centuries BCE, and is currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum.

This ancient work illustrates the critical moment that ultimately led to a 10-year war that ravaged the Mediterranean. Deftly etched into the back of a circular mirror, a riveting scene leaps out: four figures tangle with one another, three clad in traditional Greek garments with delicate folds and drapery, and one almost nude (save for a few accessories). This nude woman on the left, the goddess Aphrodite, faces the other three as they each raise their hands to their mouths­­—in shock at her attire or, possibly, at the decision that has just been made in this scene.

The figure hidden behind the remaining two clothed women is Paris, a young man ordered by Zeus, the king of the gods, to determine the most beautiful goddess. Each of the three goddesses represented here—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—offer him a bribe. Hera swears to make him a king, Athena promises wisdom and bravery in battle, and Aphrodite pledges the world’s most beautiful, albeit married, mortal woman: Helen. Paris’s fateful decision to align himself with Aphrodite and sail with Helen to Troy would eventually enable the deeply destructive Trojan War of which Homer wrote.

I find this scene quite interesting due to its historical and cultural references, but also for its touch of irony. Used for numerous occasions, ranging from funerals to weddings, mirrors in Etruscan culture feature mythological moments that deal with physical appearance, specifically “any tale in which vanity or comeliness gained its rewards.”[1] Although Paris’ choice did reward him a love affair with Helen, it also caused one of the longest and most famous sieges in literary history. This seductive tableau—simultaneously puzzling and inviting—raises questions surrounding sexuality, fidelity, and appearance in classical cultures.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

Mirror with scene of the Judgment of Paris, 4th–3rd century B.C., Etruscan, bronze, 10 3/8 x 7 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36
[1] Nigel Spivey, Etruscan Art (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1997), 77.
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Object of the Week: Slow Cooker

With these works, we have created art pieces that serve as cultural and historical artifacts that value and document the experiences, struggles, and achievements of those who have found their way, often through migration and exceptional sacrifice, to new places where they now work to contribute meaningfully within their communities.

  – Margarita Cabrera

Soft vinyl covers the customary porcelain, metal, and glass of this trusty kitchen crockpot. While the clear lid is left exposed, plush fabric replaces the sturdy handles and appliance parts. Red stitching adds a playful contrast against the sky blue base, and the remaining long, loose threads speak to homemade craftsmanship.

Slow Cooker is part of artist Margarita Cabrera’s soft sculpture series, which reimagines commercial objects from bicycles and cars to household tools and cleaning supplies. Cabrera was a featured artist in Pop Departures, a 2014 exhibition at SAM that explored contemporary artists who look to Pop Art for artistic inspiration or critique. The malleable and everyday forms of Cabrera’s sculptures draw on stylistic elements of works by Pop artist Claes Oldenburg.

Cabrera is an artist, activist, and community organizer. She infuses her art with socio-political and personal reflection as a Mexican American. Topics of cultural identity, migration, violence, inclusivity, labor, and empowerment—with a focus on US-Mexico border issues—are at the forefront of Cabrera’s art practice.[1] In her transformative justice initiatives, Cabrera organizes artistic collaborations in local communities. For her 2010 outreach project, Space in Between, Cabrera partnered with Latinx immigrants from Mexico and Central America to create sculptures of Southwestern US desert plants.[2] Using fabric from the uniforms of Border Patrol forces, the soft sculptures recall embroidery techniques from Los Tenangos, Hidalgo, Mexico and traditions of Otomi Indigenous communities. The workshops empowered the participants to share their journeys of tremendous danger and sacrifice, crafting dialogues of unity, healing, and resistance.

Playful and interactive, the collapsible textures of Slow Cooker invite touch and public engagement. The bold, bright colors are illustrative of traditional woven Mexican designs. Slow Cooker provokes us, and perhaps teases us, as consumers and viewers, to reconsider these unassuming objects and the hands that made them. Cabrera shatters the invisibility of immigrant laborers in factory, farm, and service jobs—engaging the need for active listening and policy change at the ground level, igniting a political conversation that remains urgent and necessary.

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “Margarita Cabrera.” © Margarita Cabrera, https://www.margaritacabrera.com/sample-page/
[2]“Margarita Cabrera: Space in Between. February 10 – June 10, 2018.” Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, https://www.hamilton.edu/wellin/exhibitions/detail/margarita-cabrera-space-in-between-1-1-1-1-1-1-1
Image: Slow Cooker, 2003, Margarita Cabrera, vinyl, thread, and appliance parts, 13 × 8 × 10 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund and General Acquisition Fund, 2015.7.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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