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Mounting and Yam Masks at the Oceanic Gallery

On April 30, I begin exploring the inspiring installation on view at the Oceanic gallery.  This gallery not only contains the unusual art of the Oceanic islands but also an unusual approach to viewing the work.  The inclusion of commission installation pieces created by local Seattle artist Allyce Wood provides, as curator Pam McClusky explains, clues to the objects origins beyond the accompanying textual plaques.  These objects, which were removed from their originally context to a museum context, are reunited with the visual elements of their initial environment.  Part One, The Unique Installations in the Oceanic Gallery, examined the ways in which the installation connects the works to their native environment and functional cultural contexts.  Part two continues the discussion with a behind-the-scenes perspective on the gallery exploring the mounting of these objects.

 

You may not initially realize that the Yam Masks are displayed on replica yams.  Despite the huge size of those in the case compared what you’d expect from a grocery store, these yams are actually much smaller than the champion yams of Papua New Guinea’s Abelam people.  Their yams reach heights of nine or even twelve feet!  If you don’t believe me, the case text, or have trouble imaging a yam so large an accompanying photograph provides a visual of the yams: taller than their proud owner and nearly as tall as his house!  The yams’ size demonstrates the conflict between the museum environment, the objects’ natural environment, and providing proper context.  A museum environment dictates that objects should be approachable and so are displayed at an appropriate height.  The natural environment for these masks would be mounted on tall yams, a biodegradable natural product where the mask is above our heads.  This poses problems in a museum since the natural material would degrade and having the masks at a similar height would inhibit viewing.  Their current context in the Oceanic gallery compromises these two methods by shrinking the size of the yams so they can display the mask within a similar context but at an approachable level, much like a manikin.  Perhaps we should refer to these yams as, yam-ikins for the masks.

These yam-ikins, while mimicking the shape, color, and at least width of the yams, might look like a simple installation created by Allyce, but they double as an intricate and supportive mount for the masks.  For one mask with a simple curved back the creation of the yam-ikin was fairly straightforward.  The mount for the other mask is far more complicated.  The process highlights the skill of the mount makers who need to capture the feel of the object in its environment without compromising its vitality.  They must both present the object to the viewer, while restricting its motion and preserving the object for future generations.

The Yam Mask’s “Pillow” Mount

The mask in question for this mount is beautifully woven.  Its reds and yellows contrast against a rich dark black and a few of its original arching feathers remain.  In order to accommodate the mask’s dome-shaped interior, mount maker Gordon Lambert created a “pillow” with flaps.  The pillows fill the form of the mask, supporting the fibers without straining or stretching them.  They are flexible and are attached to a frame with a hinge, so they can move and respond to the mask as needed.  This support rests on aluminum tubes that provide vertical stability.  Parts of the pillows that might be seen were painted black and to disguise an awkward connection between the base of the mask and the yam, Allyce created a grass necklace in the proper style.   Allyce also created the yams, which wrap around the plain base to provide the masks their appropriate context on a yam.

Gordon noted how fun the yam-ikins were to create make due to its inventiveness and the challenges it created.  Rebecca Raven, another mount maker, commented on the overall inventive nature of the mounts.  For instance, the Asmat War Shields maintain their old steel L-mounts and were originally displayed facing forward in a line.  Now the shields twist and turn.  In order to turn the mounts for the new display, the mount makers required a specialized wrench to reach a bolt within a shallow space.  As no wrench of this kind exists, they built a special one-of-kind wrench just for this project and the mounts for these war shields.

Other elements of mounting and installation deal with issues of conservation.  While the Marquesan bone ornament, on displayed with the tattooed man and War club, would originally be hung around the man’s neck or head, conservation differences between the ornament and the club required their separation.  Therefore the reproduced tattooed Marquesan could not both hold the club and be adorned with the ornament.  The current separation between the man and the ornament allows the ornament to interact with the figure while not becoming lost in a crowd of objects.

Each part of the mount is ready for final assembly!

Issues such as these demonstrate the complex problem solving for Rebecca and Gordon in regards to mounting the work.  The added collaboration with the Allyce and her installations along with their collaboration with gallery designers and curators provided a new dimension to the mounts they often create.  New problems had to be solved for these unique Oceanic objects so they could both be protected and appreciated.  Their work with the Oceanic gallery prepped the team for the mounts they needed to create for the current exhibition Gauguin & Polynesia whose Polynesian materials are quite similar to those in SAM’s Oceanic gallery.  However, as Pam notes, the permanent Oceanic gallery provides longevity for the museum and the Oceanic collection as opposed to the fleeting views the special exhibition offers.

 

From the unique installation elements that provides visual context to the arts so far removed from their original, non-museum context to the mounting of these pieces we learned so much about the process of creating such a unique and beautiful display for SAM’s Oceanic collection.  The considerations, effort, and preparation that all occurred behind-the-scenes for this seamless viewing, is incredible.  Each element of the gallery—the installations, the Oceanic art, the mounts, the information panels—come together creating an inviting environment that transports the viewer away from Seattle and onto the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Be sure to check out the final product!  The Oceanic Gallery is located on SAM’s third floor.

 

– Sarah Lippai, Public Relations Intern

Top photo: Styrofoam Model of a Yam Mask

The Unique Installations in the Oceanic Gallery

When walking into the Oceanic gallery on the third floor you may be struck by a mix of the familiar and the unusual.  This occurs with both the art and the display.  The pieces that comprise the collection include shields, masks, clubs, and figures.  There is nothing too unusual about them until you take a closer look and discover the unfamiliar carved designs or shapes whose culture you can’t quite place, that are if you didn’t catch Gauguin & Polynesia.  While the works are within a familiar museum setting—some behind glass or on a pedestal—you probably noticed, almost immediately, that they are given an environment.  As you walk into the gallery Asmat War shields confront you.  They burst out of the forest.  Lush New Guinea flora in various shades of green backdrop the shields, rejuvenating them.

Oceanic arts curator Pam McClusky decided that in creating this gallery the artwork’s origins required elaboration in order to offer clues about their original function and cultural tradition not only through text, a traditional museum approach, but also through installation.  When considering the works from SAM’s Oceanic collection, Pam realized just how unusual these objects were in terms of their origin and context.  As most of us approach art from a Western perspective and a Western tradition, the works from Oceania are a bit of a puzzle.  For us, art falls into definable categories where the ancient arts of painting and sculpture are favored and in which most art adorns the walls of our houses for decoration or honored in the rooms of our museums for contemplation.  While not all Western arts are removed from functional contexts, our history favors these more traditional arts.  In the region of Oceania the arts are steeped in culture and context.  Their strange context derives from their function and the cultural traditions of the people who made them.

The Asmat War shields, Jamasji, for example are not static parts of their environment.  They are beacons painted in red and white that contrast from the greens of the forests.  They protect the warriors handling them.  They twist and turn as they fend off opponents in the fields.  Pam decided that installations designed to reunite the objects with their original visual context would facilitate our approach; bridging the gap between Western artistic traditions and the abandoned visual environment and foreign culture of the islands of the Oceania.  This approach allows for the animation of the Asmat shields along with the other objects of the gallery.

While contemplating the art and its context and relation to the human scale, Pam walked past the windows of SAM Gallery which were displaying the work of Allyce Wood.  Allyce’s two dimensional layered environments were just what Pam was looking for.  Starting with sketches and images from Pam along with her own research Allyce reproduced the visual elements required to reunite the work with its artistic environment and cultural context. The installation elements allow the glass to disappear and for the objects to return to their original setting.  This is one of the most striking aspects about the gallery space.  It is amazing how the objects and the installation negotiate the museum space and environmental context.  Some objects are intricately paired with Allyce’s installations while the installations for other objects are subtle additions.  Each object and its installation are unique, as the installations reflect the origins of the art.  A painstakingly reproduced Asmat man stands next to one of the shields, providing human scale and emphasizing the object’s use for warfare.

Take the time to explore the gallery.  You will discover the interplay between the museum and the origins, the art and the installation.  Perhaps you’ll be drawn to the Marquesan man or the male figure from Rapa Nui.  The Marquesan man, a reproduced figure created by Allyce sits with a War Club or u’u.  The design for this installation derives from an engraving of a Marquesan warrior by Emile Lassalle in 1843.  The man stands out for his tattoos, tattoos that identify his power and prestige, and for the u’u that he holds.  Compare this u’u to those on display upstairs at Gauguin & Polynesia.  They are all very similar with craved heads and a deep, rich color, although the club in the Oceanic gallery lays across the lap of the plywood tattooed figure, mimicking the weapon’s handling by a warrior and merging the object as one of both function and of art.  This dynamic counter-play between installation and art demonstrates the seamless method of display created by Pam and Allyce.

More subtle installations occur on the walls opposite the entrance with the Rapa Nui male figures, Moai Kavakava, and Melanesia canoe figurehead, nguzu nguzu.  Wall paintings contextualize the pieces.  A painting of a massive stone statue behind the Maai Kavakava links the figures with their iconic counterparts that encircle the Chilean Island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island.  A similar method is used for the canoe figurehead, behind which extends a prow of a canoe.  Originally Pam and Allyce planed for a three-dimensional canoe model to extend from the wall, with the nguzu nguzu nestled in the right location.  The painted model demonstrates not only a subtle reminder of the work’s functional relevance but also an example of the installation’s developed.  Besides the difficulties of mounting and the conservation requirements, Pam and Allyce decided that a three-dimensional model would overshadow the art, taking the installation aspect too far.  Furthermore, the painted model allowed for new opportunities; Allyce researched Melanesian figureheads and this model includes a figurehead in a different style from piece on display.

When recalling the process Allyce notes the challenges of the work and the differences between her own creations and those for the installation.  For the installation pieces, Allyce researched the works and their environment to create the most accurate reproductions possible.  As she notes, “I did the research.  I embodied the research,” and it shows.  The painstaking reproductions of male warriors, both the sitting Marquesan and standing Asmat, demonstrate how her lively approach contributes to the Oceanic gallery.  Reproducing the environment, etchings of indigenous population, or other intricate works of art are only one aspect of the installation.  Another important aspect of the installation involved collaboration with the mount makers who were tasked with determining how to seamlessly merge the art with the installation in way that protected and conserved the works while allowing them to interact with their less museum-like environment.

 

Part Two, Mounting and Yam Masks at the Oceanic Gallery, continues the discussion on the Oceanic Installation.  In this part, which will follow in a few days, we will look behind the scenes at the mounts of the gallery and the collaboration between the mount makers and installation artist, Allyce Wood.

 

– Sarah Lippai, Public Relations Intern

SAM Art: Oceanic art, beyond the glass box

Museums tend to collect what fits in a glass box, and lose sight of such intangible effects. In particular, Oceanic artists rely on and revere natural materials, many of which may decay or dissolve but are no less valued. In a new installation, Allyce Wood, a Seattle artist, was commissioned to reunite selections from the museum’s Oceanic collection with visual elements of artistic environments that were abandoned.

Terror is triggered by the sight of moving shields in Asmat fields. Bursting out of a dense forest, the shields signal oncoming combatants as they dodge and lunge forward, leaping swiftly and making zigzag movements to fend off opponents. In a region of lush verdant growth, the shields presented as “billboards” to announce that warfare was to begin.

War Shields (Jamasji), early 20th century, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, Asmat people, wood, lime, clay and fiber, Gift of Tom and Vicki Griffin, 2004.237, and Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 94.113 (right), installed with backdrop by Allyce Wood. Now on view in the NEW Oceanic Art Gallery, third floor, SAM downtown.

SAM Art: Wide-eyed, and perplexing

The art on view in a new Oceanic art gallery (opening by the end of December) was once surrounded by the scent of aromatic flowers, the rustling of palm leaves, and the mesmerizing sound of shell trumpets. Museums tend to collect what fits in a glass box, and lose sight of such intangible effects. In particular, Oceanic artists rely on and revere natural materials, many of which may decay or dissolve but are no less valued.

Early observers of Rapa Nui culture and art recorded seeing small wooden figures being held up to the sky while others chanted and danced, particularly at feasts when the first fruits were offered. A male figure with a protruding stomach offers one version of Rapa Nui physiognomy. As with his skeletal companions, there isn’t a precise record of the significance of these remarkable images. This one may have been intended to portray a specific individual, with a small beard and ornaments in his elongated ear lobes. With their wide staring eyes and perplexing characteristics, the art of Rapa Nui continues to give observers more to wonder about than to confirm proven facts.

Male Figure (Moai Tangata), early 19th century, Polynesian, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), wood, bone, obsidian, 10 1/2 x 2 1/4 x 2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.131. On view starting at the end of December, Oceanic art gallery, third floor, SAM downtown.