Author Archives: Baltimore Museum of Art

Monkeying Around with a Meiping Vase

Jingdezhen kilns. Meiping with Lotus Decoration. c. 1500. Origin: Jiangxi province, China. Gift of William C. Whitridge, Stevenson, Maryland. BMA 1979.126

Jingdezhen kilns. Meiping with Lotus Decoration. c. 1500. Origin: Jiangxi province, China. Gift of William C. Whitridge, Stevenson, Maryland. BMA 1979.126

Melanie Lester, Goh’s Kung Fu

This Sunday, students and instructors from Goh’s Kung Fu will perform a lion dance and martial arts demonstration on the BMA’s iconic stairs for the Museum’s Asian Art Celebration. We have partnered with a team of visual artists from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to produce props and costumes for the show. (Full disclosure – I teach at both schools.)

Choosing the right artwork for the performance
When we first started planning the performance we knew that we wanted to include visual elements pulled from pieces in the collection.

Because fragile artworks and martial arts don’t always go together we decided to recreate this Meiping vase out of foam. The foam replica vase is a catalyst for the narrative of our show. It entices the monkey character, gets stolen, and angers our sleepy lions into action. The show culminates when the vase is returned finally and the lions have a joyous celebratory dance.

This is not something you’d want to do with a 500 year old porcelain vase.

This is not something you’d want to do with a 500 year old porcelain vase.

The Meiping vase stood out to us for a few reasons: jugs and vases have historically been used in certain styles of Chinese kung fu (like drunken styles), the large motif would be easily visible to the audience, and the lotus symbol on the vase sometimes represents qualities martial artists strive to gain from their practice, such as longevity, humility, honor and tranquility.

Making the Vase
The first steps were to come up with a pattern and decide on materials. Kevin Law used open source software to create a 3D model of the vase.

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Goh’s Kung Fu recently built a new space for our martial arts studio and had leftover foam from the floor that we were able to recycle for this project. It is the perfect material because it is lightweight and durable.

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Foam proved to be the perfect base.

After we cut and shaped the vase in foam we painted a base coat.

After we cut and shaped the vase in foam we painted a base coat.

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While we were working we kept an image of the actual Meiping vase and tried to stay true to its shape.

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We sanded and painted several times to seal the surface of the foam.

Jhenny Adams meticulously copied the motif.

Jhenny Adams meticulously copied the motif.

Jhenny blocked in colors and shapes first and then went back to add detail.

Jhenny blocked in colors and shapes first and then went back to add detail.

With paints leftover from other projects and purchased with a generous grant from the Office of Community Engagement at the Maryland Institute College of Art we made the piece of foam look as close to the Meiping vase as possible.

This is our monkey character played by Nicholas Wright-Sieloff doing an aerial while holding the vase during rehearsal.

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I hope to see you at the show!

Thanks to the BMA for letting us share some of our process during the build for this performance. Thank you to Goh’s Kung Fu for having amazing martial artists to work with. And thank you to the MICA Office of Community Engagement for funding the supplies used to create our visual elements.

The BMA’s Asian Art Celebration will be held from 11am – 5pm on Sunday, June 28th, 2015. All are welcome to attend this fun-filled day of music, dance performances, and activities inspired by the newly renovated galleries for the Asian art collection.

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Melanie Lester began teaching costume and other garment related topics at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006.  She started practicing kung fu at Goh’s Kung Fu in 2005.  Though seemingly very different fields, both garment construction and martial arts require similar repetition and practice to achieve even the slightest improvement.  “Focus, repetition and practice” is the mantra behind all of Melanie Lester’s teaching philosophy.

Grappling with Challenging Topics in Art Museums: Sande Society masks at the BMA

Installation view. (L-R) Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask (Ndoli Jowei). 1930-1940, Sherbro Region, Sierra Leone, 1984.251 Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask (Ndoli Jowei). Early 20th century, Mende Region, Sierra Leone 1987.149 Artist Unidentified. Sande Society Helmet Mask. Early 20th century, Sherbro Region, Bonce Island, Sierra Leone 1989.389 Nguabu Master, Sierra Leonian, birth and death unknown . Sande Society Helmet Mask. 1920’s-1940’s. Mende Region, Sierra Leone, 1984.50 Nguabu Master, Sierra Leonian, birth and death unknown. Sande Society Helmet Mask. 1920’s-1940’s. Mende Region, Sierra Leone, 1991.127.

Sande Society helmet masks on view in the BMA’s newly reopened African Art galleries.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial on an important and controversial issue—female circumcision (sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation)—and its relationship to a group of Sande Society helmet masks on view in the BMA’s new African art galleries. The masks are worn by senior Sande Society women in Liberia and Sierra Leone during initiation ceremonies for young girls that mark their transition into adulthood.

Like most museum objects, the helmet masks tell multiple and complex stories. For example, their refined carving and harmonious design demonstrate the incredible variety, innovation, and artistic excellence of their makers. Displayed together––as they are in the BMA––the masks counter the prevalent notion of African art as static and uniform.

A second story highlights concepts of idealized female beauty within the Sande Society and the individuality of the masks’ patrons. The broad forehead represents character and wisdom while the sensuously ringed neck signifies fertility and good health. Narrow eyes show focus and introspection and suggest demure behavior, while sealed lips indicate an ability to keep secrets. The smooth, glossy black surface not only evokes good health and grooming but also refers to the dark forest streams in which spirits reside. The elaborate coiffure serves as a personal statement of style and a reflection of social prestige. While all Sande Society masks carry these standard features, each is highly individualized according to its patron’s taste. One mask wears glasses and earrings while others are adorned with birds, cooking pots, cowrie shells and other symbolic motifs that refer to Sande traditions, proverbs, or teachings. In Africa where masks are typically a male tradition, the helmet masks speak to the power and artistic influence of women in the Sande Society.

Yet another narrative addresses the social and cultural context of the masks. Masks like these are performed at masquerades during significant civic events in society including funerals, honoring important visitors, and the initiation of young women into adulthood. A centuries-old tradition, during the initiation process senior members instruct young initiates in their roles as women: proper sexual behavior, childbearing, and child rearing. Some initiations also include the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, an operation that is seen by some as a sacred rite of passage and by many others as a human rights violation. Some societies have stopped this practice of their own accord or because the country has made it illegal, in some cases to help stem the spread of the ebola virus.

Female circumcision has been a topic of international discussion. Just this week, Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson signed a bill that criminalizes female genital mutilation or cutting. According to the World Health Organization, more than 125 million girls have experienced female circumcision, to varying degrees, in the 29 countries where this procedure is concentrated. The practice is also on the rise in the U.S., where according to Newsweek, more than half a million woman are at risk of undergoing the procedure or have already experienced it.

How do we as viewers hold these stories—stories of beauty and creativity, culture and tradition, individuality and self-efficacy, pain and suffering—simultaneously? And what is the museum’s role in negotiating and presenting multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings? How do we tell balanced stories that address both the artistic context and potential contentious human experiences that these objects touch? How do we share controversial information without feeding into negative stereotypes or narrow frameworks often associated with African cultures? These are some of the questions BMA staff are grappling with as we strive to be a responsible, reflexive, and relevant museum.

Works of art embody multiple, complex, and sometimes difficult narratives that span the spectrum of human experience. They speak of beauty and joy, pain and sorrow, love and loss—often at the same time. As stewards of cultural heritage, museums are uniquely positioned to provide a space for inquiry, reflection, and dialogue on important historical and contemporary issues.

Much thought, research, and consultation with experts went into the presentation and interpretation of the Sande Society helmet masks. Our discussions have included how to provide information about the masks that highlights their artistic value and how to provide broader insights about the culture from which they came that extends beyond this one practice. We have also discussed the best format to use in presenting the information. Museums have a variety of tools at their disposal, from printed wall texts, workshops, and lectures to newer technologies and social media.

With every exhibition our goal is to provide accurate, complete, and accessible information on works of art and the ideas that surround them, and at the same time honor the interpretations and narratives that our visitors bring to their experiences with objects. We are taking a closer look at how we present information about the Sande Society masks and other challenging issues in art throughout the museum in order to create the best possible experience for all our visitors. As we work toward finding new and better ways of communicating difficult information, we welcome your response to the questions below.

  • What role should art museums play in presenting difficult historical and contemporary issues?
  • How can we address the different stories that objects can tell us?

We appreciate your interest in the BMA and hope to see you in the galleries.

 

Jay Fisher, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs
Anne Manning, Deputy Director for Education and Interpretation