Thursday, April 20, 2017

BestSeatIBW2016- Dogon Couple*

*This post was originally written as a Facebook post for Babywearing International of Cleveland for International Babywearing Week 2016. Some edits have been made for clarity.

Just kidding!  My files were out of order and I almost missed one of my favorite objects.  The image above is two sides of the same sculpture (1977.394.15), found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  This type of sculpture is often called a “primordial couple,” and was probably made for display at a funeral. Much funerary art across cultures features themes of rebirth and new life, emphasizing the cyclical nature of life.

Created by the Dogon people of Mali around the turn of the 19th century, it consist of simple forms- cylindrical arms, legs, and torsos that recall the shape of the wood from which it was carved, linear patterns for facial features and scarification- yet recalls an important aspect of Dogon attitudes toward marriage, that is it a partnership of independent equals. Note that they are similar in size and complementary in pose (check out her labret piercing to match his beard, her hands on her knees to match his over his lap, etc.). This is a technique meant to imply unity in purpose and equality of importance.

For our purposes, the quiver on the man’s back that would have contained arrows (signifying his role as provider and protector) is paired with a worn baby on the woman’s back (signifying her role as child bearer and nurturer)! Because some of the iron adornments are missing or compromised, I suspect the same fate befell the fabric that would have kept her baby close in a low torso carry. Fabric is one of the most fragile materials used in works of art, and it is difficult to preserve. Side note: if you’d like to check out a fabric for this kind of carry, our Twinsburg lending library has a kanga and several educators who can help you learn to use it safely!

Other details of the sculpture reinforce themes of family and ancestry: the enlarged navels are a reminder of where the couple themselves originated, and the small figures carved into the legs of their seat are likely images of ancestors, who literally and figuratively support the couple.

Monday, April 10, 2017

BestSeatIBW2016- Teishinkō*

*This post was originally written as a Facebook post for Babywearing International of Cleveland for International Babywearing Week 2016. Some edits have been made for clarity.

This is the last art object of this series on babywearing and art.  Don't worry, it's not my last post (I still have some more in store)!

Titled “Teishinkō” (from the Library of Congress, FP 2 - JPD, no. 2003) which translates to “the courtier Teishin,” this print by Utagawa Toyokuni III shows a woman carrying a child on her back. She was probably a member of the recently wealthy middle class, which rose to prominence during the Edo period. The Edo period was a period of peace, which meant that resources and wealth could be spent on luxuries like, theater, women, and art, all of which the middle class did lustily. This work falls under the category of “bijin-ga,” or images of beautiful people, a subset of the ukiyo-e prints that were popular during this period (this print was probably produced around 1843-1845). Ukiyo-e prints, “pictures of the floating world,” were often of the actors and popular entertainers of Edo Japan. They were light in theme and celebratory in nature, exemplifying “joie de vivre,” or joy of life. Woodblock prints, because many could be made from a single carved block (think a rubber stamp, but made from wood), were wildly popular and widely disseminated. They became especially popular with European collectors and painters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who admired the flatness and bright colors.

The carrier is hard to see in this print, but the black X-shaped lines across her front are similar to photographs of Japanese women wearing babies that appear in western publications in the nineteenth century.** They appear to be straps that would attach a to panel to secure a baby to her back, then cross under her arms and tie behind her. The arrangement of bodies here is stylized, or simplified, so what appears to be straps also seems to be quite loose! I have my suspicions that the artist was both unfamiliar with the intricacies of babywearing and also more interested in aesthetic effect (note, too, how the lines of flowers in her garment do not bend very convincingly with her pose, and the fabric itself is rendered as flat planes of color).

The portrait behind her, the partially unrolled scroll, plus the tablet with a poem on it in the background might give us some more context to this work, but (without reading Japanese) reflect the literary history of Japan, and recall playbills and posters for popular theatrical events, like Kabuki, as if this mother and child were just off to a show!

**I can't be sure of the provenance of this image, but the credit on the website is to M. Nakajima of Tokyo

Saturday, April 1, 2017

BestSeatIBW2016- Shipibo-Conibo baby carrier*

*This post was originally written as a Facebook post for Babywearing International of Cleveland for International Babywearing Week 2016.   Some edits have been made for clarity.

Here’s another artistic carrier from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (1999.47.306). This is a carrier from the Shipibo-Conibo people from Peru, and was made sometime in the 20th century. Here’s a portion from an article about Shipibo-Conibo textiles that describes some of the meaning behind the design:

 “Textile and ceramic arts of the Shipibo feature a distinctive all-over pattern of designs known as kené or quene designs. Shipibo people frequently say that these are like the paths of life, or roads, or the meanders of the rivers where they live, sometimes they say they are the patterns and movement of the anaconda or of Ronin the cosmic serpent, and sometimes they say that these patterns are only a fraction of what their ancestors used to know…”

The meanings behind the patterns are often overseen by a shaman, whose “expanded consciousness and sense of cosmic vision is the key to understanding the distinctive Shipibo designs. It is the responsibility of the shaman to rescue the designs of the heavenly world and transmit them to the women. The production of these designs on all the objects of material culture gives power and protection to the home, to individuals, and to the whole group. Through kené designs, the culture of the Shipibo is at once defined, decorated, and owned by both individuals and the group.” (Odland, Claire and Feldman,Nancy, "Shipibo Textile Practices 1952-2010" (2010)). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 42.)

Fun fact: horizontal stripes and patterns are features of women’s garments, while men’s clothing features vertical designs!

As for this carrier, it seems to looks quite a lot like a pouch, in that it appears to be stitched into a tube, with the bone portions dangling off what must be the bottom. I suspect, given the narrow width of the fabric, that it was not hands-free to use, but must have mitigated the strain of carrying a baby or child, and certainly served to reinforce community bonds, within the family and beyond.