Featured String: When Cultures Collide
In Display It Like You Stole It, I talked about one kind of cultural interaction–acquisition, usually without permission. Misappropriation of another culture in the form of pilfering its sacred artefacts or purchasing them from others who’ve done a bit of grave-robbing or looting is a well-known story in the modern age, but there are other ways for cultures to interact–and like all forms of interaction, they leave their marks in material culture.
That’s “stuff” to you and me.
Some of those interactions are commercial. That means places interacted through trade, maybe manufacturing things for a specific overseas market that invoked something about the people they were selling to, as well as reflecting the traditional materials and methods of the place doing the manufacturing.
Some of these interactions are appreciative: this can be either “appropriation”–when one culture imitates another without taking into account the meaning or context of what they are imitating, the result can be very insulting to the original culture without meaning to be–or it can be “appreciation”, when makers and artists of one culture are inspired by another and produce work which fuses the culture of the maker with the culture of the inspirer.
Some of these interactions may be parodic: one culture finds something odd or strange about another, and depicts it in a mocking fashion, which may be humorous to one culture… and very insulting, or at least confusing, to the other.
This painting represents the category of appreciation. Although this style of garment had been a traditional garment of wealth in Japan for a long time, during the Meiji period of Westernisation they began to be exported to the West–as the local population themselves began to adopt Westernised clothing. This exchange of clothes and styles led to a fashion fascination with the the kimono in European countries, and an overall appreciation of and curiosity about Japanese art and culture–something which had seemed so mysterious for so long before this!
By the time Derain painted Madame Matisse’s portrait the practice of wearing kimono in the West was sufficiently embedded that this wasn’t as outré as it might have been in the 1870s, although it was still fairly interesting to an audience.
Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, this plate shows the crest of the Flemish city of Mechelen. As it’s highly unlikely that anyone in 18th Century China would be particularly overcome with the desire to celebrate the town this way without being commissioned to it, it’s safe to assume this ware was intended originally for export, and falls into the category of commercial. Chinese porcelain was first exported to Europe in quantity by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century, and Europe was taken by storm; by the 17th century it was appearing in Dutch art as traders showed off their connections and wealth and by the mid 18th Century a combination of experiments at Meissen in Saxony, revelations by the Jesuit d’Entrecolles on his observations in China, and advances made in Rouen saw Europe finally able to produce its own.
Perhaps the developments, taking place in the 1702-1712 period, left the commissioner of this piece uninterested in having it exported after all, leading to it remaining in China. Part of a series, it was eventually duplicated nearer to home: imitations of these Chinese plates were made at Delft in the Netherlands about 1720 in polychrome earthenware.
George Tamihana Nuku is a New Zealand artist and carver of the iwi (tribes) Ngāti Kahungunu and Tūwharetoa, and this piece was made specifically for the British Museum. The inclusion of the famous lion statues at the rear of the museum sites this piece of Maori art very firmly in London, the seat of a culture whose interactions with the Maori have historically often been hostile or oppressive (although it might be tentatively possible to say this is less the case than it was). Although the piece in general might be seen as a parodic recreation of London landmarks which constitutes a very light parody, the inclusion of the Maori birdman kite (manu aute) can be read as a commentary on the presence of sacred items in the British Museum’s stores, which lends the work a more critical tone.
According to the catalogue, “this particular kite was sold to a British captain, and it might have been commissioned rather than for intended use in spiritual connections,” although it has been noted by Alice Procter in relation to other Oceanic/Pacific art that sales made under times of colonial duress cannot be read solely as commercial transactions between free agents.
Commentaries on European relations with countries they’re invading by the inhabitants of those places aren’t limited to contemporary artists, either. This Haida shale carving, and this Ming/Qing Dynasty porcelain figure record very different interactions with Europeans: one violent and upsetting, the other humorous and unconcerned. The monkey with this trader may even be a commentary on the positive traits of the visitor, associated with cleverness–although not wisdom.
Finally we come to genuine fusion. Large empires and mass migrations are a solid source of cultural fusion art, both in the past and in the present. The Ilkhanid dynasty was a Mongol-Islamic empire that took in areas of the Middle East all the way through to parts of China; and introduced elements of design into various cultures which still remain there to this day–from the sinuous, bearded, short-legged dragons of China to this tile, which takes inspiration and some technique from its empire-mates to the East, but makes use of the Arabic script more closely associated with its near neighbours (the tile was made in what would be modern-day Iran).
Fusion can also result in entirely new art styles or techniques, although it does seem more common for artists to be inspired by other cultures than their own without really experiencing much of a total immersion and abandonment of previous positions of privilege, like the Fauvists.
Although cultural interactions can be deeply damaging for one or both of the cultures involved, they can also produce magnificent works of art and new ideas, technologies, and even languages–after all, “English” was born of the fusion of Germanic languages spoken by the Saxons with the Norman French of the invading class. There’s a lot to be said for the way cultures come together, form into new cultures, and split apart into different ones, taking whole new art forms and ideas with them. Insatiably curious and inherently migratory, there’s very little chance of humanity stopping this process any time soon!
And imagine how boring it would be if we did all just remain in one place, and never exchange ideas again…