The Body Adorned. Textiles, ethnography and London style

A display of an array of decorative and functional objects from different parts of the world which adorn the body.

The Horniman Museum in South London is named after Victorian tea trader and philanthropist Frederick Horniman who developed a collection of objects and artefacts from all over the world from 1860, with an aim to ‘educate and enrich the lives of the local community’. His collections are from visits to far flung countries such as Egypt, China, Burma and the United States of America, as well as from exhibitions and fairs around Britain. As Horniman’s collection grew, his family relocated and his former house became a museum. As the collection continued to grow, Horniman commissioned the building of the current site for the museum  (Horniman website and the museum’s Centenary gallery).

The site combines a large museum building that contains various different galleries and an aquarium, with gardens set on a hill providing a clear view over London.

The current exhibition The Body Adorned is part of the Stories of the World series for the Cultural Olympiad. There was a close link with the Cotton exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery as part of Global Threads across North West museums, and the At Home with the World at the Geffrye Museum, both of which I have reviewed in previous posts. Like At Home with the World, Body Adorned showed how the influence of objects, artefacts and design all over the world has been amalgamated into London culture and life and cast a strong, long lasting influence. This exhibition combined contemporary London body adornments interspersed with those of different cultures all over the world.

The contemporary included a collection of mostly young people’s views of body adornment and personal accounts of what they choose to wear and why. A film showing different people in London and their varying appearances and outfits, along with commentaries on these outfits, showed us what impressions a person’s choice of dress can caste on others, as well as being important in asserting ones’ status, beliefs, identity or religion.

Kente cloth from West Africa and Masai earrings from Kenya

From the exhibition flyer, I was expecting the exhibition to be much more about body marking as it depicts a close-up of a tattooed chest. The influence of traditional Maori tattooing is briefly discussed, however there is nothing about tattoos from other parts of the world. A rich cultural activity and form of expressing identity, I expected tattoos to form a much larger part of the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition made the most out of the museum’s vast collection of ethnographic objects.

It was quite strange to see a skull deformation tool from Borneo while hearing Londoners complain about the strange style of some of their fellow city dwellers on the films played throughout the exhibition.

Skull deformation tool from Borneo. Wood, textile, coconut shell

Items like this would not be seen in many other places and tell of a people’s unique culture and way of life. In the colonial setting in which these objects were collected, the people who used or owned them, often living by simple means or ‘primitively’, were considered strange by their colonial intruders. The exhibition briefly and simply describes the changes anthropology saw in post-colonial times when there was a rejection of representing cultures once under imperial rule, as the ‘other’ and that that these cultures lived static, unchanging lives. Anthropology continues to argue the position of the researcher when researching within cultures over the world. Enabling the research to be reciprocal and beneficial to both parties has become more and more important in anthropology.

Without reading additional information, you can often tell by some of the items of clothing or object, the climate the wearer must live in, their type of work and their status.

Riding boots, Nigeria

Chief’s costume, Kurdish, Iraq, 1919

The layers of sumptuous and opulent fabrics worn by this chief immediately suggest a high status.

Africa Robe, Nigeria, early to mid 20th Century

This priest’s robe is called the Agbada by the Yoruba and Riga people in the Hausa languages. It is made from finely hand woven cloth, dyed indigo and and embellished with elaborate hand embroidery showing the traditional eight knives design. The work that has gone into making this, its striking appearance and grandeur immediately brings the viewer to presume it must be worn by a person of high status or one held in respect.

Javanese batik sarong behind jewellery from Asia, Africa and the Pacific

New Zealand Flax plant growing in the Horniman garden

The museum’s gardens have sections devoted to different types of plant, interestingly plants grown for educational purposes that have links to the objects displayed in the museum. One is a dye garden, and there are signposts to which objects in the museum have been dyed using each dyes in the garden. There is also a section for material plants. A few plants for fibre grown include New Zealand flax which is used to make a Maori cloak on display in the Body Adorned exhibition.

Maori cloak made from New Zealand flax fibre

..and mulberry, vital for the silk moth who lives off the tree’s plant oils by eating the leaves. The museum includes a large selection of musical instruments, of which ancient Chinese instruments use silk strings such as the zither.

The rest of the museum contains the Centenary gallery which contains ethnographic artefacts from around the world; African Worlds; The Art of Harmony showing a selection of the museum’s large collection of musical instruments; and Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids – an exhibition of photographs of traditional ceremonies being celebrated in England, and the bizarre costumes and processions.

Finally, I had to add a picture of these Romanian Easter eggs as I was fascinated by their painted patterns.

Romanian painted Easter eggs

The accompanying information tells us that according to one story, when the Virgin Mary came to see her son on the cross during crucifixion, she was carrying a basket of eggs which she lay at the foot of the cross  while she prayed. The Christ’s holy blood dripped onto the eggs turning them red. The Lord then said ‘from now on you will dye eggs red to remember my crucifixion’.

Many Romanians believe decorated eggs bring good luck. Egg shells are blessed and scattered in the garden to ensure fertility and a good harvest. Each pattern was seen to combat a different kind of evil, and the different colours came to symbolise different aspects of Christ’s crucifixion.

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