Saturday, April 18, 2015

Binding Culture Exhibition

It has been an exciting week since the Museum opened our Spring 2015 exhibition, “Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines.” Our opening celebration featured a curatorial talk by anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider and an address by Rey Pascua about the Filippino-American community of the Yakima Valley; we also heard from a student representative of the Filippino American Student Association (FAS).

I have been fascinated watching our visitors of varied ages engage with the exhibition. It is a show that rewards close looking and we are gratified that many have been going through the gallery carefully, taking the time to ponder the beautiful baskets and textiles and digest the thought-provoking signage that Ellen authored in conversation with Lynn
The exhibition is organized around the heuristic value of the metaphor of “binding” for making sense of many aspects of the material culture of the diverse indigenous communities of the Cordillera. Basket makers and weavers engage in a range of sophisticated techniques for achieving joins that integrate technical proficiency and aesthetic value; in contrast to a western design philosophy that relegates joins or seams to “off stage” or behind the scenes locales, these artisans tend to call proud attention to their seams or points of inter-connection, through embroidering the seam that links together two thin strips of woven cloth or through rattan binds around the most vulnerable point on a spiraling lip of a rice winnowing tray. As one of Ellen’s label puts it, “Celebrate Seams!

In a broader sense, the binding metaphor applies to the function of material objects in binding together families and diverse communities, a point anthropologists have been pondering since the time of Marcel Mauss; to receive a gift is to be pulled into a relationship of obligation with the donor, and the exchanged object becomes a complex ‘map’ of the social relationship between donor and recipient.  To wear a ceremonial garment produced by one's in laws is to become increasingly bound to them.

Ga'dang garments
Ga'dang garments; other textiles in background
rice winnowing and storage baskets
Many of the articles of clothing and the intimate personal objects on display are exchanged during the marriage process, gradually binding together in laws over time to create broader family networks that cut across lines of rivalry and suspicion.   The binding function of material form is intensified when the exchange object contains food, which is perhaps to most delicate barometer of human social connectedness.

Although the exhibition only touches on the point obliquely, one of the most intriguing objects of binding in the Cordillera is the captured human head, obtained classically in head hunting raids. Nearly all our students are familiar with Renato Rosaldo’s remarkable essay, Grief and the Headhunters’ Rage, which in the spirit of Mauss demonstrates the gradual replacement of the raging agony of loss with more socially productive sentiments, mediated through the changing trajectory of a material object, the taken human head. Over time the mandible of a human head, taken in warfare, is incorporated into a local shrine, that becomes the benevolent guardian of a village boundary. (There are not human remains in the show, although there is one weapon, from an early museum collection, identified in our collections note as a "head hunting axe."

ceremonial tapis (raps) and wooden presentation bowls

Although tattooing is initially an act of cutting, the complex tattoo designs of Kalinga, Ifuago, Bontoc and other mountain communities displayed in the show similarly serve vital binding functions. A fully mature women and man wears tattoos that integrate diverse moments in the life cycle, from warfare to motherhood, into a coherent pattern that also signal geographical  location and sites of affiliation.  Tattooing also signals connectedness to ancestral lines of potency and power and links to the invisible powers of the universe. The net effect is a kind of spatiotemporal binding that is foundational to the tradition-based life giving economies of the Cordillera. We are please to have permission to use some of the remarkable photographs of "tattoo anthropologists" Lars Krutak, especially his images of venerable woman tattoo artist Whang-Od.

Our intern Barbara is in the process of  creating an online version of the exhibition, so please stay tuned as the virtual show develops, at:

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