This exhibition was created by students enrolled in Art History 1302 at the University of Houston-Downtown during the fall 2017 semester.
The top of this West African linguist staff—made from wood covered in gold leaf—depicts a human inside the mouth of a whale. The staff references a story about an ancient Akan chief who emerged from the belly of a whale to claim land.
In many Western African cultures, including the Akan, linguists act as advisers and message-bearers to the king. Linguists carry staffs to represent wisdom, power, and their kingdom's divine right—over rival kingdoms—to rule a particular region.
Here, the man emerging from the whale may be interpreted as a warning not to defy this king or his kingdom.
Just behind the waves in the middle ground, a different whaling crew cuts off long strips of the whale’s blubber. Whale oil, bone, blubber, and ambergris—a waxy substance found in the intestines of sperm whales and used in perfume—were highly prized resources. The collecting of these items drove the whaling industry and led to the decline of whale populations at the time.
In the background to the right, another whale floats next to a small boat. The flag to mark the carcass, and the circling birds, indicate that this whale has been killed and is ready for blubber collection.
For the Inca people, feather panels held more value than gold or silver. Inca rulers presented Spanish conquistadors with gifts of feather textiles as a show of utmost respect.
These lavish textiles were made with macaw and Amazonian parrot feathers, prized for their amazing shine and vibrant colors. Highly skilled Inca weavers knotted and tied the feathers onto a cotton backing.
This panel depicts a herder with blue and black llamas. Llamas were such important animals to the Inca that the animals were sacrificed to the gods.
Above the horse and figure, a flame bursts forth from a conspicuously placed vase. According to one scholar, the flame may be a symbol of “illuminating reason” throwing light on the struggle between wild sensuality (the horse) and reason (the mythological figure).
Albrecht Dürer, a German artist, went to Italy from 1494 to 1495 to study Italian innovations in drawing, including the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Dürer’s engravings evoke Leonardo’s style with their precise proportions.
The enormous size of the elephant atop this sword handle of the Akan people indicates that the animal is likely a representation of strength and power.
The duiker—the animal standing on the elephant—is a type of antelope found in Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to the elephant, the duiker is small and often symbolizes wisdom in Akan culture.
The small duiker physically dominating the enormous elephant relates to two proverbs: “Though the elephant is huge, the duiker is the elder” and “The elephant is big for nothing, it is the duiker that rules the forest.” The Akan believed that intelligence—not strength—wins a battle.
The handles of Akan ceremonial swords are often elaborately carved into figurative sculptures referencing Akan proverbs, and are covered with gold leaf. Gold in the Akan cultures represents not only wealth, but also the well-being of the kingdom.
Different types of swords have specific ceremonial and political purposes. The number of swords in a ceremony, and how elaborate the swords are, represent the power and authority of the king. Central to Akan rituals, the most important sword is the one used in the ascension ceremony—called an enstoolment—for a chief, who holds the sword while taking his oath of office.
In the Bible, birds are often used as metaphors for spiritual lessons and important creatures of sacrifice, and as symbols of the Holy Spirit. In this 17th-century etching by Simon Vouet, the sparrow perched on Joseph’s finger acts as a symbolic connection between man and the outstretched hand of the Christ Child.
All eyes are on the small bird at the center of the print, and the natural, commonplace gestures portray the biblical figures as a simple, content family. The Italian inscription below the Holy Family translates to “He sits in the arms of his mother, the son of God. Woman, the angel came to him with piety.”
Vouet became an important participant in an artistic movement inspired by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. The "Caravaggisti" movement emerged in the early 17th century and often depicted religious scenes in the context of everyday life, as seen here.
This woodcut is one in a group of prints by Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton that depict swans, bathing women, or both together. In 19th-century Europe, swans were often interpreted as a substitute for the nude female body.
Vallotton’s choice of subject and style was also influenced by Japanese prints, which were popular in Europe at the time. Japanese prints frequently featured scenes of birds in nature that emphasized the movement of line and the simplicity of the background.
The hen nesting four eggs at the top of this Akan staff may be a reference to an Akan proverb. “The hen says: ‘I know what is in my own head, but not what is in my eggs.’”
This proverb alludes to the inability of parents to know what their children are thinking, and to the responsibility of caring for those who rely on them. The proverb is also a metaphor for the duties of a king.
Proverbs referenced by linguist staffs often allude to the responsibilities of a king to his subjects. The gold leaf, hammered into thin sheets to embellish the carved wood staff, demonstrates the value of linguists as trusted counselors to their kings and to their people.
Gold staffs are carried by linguists of the Akan people of West Africa. Until the late 18th century, the Akan languages did not have formal writing systems, and as a result the culture possesses a rich oral tradition of proverbs, metaphor, and riddles. The finials atop linguist staffs often illustrate proverbs that are a part of the linguist’s immense knowledge of Akan history and culture.
This gallery photo shows some of the many linguist staffs in the Glassell Collection of African Gold at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Rendered in great detail, "Feeding the Sacred Ibis" depicts a young caretaker feeding Egyptian ibis. Ancient Egyptians worshipped Thoth—the god of wisdom, knowledge, and writing—in part by cultivating land for the ibis. Thoth was portrayed in Egyptian art as a man with the head of a bird, and the ibis was believed to be a reincarnation of Thoth himself. The birds were cared for in temples dedicated to Thoth as well as in the wild.
Ancient Egypt has captivated European artists for centuries, with particular interest resulting from events such as the discovery of the famed Rosetta Stone in 1799, its eventual deciphering later in the 19th century, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
This jar, or “olla,” is of Hopi origin. The abstract birds on both sides of the olla may be mockingbirds, given their narrow beaks and the red coloring of their necks. In a Hopi creation myth, the mockingbird was a divine creature that gave humans the gift of speaking, thus making the mockingbird a symbol of intelligence.
The shape of this jar was formed by the traditional coil-and-scrape technique. The vessel was then fired in an open pit.
The firing process turns the pale clay of the Southwest desert into the warm yellow color seen here. The multicolored bird design was likely painted with traditional materials such as yucca leaf brushes and other natural materials native to Southwestern North America.
This exhibition was created by students in Art History 1302 at the University of Houston-Downtown during the fall 2017 semester.
The students were mentored by their instructor, Rebecka Black, and by MFAH staff members including Chelsea Dacus, assistant curator of antiquities and of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; Chelsea Shannon, gallery interpretation specialist; and Dena Woodall, associate curator of prints and drawings. Special thanks go to Kelley Magill, university programs specialist at the MFA; and Mark Cervenka, associate professor of art and director of the O'Kane Gallery at the University of Houston-Downtown.
STUDENTS | ART HISTORY 1302
Genesis Alvarado, Ethel Anderson-Bilyeu, Juan Barrera, Victoria Cabrera, Kevin Chavez, Nataly Escamilla, Helen Fraps, Ashley Gayossa, Zitlaly Granda, Aaron Gutierrez, Jose Guzman, Allison Hamm, Irie Harrison, Joseph Jimoh, Alexis Martinez, Marisol Mireles, Jonathan Olivos, Edylizette Orozco, Francisco Parra, Maia Revells, Genneviee Sanchez, Pierce Strader, Jaime Trujillo, Christopher Udeh, Dania Uriostegui, Diego Vieyra
Abou-Jaoude, Amir. (2016). A Pure Invention: Japan, Impressionism, and the West, 1853-1906. History Teacher, 50(1), 57-82.
Appiah, Peggy and Kwame Anthony Appiah. (2000). Some Akan Proverbs. New England Review, 21(1), 119-127.
Art and Picture Collection. (2017). New York Public Library, (18) Feeding the Sacred Ibis.
Art Gallery NSW. (2017). The Small Horse. Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Bailleul-Le Seur, R. (2012). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Brejon de Lavergnée, Barbara. (2017). Vouet, Simon. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Buono, Amy. (2017). Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Pre-Columbian Era/Radiance from the Rain Forest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru.” CAA Reviews, 04 Aug.2017, pp. 1-3.
Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Custo, Ed., Young Weavers Groups. “The Inca: Masters of the Textile Art.”
Cygnes Et Lotus Pendent. (2017). Musée Lalique.
Daughty, Robin W. (1995). The Mockingbird, University of Texas.
Downes, Kerry. (2017). Baroque. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Edward John Poynter. (2017). Sotheby's.
Encountering the Floating World: Ukiyo-e and the West. (2017). Johnson Museum of Art.
Givans, Macom. (2017). Ferdinand Joubert (Biographical Details), British Museum.
Hopi Creation. (2014). Hopi Creation - Oxford Reference.
Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World. (1996). National Geographic Society.
Ives, Colta. (2017). Japonisme. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kleiner, Fred S. (2016). Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History, Volume II: 2. Cengage Textbook. Kindle Edition.
MacCormack, Sabine. (2006). Gods, Demons, and Idols in the Andes. Journal of the History of Ideas, 67(4), 623-647.
Magee, Carol. (2010). Social Fabrics: Gold Mining, Diaspora, and Word and Image in the Paintings of Papa Essel. African Arts, 43(4), 8-19.
Oyler, Nicole. (2017). Vallotton: The Woodcuts of Modern Life. Hammer Museum.
Panofsky, Erwin. (1955). The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton University Press.
Peruvian Featherwork. (2013) Selvedge. 53, pp. 28-30.
RISD Museum. (2009). The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480-1650. RISD Museum of Art & Design, Rhode Island School of Design.
Ross, Doran H. (2017). Asante and Related Peoples. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Ross, Doran H. (1982). The Verbal Art of Akan Linguist Staffs. African Arts, 16(1), 56–96.
Sawinski, Catherine. (2016). From the Collection—Albrecht Dürer, Part 2, Milwaukee Art Museum Blog.
Simons, Carol. (1991). An Intimate Look at Japanese Style, Simple and Ornate. Smithsonian, 21(10), 74.
Smith, William. (1875). A Concise Dictionary of The Bible: Its Antiquities, Biography, Geography, and Natural History. Condensed from the Larger Work.
Stone, A.J. and King, Heidi. (2013). Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Pre-Columbian Era. Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. No. 9, p. 1612.
Strieder, Peter. (2017). Dürer, Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Tensions and Intrigue in Felix Vallotton. Fire Beneath the Ice. (2017). Van Gogh Museum.
The Large Horse, Dürer, Albrecht. (2017). Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Virgin and Child with a Monkey. (2017). Cleveland Museum of Art.
Wall text for Akan Ceremonial Sword, African art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Wall text for Akan Linguist Staff, African art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Wall text for Coclé Pedestal, Pre-Columbian art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Wall text for Hopi Olla, Native American art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.