Coincidence or Cooperation? Amazon Feathers & Modern Jewels

Here at HMNS, we frequently offer exhibitions that showcase stunning and diverse artistry from cultures around the globe and throughout time. In working here, I’m privileged to be able to walk through each as much as I can while they are here, and absorb the colors, forms, and inspiration of thousands of years of human culture. I love design – modern, ancient, however humans have creatively assembled things. We’re a science museum – but there is just so much art in science. I’m constantly fascinated by it.

Amethyst Necklace,
designed by Ernesto Moreira;
on display in the Gem Vault.

Which was why I am delighted to share something I noticed recently – a commonality between the very modern design showcased in one of our permanent exhibitions and the design of several of the absolutely stunning works of feather art in our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition – which, while created in relatively modern times (within the last 100 years or so) reflect a design tradition that goes back centuries – if not thousands of years.

Many of the pieces on display in the Smith Gem Vault were created by a local designer, Ernesto Moreira, specifically to showcase some of the worlds most striking and rare gemstones. Made circa 2005-2006, they were inspired by architectural elements – as Ernesto put it, “the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities,” which he has spent many years observing, sketching and photographing.

In contrast, the unique feather art of the Ka’apor tribe is some of the most beautiful and delicate ornamentation produced in the Amazon. Produced for ceremonial use – and then discarded – these objects are created in two sets: one specifically for men, the other for women. The tukaniwar shown below is a “spectacular neck ornament,” made for women from “mythologically harmless bird feathers…the blue color connects the wearer to the sky where all the culture heroes dwell.”  (Check out the exhibit catalog for more info.)

As you can see from the image, there are blue feathers woven into the ornament that would have hung in the front – as well as the smaller ornament that would have hung in back, once the necklace was tied.

tukaniwar, on display in
Spirits & Headhunters

It would seem that these two objects – created by artists from very different cultural traditions – would have nothing in common. However, the hanging feathered ornament is extremely similar to the small jeweled ornaments that Ernesto designed into the clasp of his pieces in the Gem Vault (if you haven’t been in the Vault yet – trust me, you’re going to want to check it out in person).

I wondered if there could possibly be a connection – and when associate curator for Amazonia Adam Mekler was here to install the Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, I asked him. Sure enough – it turns out that Moreira had worked with Mekler many years ago when parts of this collection were first on display.

Pretty amazing coincidence, to be sure – but I had to find out if there was any merit to the theory that one had influenced the other. (This *is* a science museum, after all.) Here’s what Ernesto had to say:

” I can tell you right away Adam’s pieces did not have an immediate direct impact on my work. That said, I have noticed a pattern in the way my brain works in regards to creativity. When I was a teenager, I looked at Japanese prints and architecture… then in my early twenties I made a collection of one of a kind pieces called little people. One time during a solo Gallery show the entire collection sold out. The gallery owner told me it was sold to mainly Asian customers. Sometime later…I realized how Japanese my pieces actually were… in their geometry and their compositional balance. Most recently during the making of the museum Gem Vault pieces I began to adorn the settings with filigree… but not just the normal filigree… a more architectural version. This time it did not take me long to figure out that, once again, I was translating many of the images in my head into my jewelry designs since I had spent many years sketching and photographing much of the ornamental ironwork on windows, doors, and street lights, so prevalent in European cities (something I still do). So it seems I work best absorbing and letting be, then somehow, sometime the subject matter reappears in my work. I worked with Adam Mekler and his incredible Amazonian collection during many years and for months at a time I would handle these amazing works… absorbing as usual. I doubt that such resemblance between the indigenous works and my own are purely coincidental, yet I cannot claim an intentional link.” [emphasis mine]

So, not an intentional connection – but I was pleased to discover such a link between ornamentation designed by these two very different artists and cultures. It’s fascinating to see how artists are inspired and how very different cultures can influence one another, sometimes in seemingly random – but very delightful – ways. It inspires me to take a closer look at everything around me, in the museum – but also out in the world. Part of the joy in seeing real artifacts, up close, is having the opportunity to examine them for these little details that allow you to really experience the object first-hand.

So, how about you – what little things have you noticed about the world?

The Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault is a permanent exhibition at HMNS – but you only have a few more weeks to see Spirits & Headhunters before the exhibition moves on. Don’t miss it! Before you come, you can learn more about these fascinating cultures in a preview video interview with curator Adam Mekler below.

Can’t see the video? Watch it here.

Hello! And who are you?

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan Island.

On September 4, 1609, Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch East India Company, discovered the island of Manhattan. This year marks the 400th anniversary of that voyage.

Here is the rest of the story.

Amerigo Vespucci
Creative Commons License photo credit:
pedrosimoes7

Hudson may not have been the first European explorer who reached this part of the Americas. Two other explorers, Giovanni Verrazano, a Florentine, and Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese, who preceded Hudson by nearly one hundred years, each on their own voyage of exploration. Estevan Gomez left for the New World in 1524. He reached the Florida coast in January 1525. He traveled north and appears to have reached the coast of what we now call Massachusetts later in the year. In a letter dated July 8, 1524, Giovanni Verrazano addresses Francis I, King of France, Giovanni Verrazano describes how they reached “a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flow out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.” Scholars agree that this is a reference to New York harbor..

Yellowtailed Cockatoo fan
Creative Commons License photo credit: Medicinehorse7

Even though Verrazano offered the opinion that these new lands had new land which had “never been seen before by any man, either Ancient or modern,” there was dense human settlement on the Island of Manhattan. Verrazano himself acknowledges this as he describes people as “dressed in birds’ feathers of various color,” a gentle reminder to us of what was lost over the centuries since the European arrival. Even though the custom of feather work making survived in North and South America, feather work dating back 500 years or even more, can only be found in parts of South America.

Oral tradition, written down about one and a half century later describes the encounter from the Indian point of view. A few days after the initial encounter between the Europeans and the original inhabitants of the Island, the former “proposed to stay with them, asking them only for so much land as the hide of a bullock would cover (or encompass,) which hide was brought forward and spread on the ground before them. That they readily granted this request; whereupon the whites took a knife, and beginning at one place on this hide, cut it up into a rope not thicker than the finger of a little child, so that by the time this hide was cut up there was a great heap. [T]his rope was drawn out to a great distance, and then brought round again, so that both ends might meet. That they carefully avoided its breaking, and that upon the whole it encompassed a large piece of ground. That they (the Indians) were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had enough.”  Dutch presence and settlement, both on Manhattan Island and in other parts of New York state, steadily grew over the next half century.

We benefit from decades of archaeological research in North, Central and South America related to the arrival of the earliest settlers. We know that people have been here for millennia before the first Europeans arrived. The origins of the word Manhattan may reside in a Munsee language expression, /e:nta menahahte:nk/ “where one gathers bows.” Exotic? Perhaps, but certainly no stranger than the fictitious anthropology report on the tribe of the “Nacirema.” See for yourself if their strange behaviors sound familiar to you….

As New York prepares to celebrate, it is good to remember that there is always more to the story. Digging around in archives and rekindling old oral traditions does, occasionally, bring the past back alive.