Objects with a point of view

MEDICINE HORN 3When I described a visit to the Indo-Pacific department of Yale University Art Gallery of in the company of its curator, Ruth Barnes,  I could not possibly squeeze into the WSJ account all the amazing things she had to say.  Which is why we have blogs…  not that we always have time to write  them…

In the article, I mention figures like this medicine horn where it is unclear whether one figure (in this case the animal) is ingesting another (the human) or whether one is emerging from the other.  Is it an act of protection  and creation or of aggression?  Even in a case like this one, where the  priest uses the horn only for good, it is hard to know exactly what mechanism is at work.  In the article I also mentioned a textile traditionally gifted at marriages, because it has a supplementary weft that denotes fertility.  What I did not have the space to go into was another part of the belief system.  As Ms. Barnes explained it, “for people in Southeast Asia, the life-cycle is not birth-marriage-death, but rather begins with marriage, when two people join together in order to bring prosperity and new life to their lineages.”   The word “ana” means both “child” and “even” as in “even numbers,” the thought being that even numbers are the completion of the odd numbers.  So two people marry and they are complete when they bring forth a child.   In this same paradigm, the ultimate completion is death.  Looking at a gold funereal mask used in East Java sometime between 500 BC and 200 AD, Barnes said that, even today, when people build a platform where the body of the deceased will be housed awaiting burial or cremation, they make the platform with an even number of floor planks.

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