‘Art of Adornment’ display tells part of the human story

Ancient clay beads, Chad (West Africa), a shell/hair ornament from Sumba (Oceana) on a beaded Maasai (East Africa) necklace next to large silver and coral women’s necklace from Turkistan and a men’s Dinka headdress (North East Africa) are part of the “Art of Adornment” display at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County.
Ancient clay beads, Chad (West Africa), a shell/hair ornament from Sumba (Oceana) on a beaded Maasai (East Africa) necklace next to large silver and coral women’s necklace from Turkistan and a men’s Dinka headdress (North East Africa) are part of the “Art of Adornment” display at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County. Photo provided

For centuries, human adornment has been used to demonstrate power, sexual attraction, life passages, relationships and protection. Adornment is an art form, created to reflect tradition, nature and craftsmanship. Various works of this ancient art will be on display in “The Art of Adornment,” an exhibit featuring jewelry from Asia and Africa, including shell beads and personal decorations such as body-piercing objects and scaring.

The exhibit will be on display in the Windows Gallery at the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County April 6 - May 25.

The “Art of Adornment” is an exhibit of more than 300 pieces of jewelry and adornment created by people of traditional cultures from Africa, Asia and the Americas. The pieces of adornment are exhibited in the context of 13 geo-cultural zones, including native North America, Latin America, and various regions of Africa and Asia. Although many different styles are included in the show, they represent only a fraction of the more than 5,000 tribal, ethnic and indigenous groups in our world.

The jewelry and artifacts exhibited are from the collection of Patricia House, director of the Bellefonte Art Museum. House has collected ethnic and tribal wearable art for decades.

“I’ve been collecting for about 50 years,” House said. “My grandfather gave me my first piece of traditional silver jewelry from Chile when I was a teenager.”

The exhibition is a celebration of the customs, styles and techniques of personal adornment and is designed to take the viewer on a cultural tour of beauty and powerful designs. Many of the works are no longer made and represent styles that have given way to modernization. Most of the ornaments in the exhibition date from 50 to 300 years.

Over the years, House has been fortunate to see world, observe different cultures and collect ancient pieces of art along the way. House has always traveled to more traditional countries, but also working for museums in the field of cultural arts has given her the opportunity to continue traveling.

“An early and retained interest of mine has been to learn more about other people and places,” she said. “I feel the world is so much smaller than when I was young because of improvements in travel and communication technology.”

The meaning of adornment is more than decoration, as many indigenous people view their ornamentation as mystical and powerful, believing the objects are talismanic. Adornments also may be worn as a form of protection, perhaps helping connect the wearer to a religious guardian or the spirit of an ancestor. Certain ceremonies require specific decorations. For example, a form of the rosary is used by all major religious groups to facilitate meditation. Ornaments also may serve to identify cultural affiliation, social position or personality. In addition, many native cultures designed adornment to represent the natural world, so they incorporated feathers, bones, shells, horns and bird beaks to represent natural powers, especially the power of birds to fly.

Traditional people have changed as the result of contact with industrialized countries, a reduction in pastoral life and urbanization. With people moving toward easier lifestyles, complicated dressing and heavy decoration have given way to comfortable, easy-care clothing.

“In the past, traditional women often wore heavy encumbering decorations to show their role in their cultures, but the desire to be more active — in short modernity — has caused folks to look toward goals other than to retain their traditions,” House said. “Spending a long period of time creating a work of wearable art is not as significant as building schools and marketing products.”

In the past 30 years, the Maasai of East Africa have moved from an isolated lifestyle, wearing great glass beaded decorations to simple plastic necklaces that echo the original style and spending time raising commercial cattle herds and running tourist lodges.

Perhaps the most common and oldest form of adornment are beads, made from a various number materials including clay, bone, stone, metal, ivory, shell, glass and alloys of silver and gold.

Beads have been created by people in almost every culture and were easy to carry, trade and a convenient way to make personal decorations. Over time, beads became a major trade item and were sometimes used as currency.

Shell beads excavated in South Africa have been estimated to be more than 50,000 years old and may be the oldest example of human adornment. Evidence of this adornment is found in beads which were incised and punctured with holes, apparently made for stringing; and in drawings in cave dwellings in Africa dating more than 10,000 years old, illustrating persons wearing elaborate head dressings. This early use of adornment poses the question: Why did early humans decide to add to their appearance?

“Perhaps they were copying the example of flora and fauna using colors and designs to make themselves more noticeable,” House said. “Evidence of early adornment seems to provide a sense of knowledge about our early ancestors.”

Available materials influenced styles and, as tools developed, designs became more complicated.

In ancient cultures materials used to make bracelets, anklets and neck-laces included stone, shells and clay. Some ornaments are designed in simple ways and others create interest by their complexity. Pieces became classic examples of specific cultures, using local materials such as gold, silver, bronze, emeralds, turquoise, jade, pearls, coral and ivory. Whether a work is splendid or simple, it is the result of the unique way colors, forms and shapes are assembled in design and result in wearable works of art.

In most indigenous cultures it had been customary for both males and females to be adorned. Rather than gender, the discriminating factor was social status. Personal body decorations may include the manipulation of the body by piercing and inserting objects, binding, and scaring. Piercing and scarification has been used by men and women for eons. The exhibition includes examples of piercing objects and metal bands used on necks, ankles and arms.

For centuries, cultural traditions, environmental opportunity and biological coloring have created differences in human appearances, but these are diminishing. According to House, the current trend of blurring distinctions by trade and the global neighborhood will continue.

“We all look, dress and live in similar ways,” she said. “I imagine in the future we will continue to use and want easy and trouble free clothing. But it is important to note that many modern designs in fabrics and jewelry have been influenced by traditional works, but traditional influences are not usually given credit by new designers.”