Looking at Ornament and Function

A Review of lots selling in Selkirk's Distant Lands: Ethnographic Material Culture Auction (03.24.22)

Ornament and function -- throughout history these concepts have retained a close relationship, though at a glance they may be assumed to be far removed from one another. Artisans create living history with their works, bringing art and beauty to the people it represents, breathing life into the experience and record of their stories and traditions.

Humans have a unifying desire to tell these stories, to immortalize and remember their history. And to live it day to day. Carved in stone, embroidered on silk, painted on canvas, etched into clay, woven with yarn; to create is to tell. The arts were not simply tucked away, reserved to the walls of the elite; the arts were beautifully represented in clothes worn, tools used, buildings lived and streets walked. The arts are the lives of the people.

Clothing has long been used to represent and identify its community. Geographical needs dictate form; cultural practices influence style. A beautiful example comes from the Andes mountains of Peru: the chullo hat. A woolen hat with ear flaps, its form is meant to protect the wearer from the cold climate, while the style of its woven patterns signifies identify within the community. Lot 107 is a lovely trio from the Andean region, traditionally pairing color and pattern with the iconic chullo form. Motifs within these designs are reflective of where they come from, visually representing its people, culture and tradition. Similarly, the heels of lot 76 feature an embroidered lotus motif, popular within Chinese culture as a symbol of their religion and philosophy. This method of personal and communal identity is practiced globally and still to this day.

Communal identity comes from shared beliefs, with religion reigning in influence. Architecture, dress, crafts, fine art, all often find ties back to the culture’s religion. This influence is commonly associated with art hung on walls or actual religious paraphernalia, meant to be viewed in the context of religious ceremony or practice. Scroll paintings such lot 48, a south Asian piece depicting the Hindu god Vishnu, would adorn temples, churches and homes visually portraying the written religion. Items used in ceremony such as the gong stand featured in lot 41 is a tool able to perform, but ornate and intricate at the same time.

Myths and characters became motifs repeated outside of religious context, represented as shapes, figures, colors or a combination. The dancing skeleton wreathed in flames featured on lot 3 is not only decoration, but a reference to Citipati, a Buddhist deity representing the eternal dance of death. Although not a religious item itself, the pouch utilizes religious iconography as ornamentation.

Of course, visual interest is not always religious, as much ornament is applied for the sake of aesthetics. A cotton gin is another tool, rather practical and functional, but as seen with lot 33 it can still act as an art form with its figural supports and finely carved details.

Craftsmen through history have married the seemingly opposing ‘form versus function’ with deft hands and graceful execution.

Featured Works