If These Beautiful Ornaments Could Speak

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If These Beautiful Ornaments Could Speak

“The Clamor of Ornament,” a dazzling new exhibition at the Drawing Center, brings together nearly 200 drawings, etchings, photographs, tunics and weavings to tell a complex story, one spanning five centuries, of cultural exchange and appropriation .

The curators define ornament as “decoration, surface or structural, that can be lifted from its context, reworked, reproduced and redeployed.” This wide-open description gives them room to include almost anything, and they do: There are Albrecht Dürer woodcuts from the early 1500s, a bas-relief painting by an anonymous Papua New Guinean artist, a series of black-and- white cakes and pastries that illustrator Tom Hovey drew for a coloring book version of “The Great British Bake Off.”

An ingenious exhibition design lets you imagine these squiggles and frills bouncing around the world as if completely weightless. One of the Dürers, a lace rondel inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of an Ottoman design, hangs next to a 1968 poster of Bob Dylan with a similar circle on his forehead; elsewhere, in a series of 19th-century watercolor and woodblock prints, textile patterns veer between India, Europe and Japan.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the roundel on Dylan’s forehead, or with the other circles that designer Martin Sharp used to depict the musician’s hair. But in the 19th century, when such patterns were rampant in Western Europe, they became associated with racist notions of “the Orient”—a fantasy built to romanticize the very people those Europeans conquered and robbed.

You can see the romance in Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s seductive silver daguerreotype of an Egyptian mosque or in a drawing, attributed to the Persian court architect Mirza Akbar, of the kind of intricate tiling which inspired the English architect Owen Jones to write a prescriptive book-length study of artistic and architectural ornamentation. (Jones’s book “The Grammar of Ornament,” published in 1856, is the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.)

“Clamor of Ornament” also offers evidence of the ruthlessness of industrialization as well as of colonialism – at least as it showed in art. There is the drawing of “the Red Fort, Delhi, Furnished according to English Taste”; the stylized Kashmiri mango plucked by textile mills in the Scottish town of Paisley; the American flag included in a Navajo weaving made after the Navajo were confined to a reservation where they had to import wool. (In her scholarly catalog essay, Emily King, a co-curator of the exhibition, quotes the economic historian Kazuo Kobayashi as saying that cotton produced in India “was the most important trade in exchange for slaves from Africa.”)

You see people use appropriation to push back against oppression and cultural erasure as well. But none of these exchanges are simple. Harlem designer Dapper Dan, featured in several photos here, pioneered a new vision of black style that borrowed corporate and fashion logos—an innovation that was itself later appropriated by those very corporations. Artist Wendy Red Star annotates historic photographs of Crow diplomats, restoring meaning to feathers and hair bows that have belittled and misunderstood contemporary white Americans. But that meaning comes with a kind of violence of its own. One hairbow, she writes, represents “physically overcoming an enemy and cutting his throat.”

In the end, the exhibition doesn’t make one argument so much as it offers a whole slew of them—a conceptual cry that deepens and intensifies the already overwhelming visual experience. On the one hand, as arguments about cultural appropriation become more and more heated and lose more and more nuance, we urgently need reminders like this of how difficult it still is to untangle the realities. On the other hand, as a visitor to the exhibition, I ended up engaging in a decontextualization of my own, tuning out the funny but informative wall labels, designed by Studio Frith, and focusing instead on the pure sensual pleasure of ‘ an air-conditioned gallery filled with an extraordinary collection of beautiful objects.

Some may be drawn to the bold colors of Emma Pettway’s Gee’s Bend quilt (2021), Toyohara Kunichika’s 1864 woodblock series “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men,” or the temporary wall covered in an 18th-century French pattern called “Reveillon Arabesque” 810.” But I found myself gravitating towards the simpler, monochrome certainties of John Maeda’s triple typographic posters; of a zigzag “Tapa Cloth Fragment” from Oceania; or from a specimen of 19th-century scrimshaw. Barely six inches long, the engraved bone shows a closely crossed whale surrounded by distressed sailors as it destroys their whaler. It was exciting to consider that the whole scene, full of drama and pathos, might just be another piece of free-floating ornament.

The Scream of Ornament: Exchange, Power and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present

Through September 18 at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, Manhattan; (212) 219-2166, drawingcenter.org.

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