“noon hour” by Isabel Bishop C. 1935
On view December 22, 2018–January 5, 2020 via DMA-Museum, Dallas TX
By: Forrest Cook
The Dallas Museum of Art is narrowing in on the final days of its year-long running educational installation, Beyond Binaries. Beyond Binaries is located halfway up the ramp from the main entrance, and to the left in the Center for Creative Connections, an all ages interactive learning cove of the museum where participants are encouraged to take a hands-on approach to “examine works of art related to a common theme, respond to works of art in new ways, and interact with local artists in our community.” (Taken from DMA.org)
Beyond Binaries is a collection of multifarious works exploring gender roles in different cultures throughout history. Are our gender identities exclusive to our reproductive biology? How many of our societal observations regarding masculine and femininity are based on cultural interpretation? What characteristics do we perceive as gender-oriented, or gender-fluid and how do those characteristics help to define our own identity? In what way does each piece in the exhibit communicate ideas about gender?
These are a few ideas to keep in mind as you make your way around the room as “some works move beyond the binary of masculine and feminine. Others present divergent views about identity and gender.” (DMA.org)
Dogon peoples, “fragment of a granary door” or shutter, late 19th or early 20th century, wood, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. James H. W. Jacks and Mrs. James H. W. Jacks in honor and memory of C. Vincent Prothro and Mrs. Margaret Bennett Cullum, 2000.396
“Dogon blacksmiths also served as sculptors carving wooden doors for houses, granaries, and shrines and decorating them with symbolic motifs drawn from Dogon mythology and religious beliefs, including depictions of primordial ancestors (nommo) and animals, especially the lizard. This weathered hardwood fragment is from a door or a shutter for a free-standing granary made of puddled earth and topped with a thatched-covered roof. The door is decorated with a pair of lizards carved in low relief. The motif gives life to the Dogon belief that humans are born as both sexes, like the primordial ancestral couple in their creation myth. In Dogon culture, gender is settled at the time of circumcision, which is part of a youth’s coming-of-age rites. The shape of the sun lizard is likened to the male and female genitals and, as such, is a sexual symbol.” -Dallas Museum of Art
The thematic elements of the exhibition are tied together in various ways. Perhaps the most immediately apparent comes from the oil on canvas painting Erminia and The Shepherds, by the French neoclassical painter Guillaume Lethiére. The painting depicts a scene from the 16th Century Italian Renaissance poem Gerusalemme Liberata, in which Erminia must disguise herself as a knight to search for her lost beloved during a crusade, and having frightened a family of shepherds, removes her helmet to reveal astonishing beauty.
From a collection of Latin American lithographs titled Mexican People, (Associated American Artists, 1947) the artists involved found subjects in daily life – male and female laborers performing the tasks of their trade, to Fragement of a Granary Door or Shutter from the Dogon people of Mali, depicting two lizards in relief that represent the primordial ancestors of the Dogon – the Nommo, who are bisexual water dieties. The Dogon people believe that all people are bisexuals, and that the ritualistic cutting away of the foreskin at puberty will remove what they believe to be the female element in men, and vice versa that the excision of the clitoris removes the male element in women. Only then can a person be “wholly” male or female according to the Dogon myth.
From there, viewers circumvent a Greek wine vessel from The Eupolis painter (c. 470-460 BCE) featuring armed warriors from a fierce ancient mythical race of women known as the Amazons. Amazons were seen as antagonists within the mythology throughout the patriarchal hierarchy of Greek rule, where women were not even permitted to enjoy their rights as citizens. An African mask (Manowulo, c. 1940-1960) from the regions of Liberia and Sierra-Leone attributed to the female initiation rites of the secret society the Sande finds significance in that throughout the majority of African societies only men are permitted to wear masks.
Also included are a selection of Mayan textiles, woven by both men and women. Weaving was not seen as a gender-specific skill in Mayan society. In fact, much of the highly ornamental hand-stitching and embroidery was actually performed by men, striking dissimilarities with a general western perspective which throughout much of history has regarded weaving as a task pursuant to females. Men in Mayan society traditionally wore a talega, (also on display) similar to a purse. Just like a woman’s purse in the U.S., the talega’s applications are based on practicality as traditional Mayan male garments do not include any pockets.
A Prince Holding A Falcon is a vibrant painting from 18th century India, where one finds a very masculine prince armed with a sword and engaged in falconry, although bejeweled and ornamented in such a way that an 18th century Amererican may have thought more befitting a wealthy woman. Beside the prince, stands an 8 ft wooden carving of the Hindu deity Durga – a warrior goddess who in Shakti Hindu texts is seen as the supreme being. It’s an attribute granted to varying figureheads within Hinduism in differing scriptures, where each deity (as well, the entirety of existence) is in actuality seen as a mere manifestation of one omnipotent godhead, elucidating the dynamic nature of reality, and disavowing substantive rigidity.
As part of the interactive experience, an adjacent room called the Art Spot features looms where participants are encouraged to try their luck at textiles. Drawing tables are stationed throughout the Center for Creative Connections for museum-goers of all ages to “investigate ways decorative objects convey ideas about identity,” (dma.org) by designing their own chair. There are shelves where exhibition-viewers have left their drawings on display – more than a few of which read the words, “OK Boomer,” adding generational tongue-and-cheek feedback to the topic of gender identity which more and more frequently we find transversing the binary of mainstream orientation.
Beyond Binaries will be available to view through January 5, 2020.