If these beautiful ornaments could talk

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

The curators define ornament as “an embellishment, superficial or structural, that can be taken out of context, reworked, reproduced and redeployed”. This open description gives them space to include almost anything, and they do: there are woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer from the early 1500s, a bark painting by a Papuan-neo artist -Anonymous Guinean, a series of black and white cakes and pastries which illustrator Tom Hovey drew for a coloring version of ‘The Great British Bake Off’.

An ingenious scenography makes it possible to imagine these squiggles and frills leaping around the world as if in total weightlessness. One of the Dürers, a lace roundel inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s design 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 watercolors and prints from the 19th century, textile motifs ricochet between India, Europe and Japan.

There’s nothing wrong with the roundel on Dylan’s forehead, of course, or with the other circles designer Martin Sharp has used to represent the musician’s hair. But in the 19th century, when such schemes were all the rage in Western Europe, they were associated with racist notions of “the Orient” – a fantasy constructed to idealize the very people these Europeans conquered and robbed.

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

“Ornamental Clamor” also offers evidence of the cruelty of industrialization as well as colonialism – at least as it manifested itself in art. There is the design of the “Red Fort, Delhi, furnished according to English taste”; the stylized Kashmiri mango snatched by the textile factories of the Scottish town of Paisley; the American flag included in a Navajo weave made after the Navajo were confined to a reservation where they had to import wool. (In her scholarly catalog essay, Emily King, the exhibition’s co-curator, quotes economic historian Kazuo Kobayashi as saying that Indian-made cottons “were the most important trade in exchange for African slaves.”)

You also see people using appropriation to fight against oppression and cultural erasure. But none of these exchanges are straightforward. Harlem designer Dapper Dan, appearing here via multiple photographs, pioneered a new take on black styling that borrowed corporate and fashion logos – an innovation that was itself later appropriated by these same companies. Artist Wendy Red Star annotates historic photos of Crow diplomats, restoring meaning to feathers and hair bows that contemporary white Americans have belittled and misunderstood. But this meaning is accompanied by a kind of violence of its own. A bow of hair, she writes, represents “physically defeating an enemy and slitting his throat.”

In the end, the exhibition does not advance a single argument but presents a multitude of them — a conceptual clamor that deepens and amplifies the already overwhelming visual experience. On the one hand, as arguments about cultural appropriation grow increasingly heated and lose more and more nuance, we desperately need reminders like this of how difficult it still is to disentangle the realities. On the other hand, as a visitor to the exhibition, I ended up engaging in a personal decontextualization, eliminating the elegant but informative wall labels, designed by Studio Frith, and focusing instead on the pure sensual pleasures of an air-conditioned room. gallery filled with an extraordinary collection of beautiful objects.

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

The clamor of ornament: exchange, power and joy from the 15th century to the present day

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

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