The ancient, primordial connection between humans and animals is a complicated one, often characterized by contradiction, denial, adoration, terror and illogic. We dote on animals and we also eat them. We harness and hobble them and we also appropriate them as icons of power and prestige. We spend billions (literally!) on their welfare and appearance but we also make them into shoes and coats. No wonder they are confused.
This exhibition illustrates the wide spectrum of depictions of animals in non-Western art over a time span of several thousand years. The exhibition includes many medium: ceramics, textiles, precious metal, wood and stone, among others. It also illustrates the broad spectrum of how we view animals and how we appropriate their intrinsic characteristics to ennoble our own species.
It is difficult to think of a culture or time when animals were not an essential feature of human art. The very earliest art, 40,000 year old cave paintings, do not depict humans
or gods or baskets of fruit but rather animals. These animals parade in all their magic
and power across cave walls where they probably assisted humans in reconciling the staggering mystery of “why”.
Animals and their respective attributes supplied human artists with a cornucopia of metaphor: power, cunning, speed, intelligence, stability, violence, fertility and much more. It is a near universal human attribute to appropriate the top of the animal food chain as the paramount political icon: be it the bald eagle, the lion, the puma, the bear,
the shark, or the snake. It is also nearly universal to see the amphibian as a metaphor
for fertility, where it decorated the sides of ancient pottery vessels and doors to shrines. Having the convenient ability to regenerate body parts made lizards a likely candidate
for fertility and healing.
This exhibition of approximately fifty pieces represents cultures as diverse as ancient Peru, Indonesia, Japan, New Guinea, Africa, the Artic and Southeast Asia. Masks, pots, textiles, doors and sculptures of all sorts illustrate the complex relationship we have had, and continue to have, with the animal kingdom.