Haida Metamorphosis

Lothar Baumgarten German

Not on view

The son of a German anthropologist and a student of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Academy, Baumgarten came naturally to the study of contemporary life as it relates to other cultures, especially North and South American. His chief subjects are landscapes- with geographic, cartographic, and political underpinnings-and museums that house collections of cultural artifacts. This view of a case of masks is from a series of photographs Baumgarten made between 1968 and 1970 in the Pitt Rivers Museum, the ethnographic museum at Oxford. The masks made by the Haida, who lived on islands off Alaska until they were decimated in the late nineteenth century by smallpox and venereal diseases brought by white men.

The artist used pocket mirrors to create the triangular reflections that hover mysteriously before the objects, though the shapes partially obscure the masks. Baumgarten's pictures are ultimately not about the objects per se but about their frame of reference-the environment, labels, mysteries of sighting, distance from our normal experience, reflections of electric lights and skylights in the cases-conditions that make us aware of the subjectivity, arbitrariness, and isolation imposed upon the objects.

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