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Exhibitions/ Jewelry: The Body Transformed/ The Transcendent Body

Jewelry: The Body Transformed

At The Met Fifth Avenue
November 12, 2018–February 24, 2019

The Transcendent Body

Jewelry operates as readily on a spiritual level as on an earthly one, often mediating between the two. This may seem paradoxical given that its raw materials are as earthbound as any: metals or minerals extracted directly from land or sea. Yet the rarity and beauty of these materials—their seeming indestructibility and the sheer human effort required to retrieve them—appear to render them miraculous. Accordingly, the objects here celebrate jewelry's power to facilitate transcendent communication—whether by conjuring spirits, appeasing gods, or invoking ancestors.

In India gold jewelry belongs to the gods. It enhances their perfected bodies, with belts that encircle slender hips, necklaces that emphasize voluptuous breasts, and crowns that top a serene visage. The artists who craft statues of deities see to their resplendence with all manner of sculpted ornament, but pious worshippers offer still more. To truly celebrate the gods, the statues must be dressed in rich silks, decked with garlands of fresh marigolds, and adorned with the finest gold jewelry. In this state, the sacred image is fit to receive petitions for the divine essence to enter it during ritual worship. No longer static icons, the gods come alive ready to perform public service; a devotee can ask for no more.

Selected Objects

"My spirit spouse brings me happiness. And it is that happiness that I give to my earthly wife," explains Teki Kouakou from the African town of Boreakpokro. When the Baule men and women of Côte d'Ivoire adorn statues of their "spirit spouses" with beaded necklaces, they are using jewelry to perpetuate a relationship with the ancestral spirit realm, known as blolo (village of truth). Specially commissioned sculptures that house the spirit spouses facilitate transcendent communication. Beads that rest on the necks, arms, or ankles of the figures are often valued remnants of earlier European trade. The entrancing color or material of the beads helps to enhance the ideal of beauty that spirit spouses and other Baule carved sculptures represent.

At the same time, these ornaments—along with clothing, hairstyle, and scarification—lend the sculpture specificity, emphasizing its individuality and personhood. They contribute to the sense that the statue hosts a sentient being open to dialogue. Ornaments thus facilitate the easy intimacy, the constant give-and-take, that is a hallmark of interactions with blolo figures.

Selected Objects

Drawing on the innate potential of materials wrought from land, sea, and sky, jewelry from Coastal New Guinea and the Solomon Islands transformed the male body into an awe-inspiring manifestation of vital spiritual energy. To show oneself in full magnificence was to ensure the flow of well-being from ancestors who animated the universe. Bodily adornment, which also included tattoos and textiles, focused that supernatural force and permitted the wearer to take advantage of its power.

Pacific Island ornaments often incorporated material from or imagery of animals that could evoke primordial ancestors and were admired for their dominion over the landscape. The majestic frigate bird, for example, possesses superb navigational skills and the ability to seize food from other birds on the wing, while the turtle successfully negotiates both water and dry land. A neck ornament with frigate feathers, or a kapkap pendant of shell, imparted similarly desirable attributes to its wearer. Whether an elder participating in a ceremonial dance or a warrior readying himself for a raiding party, a man suitably adorned was assured success.

Selected Objects