Celebration is a feast, a festival, a torchlight parade, a dance, a picnic, a housewarming, a hog killing and a quilting bee. From the beginning of time, celebrations are the universal magic to draw together earth and heaven, humans and gods.
"Celebration: A World of Art and Ritual, Part II," which aims at capturing this universal emotion, opens today and continues through Feb. 21 at the Renwick Gallery .
Lloyd Herman, Renwick director, describes it as "the largest craft show in town since King Tut. And it's the largest and most important single exhibit the Renwick has ever mounted." Ralph Rinzler, Smithsonian folklife director and codirector of Celebration, calls it "one of the largest pan-institutional exhibitions in the Smithsonian's history."
The second half's 350-odd objects fill the upstairs galleries, while the earlier section of some 450 artifacts, which opened in March, will cover the first floor exhibit space until July 10, 1983. Renwick registrar Ellen Monroe says it's almost impossible to count the pieces because each grouping has so many small elements. The objects come from nine Smithsonian museums, six continents, many islands, 62 peoples.
The second half, through the genius of designer Michael Monroe, is a collection of clutter put together in a coherent whole. It might be said that Monroe has taken all the words in the folklife dictionary and written them into a novel.
Through inspired juxtapositions, he makes his point that people the world over celebrate harvests, religions and politics in much the same ways.
For instance, the secretary of the Smithsonian's mace (gold, silver, smithsonite, diamonds and rubies) stands beside an elephant tail flywhisk, said to be a symbol of office for a chief from the northern Congo Basin. The devices all signify the approval of peers and blessings of deities.
Feather capes are worn in many cultures as badges of office. These come from the New Zealand Maori, the East Polynesian Hawaiians, and the Guarani tribe of South American Indians. The District of Columbia's own sequined mantle of the cherry blossom princess, the brilliant red and blue applique'd tunic of the Haida Indians of British Columbia, a voodoo priest's hat and black cloak, the apron and gloves of the Masons, the jungle-colored monkey costumes from Mexico, Uncle Sam's hat and striped pants--all are costumes of ceremony.
To celebrate or urge on the passing of power, torchlight parades are essential in the United States. The most surprising torch is a helmet with an oil lamp on top from the James G. Blaine campaign. An 1888 William Henry Harrison and Levi Morton paper lantern looks like a lamp shade. Unfortunately, the exhibit doesn't have any of the comic and curious paper lanterns from Basel, Switzerland's great early morning torchlight parade satirizing local politics.
The Haida Indians' raven rattle, the Mayan diatonic harp, the Torah finial bells, the voodoo drums all make a joyful noise to the deity. These magical instruments, motionless and soundless though they are in their glass cases, ring loudly in a cacophony of the mind.
The altars and shrines, gilded and bloody, are shown as halfway houses where humans tempt the gods with earthly essentials: fire, water, food and sex. The Haitian voodoo altar, full of drums, fierce black ironwork and fanciful symbols, is frightening and seems full of an evil power. A portion of the National Museum of American Art's magnificent Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly, the work of the late District of Columbia folk artist James Hampton, is displayed near the voodoo altar. Hampton's wondrous metallic foil masterpiece radiates peace and understanding.
Festivals of increase: pig butchering, canning and quilting bees, ship launchings and harvest homes cheer you as you pass them in the Renwick's high halls.
Naked Eskimos (naked Eskimos!) with musical instruments, all carved of walrus ivory, are assembled in a model of a dance house, ready to celebrate a successful hunt. A photo mural of Coretta (Mrs. Martin Luther) King shows her launching a ship. Not far away is displayed a crocheted cover used to hold the pieces of a bottle together during a ship launching. An invitation to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge is framed near two handsome and colorful Gan-Guari figures from India.
Though the objects were chosen not for their beauty but for their meaning, some are exquisite. A painting of the temple of Jagannatha in India, on cloth using chalk, gum, tamarind, pigment and varnish, is so well detailed that you can easily follow the story while being charmed by its intricacies. A small home Buddhist altar from Japan with its flower vase and crane-supported candlestick is so carefully made, you feel confident the home was well protected.
Some of the exhibits are homely. A multi-pegged rada drum, a haphazardly made object, looks worn out by its worshipers.
The Renwick show itself is like a vast feast, stuffed full with spices, sweetmeats, stimulants. If you have any sensitivity at all, you'll come away feeling drunk with all that emotion, surfeited with the three-dimensional evocations of glory.
Victor Turner, guest curator of the exhibition, has edited a book in conjunction with the exhibition. A useful catalog and two invaluable and inexpensive ($1) guides to Parts I and II have been published. A series of demonstrations and entertainments is also scheduled.