September 2, 2004

From Africa to La-La Land

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As new and returning students adjust to the college grind, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum is settling into its Fall season with an array of collections sure to pique the interest of anyone seeking an air-conditioned haven away from Ithaca’s late-summer heat.

Two of the newest fall temporary collections have little in common other than they offer a welcome escape to worlds far beyond Upstate New York. African Forms: Selections from the Ginzberg Collection takes us deep into ancient Africa, while California Dreamin’ shows an early twentieth-century Pictorialist view of Californian life. Both will offer something for everyone, from the art enthusiast to the historian to the curious passerby.

African Forms: Selections from the Ginzberg Collection

A portion of the much larger Ginzberg collection, African Forms is a compilation of objects used in the daily lives of tribal members all across the African continent, including areas like South Africa, East Africa and the Sahara not typically represented when we see African art. The collection attempts to show the aesthetic beauty of items that were created with a purpose, not simply for looking at.

Items range from jewelry to musical instruments and weapons to textiles, each so intricate that it is hard to believe anyone could ever use them as often as we would use a bowl or a chair in our apartments and dorms. Not to mention the painstaking hours it would take to create something like a hat made entirely of human hair or a full skirt of almost microscopic beads.

The exhibit is wonderfully detailed in its account of the artists’ lives and histories, how they used the object, and what it symbolized to them. Not all of the information is known today, however, and objects like elaborately woven wicker shields display mysterious symbols. Yet this doesn’t make them any less impressive.

Beyond a history lesson, though, viewers may leave this exhibit with the sense that perhaps objects that we use in everyday life will someday be viewed as an art form too. But it is more likely that nothing we create today can compare to the beauty of these objects hand-created with such obvious care and devotion. African Forms will be on display until October 3.

California Dreamin’

California Dreamin’ is a different sort of history lesson, examining the early twentieth-century Pictorialist practice, which at the time was viewed as photography that opposed the increasingly popular modernist practices. Pictorialist art was largely ignored during the 1910s, although looking at this collection will make you wonder how that was even possible. The exhibit includes works from both amateur and professional photographers who were members of the San Francisco California Camera Club and the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles. While many of the names are unfamiliar to those of us here on the East Coast, there are some early works from very recognizable names like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams as well.

Many of the photos are what you might expect: views of breathtaking Californian landscape, palm trees and portraits of faces that look straight out of Hollywood. However, there are some unexpected pieces as well, like Lorraine Arnold’s Untitled (Mixing Bowl) and Johan Hagemeyer’s Pedestrians. Electric beaters in a mixing bowl or a blurred view of people on a ’20s-era city street are certainly reflections of early twentieth century American life, but probably not what one might think of when they think about California. In this way, California Dreamin’ succeeds in its goal of opening our eyes to an era in West Coast photography we may not have been previously exposed to.

Though not a large exhibit, the variety and detail in each piece is enough to want to literally examine them under a magnifying glass (available at the exhibit entrance). The exhibit is striking and refreshing; be sure to catch it before it closes October 17.

For more information on the Johnson Museum and its current exhibits visit or call 607-255-6464.

Archived article by Laura Borden
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer