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Travelling to the Amazon (by way of the museum)

November 15, 2017

Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière archeological museum has been presenting an exhibition: Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest. I’ve left this post sitting a while so I the show’s now gone –  maybe you saw the show? maybe not – but anyway, here’s my drawings :)

The exhibition featured a collection of wickerwork masks – which I’d more reasonably call helmets or hats – as they’re designed to mount a sculptural element on the wearer’s head, and disguise/camouflage the face and body in a veil of dried grasses.

It’s my understanding (from reading wikipedia) that these masks are worn in ceremonies involving the ingestion of hallucinogens. To the people of the Amazon, these were probably nature spirits come to life.

Many of them represent the fish or animals of the region (the one on the far left was a catfish spirit), but some are so abstract, it’s impossible for an outsider to say what they represent.

A great deal of the exhibition was devoted to colorful feathered headdresses and body ornamentation.  So naturally, there was also a cabinet of taxidermy birds to show us the where the plumage comes from.

Apparently these feathered accessories were among the favorite things for European collectors to bring back, (next to shrunken heads!).

so we have a large number of head-dresses on display, as well as the usual collections of decorative baskets, pottery, spears, bows and stone axes. The items we’d find in any hunter-gatherer society.

I did not find myself sketching the spears and daggers. They’re not a particularity interesting subject I suppose? Today anyway.

In fact, I found a lot of the show – masks and headdresses levitating in darkened cabinets – to be very hard to relate with. Often you couldn’t tell if you were looking at the front or back of a feathered crown. Or if something was a pectoral or a kilt. Certainly you had no idea who really would be wearing these things – male, female, young or old.

I suppose some of that is my own fault, as I was racing through the exhibition only looking at the objects – not reading the information. I find these days so much of the educational content is in video or audio guides – which I do not enjoy.

I can’t be standing around watching the videos when I have sketches to do :)

There was however one wall of contemporary photography, showing native peoples and their lives today. To me, this was the most interesting thing in the whole exhibition. Surrounded by these displays of well lit but somewhat clinical artifacts, I found myself drawing from photographs.

In some of my drawings, where you see cultural objects worn by a person – what I’ve done is drawn someone from the photo exhibit, and given them an artifact from a nearby display.

This is probably a bit misleading. I can’t be sure I’ve associated the right gender or tribal person with the right artifact. But to me it’s a way of visualizing the Amazon.

I suppose, given an unlimited budget, the museum might choose use sculpted figures? But sadly the days of life-size dioramas with wax and plaster figures seem to be over.

On balance, I think this is a worthwhile drawing exercise.

Next time you’re in an exhibit of historical arms and armor, or stone-age pottery and household implements, use your imagination and sketch some of the people that might be using these artifacts – instead of simply drawing floating objects in display cases.

Even if you’re not historically accurate, you’re bringing things to life.

The anthropologists can always write me to correct my sketches! I’d be happy to know the real story.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Mullins permalink
    November 15, 2017 12:28 PM

    Excellent as usual. Love the use of reds!

  2. sheebakaul permalink
    November 15, 2017 1:56 PM

    Wow..the skill of your brush strokes is seen clearly..

  3. sheebakaul permalink
    November 15, 2017 1:57 PM

    Wow ..the ease n skill of your brush strokes is seen clearly..

  4. TonyU permalink
    November 15, 2017 2:16 PM

    Great sketches Marc and great explanation too. Do you ask for permission to use wet media or just take a chance until told not to? Most museums etc here in the UK are pretty restrictive on sketching materials – no markers, watercolours etc. Best, Tony

    • November 15, 2017 2:18 PM

      Unless I know in advance the museum is ok with it (such as McGill’s Redpath), I always plan my sketch in pen then paint in the lobby or café. Sometimes back and forth numerous times.

      • TonyU permalink
        November 15, 2017 3:44 PM

        Ah …. the benefit of experience.

  5. November 15, 2017 3:54 PM

    Beautiful sketches (as usual)…feathers and intriguing photos, wonderful!

  6. MarySusan Farmer permalink
    November 15, 2017 8:17 PM

    Loved the colorful Macaws! I recall seeing shrunken heads at the Heard Museum in Phoenix some 50 years ago! Unfortunately, a “temporary exhibit”, I was told……… on loan from???

    You always inspire me to “get those brushes wet”, again!

  7. November 18, 2017 3:35 AM

    I have to say, your museum drawings are probably my favourite examples of your art…even though I found you through your Urban Sketching.

  8. November 23, 2017 4:30 PM

    Great sketches! I”d love the chance to sketch a really good museum exhibit. Did you have to get permission? I’m thinking about giving it a try at our local museums.

    • November 23, 2017 4:42 PM

      Nope I never ask permission – just take a small notebook and simple looking pen – and keep out of people’s way (I always move when anyone comes by) – that keeps the guards happy. Technically you’re not supposed to use a pen, but it’s not usually a problem. Or, I draw with a mechanical pencil if the artwork is fragile – (like this show). Then – I paint in the museum cafe or when I get home.

  9. November 24, 2017 6:07 PM

    Thanks for the tips Marc. Definitely want to keep the museum guards happy! I’ll give it a try on my next museum outing.

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