Five Amazing Works from Five Continents, Brought to You by the Seattle Art Museum

Olivia-Jene Fagon
Jul 25, 2014 8:54PM

The story of the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) unique and global permanent collection starts with its founding director, Dr. Richard E. Fuller, who, in 1931—then president of the Seattle Fine Arts Society—along with his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, donated $250,000 to build a museum on the summit of Capitol Hill in downtown Seattle. The museum was the Fullers’ gift to the city, a place to share the Chinese and Japanese art that they had collected during their extensive travels in the early 1900s, with the citizens of Seattle. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this past summer, the museum now includes both the Seattle Asian Art Museum, with one of the nation’s largest collections of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese art, and the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Today the museum maintains the same global collecting strategy that drove Dr. Fuller, a mission that has helped build a permanent collection of 24,000 works of art, artifacts, and design objects that reflect the artistic contributions of over 140 cultures. “What you try to do is reflect the history of the world,” Fuller once said, “and have odds and ends from everywhere.” The recognition of traditional or indigenous Asian, Pacific, American and African arts as works of art rather than simply objects of material and functional culture has a short history in European and American art institutions, making Fuller’s vision and SAM’s present collections that much more striking. The museum didn’t even establish an American art department until 2004.

Explore the story of the museum’s diverse permanent collection through five amazing works from five continents. 

1. ASIA: Japanese Segment of the Hell Scroll: Hell of Shrieking Sounds, ca. 1200

A remarkable example of the canonical Japanese hell scrolls, this handscroll painting or emaki from the Kamakura period (1185–1392 A.D.) depicts the tortuous afterlife described in Buddhist sutra. In the Japanese sect of Buddhism from this time period, hell or naraka was comprised of varying realms of hell and sub-hells, each with distinct punishments for the specific sins of those unlucky enough to find themselves there. This scroll refers to “Hell of the Shrieking Sounds,” a hell reserved for Buddhist monks who torture animals. Like all emaki, this segment’s text and image were intended to be read from right to left while the scroll is held in the viewer’s hand or laid on a flat surface. Hell scrolls were commonly produced on commision to garner karmic merit for the artist or their wealthy patron. They were also placed in temples as a way for Buddhist practitioners to meditate on pain, suffering, and the corporeality of the body—the Buddhist vocation being to transcend these things. 

2. SOUTH AMERICA: Cylinder vase depicting scribes in the Underworld, ca. 600 -900

Curious as to how Mayan cosmology imagined the underworld? The intricately painted surface of this ceramic vase, most likely used as a drinking vessel, depicts the third plane dubbed xibalba (or the ‘the black hole’ or ‘place of fright’), below sky and earth, in the Mayan cosmos. This hand-coiled ceramic was decorated using iron-oxide pigments, and the glyphs on its surface (the patterning on the top of the vase) remain undeciphered, they might allude to the vessel’s function or patronage. In the painted image, the souls of 10 scribes proceed into the underworld, a serpent monster at their rear and at the fore, a seated lord or god of death waiting to pass judgment. In xibalba, all Mayan gods had animal counterparts (God L and the armadillo or God D and the bird Itzam Yeh, for example) and could transform between these two guises at will. The god depicted here could possibly be God K, who transforms his leg into the serpent Och Chan.

3. OCEANIA: House mask, Melanesian, Rattan, shell, feathers, wood, pigment, fiber

Would you guess that this House Mask depicts a mother’s face? This traditional Melanesian mask made of rattan, shells, wood, and feathers, was modeled after the face of a mythic mother figure, the creator of all life for the Iatmul people, the largest ethnic group in Papua, New Guinea, located in the Sepik River region. In Iatmul culture ceremonial houses where important judicial meetings and rituals were held were exclusively the province of men. This mask would have been placed at the highest gable of one of these sacred houses and the building’s ground structure would then symbolically represent the mother’s body, with men entering and exiting the building, moving into and out from her protection. The Iatmul’s image of this omni-mother figure was commanding: the mask’s nose represents a boar’s tusk, symbolizing fearlessness and the mask’s eyes replicate the feathers of a cassowary, a large, indigenous, flightless bird with aggressive and powerful physical capabilities.

4. AFRICA: Standing figure (Nkondi)

In the 19th century in traditional Congolese villages (located in the southwest region of present-day Zaire and Angola), this powerful carved figure called ankisi nkondi or ‘nail figure’ played an important role in daily religious and judicial life. Used to resolve social and legal conflicts, to heal ailments, and offer protection, minkondi (plural for nkondi) were understood to contain spirits and derived their supernatural power from medicinal substances lodged into openings on the figure’s torso or body. During judicial procedures the nkondi was presented by a religious specialist to those in a disagreement or those who were unwell. Similar to the convention of signing a contract, once a resolution was met it was symbolically driven into the body of the nkondi with a sharp object. The blades, nails, and other pointed objects embedded in this figure represent the lawsuits, arguments, or oaths that were resolved in this figure’s community. Each of the nkondi’s features has intentional ritual and symbolic meaning: the mirrored eyes represent truth-seeing, its open mouth and stuck-out tongue signals that the figure will speak with authority on behalf of the spiritual entities it contains, and its assertive pose—a stance referred to as pakalala— represents unquestionable power.

5. NORTH AMERICA: Lkaayaak yeil s'aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat), ca. 1850

This traditional hand-carved hat depicts the Raven figure from the mythological story of the Tlingit people, a group of clans in southeast Alaska. In Tlingit mythology, Raven, also called Yehl, is the creator figure, a trickster character who released the sun, moon, and stars into the sky from a box kept hidden by an old chief, Naas Shakee Yeil, thus illuminating the world. This hat would have been worn only during important ceremonies to represent an encounter between ancestral or natural energies and a clans member. Mainly carved from wood, the headdress also uses bird skin and feathers, while abalone shells were inlaid into the bird figure’s eyes and teeth, and the crown is adorned with sea lion whiskers.  

Explore more collection highlights from the Seattle Art Museum on Artsy.

Olivia-Jene Fagon