Horror, repulsion, bafflement. These were strange emotions for me in a place that normally signified beauty and order and peace.
I had walked right into the same art museum I had visited a hundred times. Usually, I would go up the stairs one level, pass by the front desk, and head directly into the European art hall. On a normal visit, Gauguin’s Pont Aven collection summons me siren-style, then I wander forwards and backwards to Cezanne, Pissaro, Monet.
But on one particular summer day, I decided not to treat the art museum as my own private collection. I walked into the less familiar galleries to look at art from different traditions, other sensibilities, continents where my ancestors had never traveled.
The Asian gallery was cool and dark and subdued. Several scrolls hung rolled out, meticulous brush strokes depicting mountains and sky and sea, forming words that looked like houses and gates and bridges. These looked like the scrolls that hang in my writing studio, purchased from street artists in poor cities in China. They weren’t as unfamiliar as I expected.
But as I entered the African gallery, a giant mask hung provocatively before me. The straw hair hung like a grass skirt, the face appearing as a man, a dog, and a crocodile all at the same time. I turned away, a little disgusted, but all around me I saw more masks, crude statues, clothing with drawings of animals and trees. The crocodile mask wasn’t a one-off cultural anomaly; it was part of a tradition. A tradition I knew so little about.
I forced myself to pause a moment in front of several of the pieces, each in its turn, admiring the craftsmanship. It called to mind history and I considered the rituals of a culture that included art and representation and imaginative storytelling. I read the descriptions next to the glass cases and discovered that many of these items were more contemporary than I expected, and most were part of transition ceremonies that moved boys and girls through life, into adulthood and marriage and parenting and old age. Eventually, to death.
I thought of my own life and its lack of transition. My own spiritual tradition ritualizes very few rites of passage: birth, marriage, childbirth, and death. Our larger culture celebrates only a few other markers: driving at 16 and drinking at 21. I marked 18 by voting, though many bypass that rite. Friends gathered when I turned 30 and 40. But transition? Not really.
“Much of traditional African art is concerned with the communal desire for all members of society to proceed safely through life transitions,” one of the placards read. Surely I share that desire with the communities I am a part of. But do I mark it and celebrate it for myself, for others? Especially for those, like me, who may pass from childhood into adulthood in less traditional ways, who have matured through years of singleness rather than in marriage and parenthood.
I left the African art gallery and turned the corner into a special exhibit of modern American fashion. The juxtaposition was stark. In bright and airy lighting, thin, aloof mannequins sported creations from designers Norell, Blass, Halston & Sprouse. There were day dresses and evening dresses, suits and coats. Some of the designs looked destined to go no farther than the runway; others were styles I’ve worn myself.
Some of the patterns were repulsive, some horrifying. Yet the artistry and craftsmanship were unmistakable. Not much of a fashionista, I forced myself to take it in, to stand and observe, to read and learn. I saw dresses worn at inaugural balls and dresses marking significant career moments for the rich and famous among us.
Then, I thought of the evening gowns I wore to my high school proms, the day dress I wore to my college graduation, the suits I wore to job interviews.
Perhaps I was proceeding safely after all.
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