Discussion goals: By placing each work in a historical context, and by considering its technique and materials, students will be encouraged to relate it to different aspects of memory, including personal and collective memory, nostalgia, and trauma.
Akan artist; memorial head (nsodie)
The Akan have created terracotta memorial portraits since the seventeenth century; in parts of Ghana, such portraits commemorate important community figures to this day. Historically, the families of those who were to be memorialized handpicked the female artists who created their portraits. Each artist visited her subject multiple times to observe their natural essence. Other accounts say that artists worked from facial impressions left in pillows, or from reflections in water or palm wine.
This head memorializes an elite Akan individual, but is not an exact likeness. Instead, it blends idealized royal characteristics (including an elongated head and a “cool” expression with slightly closed eyes, open mouth, and shimmering skin) with individual traits (such as skin color, facial markings, and hairstyle). It is this idea of memory—and conjuring up a person’s essence—that was central to Akan portraits.
Describe the surfaces of this portrait (consider texture, color, and shape).
Compare this idealized portrait to others in global art history. How has the idealized portrait been used to promote cultural values?
Memory is crucial to the process of creating and understanding the subjects of Akan funerary portraits. How can we relate to them if we don’t know the person they depict?
Marcelo Brodsky, The undershirt (La camiseta)
Both a personal and a collective memory, Brodsky’s photograph shows an archival photograph of his brother, Fernando Brodsky, who was among the many students kidnapped, tortured, and killed during the Dirty War, a military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The small photograph of Fernando featured in this work was smuggled out of a clandestine detention camp by Victor Basterra, a survivor of the camp, whose hand is shown holding the archival image.
Do you have any particular associations with the medium of black-and-white photography that you might bring to your reading of this image?
What is the effect of placing a photograph within a photograph?
How can we read this work as social commentary? (How did the work shift in meaning as it moved from archival record to personal memento to work of art)?
Andrew Moore, Model T Headquarters, Highland Park
Moore’s 2009 photograph of the former executive offices of Ford’s Model T Headquarters building in Detroit conveys a sense of both death and rebirth, as the metallic walls of the abandoned space have bloomed into rust and the carpet has sprouted moss. Moore pointed out the themes of decay and growth that are present in the work: “In an urban setting, you could also have a landscape happening, the forces of nature intersecting with American urbanism, the process of decline also intersecting with the revival of nature.”
Many photographers have been interested in capturing architectural ruins or landscapes in a state of ruin. What are the ethical questions implicit in capturing such scenes and memories, and how do these questions change for works that contain figures?
Consider the use of color versus black-and-white photography and their varied effects on the viewer.
What connections might we draw between materiality and nostalgia?
How have our views of the destruction of buildings and man-made destruction changed post-9/11? How might the ruins captured here reflect a particular state of mind or interpretation of history?
Winslow Homer, At the Window
In 1872, Homer produced four closely related scenes featuring this woman (dressed similarly in all four), pensively standing or seated near a window with a view of the landscape outside. Homer chose this painting from the group to exhibit in 1873 in New York. One of the reviews described the painted figure as “a Salem girl,” referring to the Massachusetts seaport—and setting the stage for the work’s interpretation as a depiction of the bereaved companion of a sailor lost at sea.
Describe the details of the figure’s expression, pose, and dress, and relate them to her setting.
What is the relationship between exterior and interior in this painting? Why might it be important with regard to the theme of nostalgia?
What kind of mood is suggested through the contrasts in light and shadow and the use of color?
What do you notice about the particular brushstrokes the artist used and how they vary across the surface of the canvas?
Mummy portrait of a bearded young man
The practice of affixing a lifelike image of the deceased to a mummy cartonnage, or coffin, was one of many Egyptian traditions adopted by the Romans when they added Egypt to their empire. In this painted portrait of a young man, the Roman penchant for realism is melded with traditional Egyptian funerary practice. The wooden board would have been secured over the face by the linen wrappings shrouding the body. Such images were thought to magically preserve the individual character of the soul, and they also functioned as memorials, installed for periods in the courtyards of private homes. These works are often called “Faiyum portraits,” as large numbers of them have been discovered in cemeteries in the Faiyum, an area on the west bank of the Nile, south of Cairo. Although the youth’s features have an individual character, this may not be a true portrait; the oversized eyes, for example, occur in most Fayum portraits. The youth’s dark skin and curly hair hint at the multiethnic composition of Roman Egypt, where, in the great metropolis of Alexandria, Romans mixed with Greeks, Jews, and native Egyptians to form a cosmopolitan society with its own distinctive blend of cultural traditions.
Describe the surface texture achieved with the technique of encaustic.
If the image of the bearded youth is a type, and not a true portrait, how is the memory of an individual evoked?
What does the intimate connection between the portrait and the actual face of the deceased suggest about Roman and Egyptian funerary beliefs?
Examples of classes and checklists:
Andrew Johnson, ANT445/URB445: The Anthropology of Ruins
Sam Wang’s Neuroscience Lab
Susana Draper FRS 105: Memory and Human Rights in Latin America