“The Clamor of Ornament”, a dazzling new exhibition at the Drawing Center, gathers nearly 200 drawings, etchings, photographs, tunics and weaves to tell an intricate tale, one spanning five centuries, of cultural exchange and appropriation.
The curators define ornament as “embellishment, surface or structural, that can be taken out of context, reworked, reproduced, and repurposed.” This wide-open description gives them space to include almost anything, and they do: there are woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer from the early 16th century, a painting in bark by an anonymous Papua New Guinean artist, a series black and white pies and pastries that illustrator Tom Hovey drew for a coloring book version of “The Great British Bake Off.”
An ingenious exhibition design lets you imagine these squiggles and fringes jumping around the world as if they were totally weightless. One of the Dürers, a lace medallion inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of an Ottoman design, hangs next to a 1968 Bob Dylan poster with a similar circle on his forehead; elsewhere, in a series of 19th-century watercolors and woodcuts, textile patterns bounce between India, Europe, and Japan.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the medallion on Dylan’s forehead or with the other circles that designer Martin Sharp used to depict the musician’s hair. But in the 1800s, when such patterns were all the rage in Western Europe, they were associated with racist notions of “the East” — a fantasy constructed to romanticize the people who Europeans conquered and robbed.
You can see the romance in Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s enchanting silver daguerreotype of an Egyptian mosque or in a drawing, attributed to the Persian court architect Mirza Akbar, of the intricate tile work. that inspired the English architect Owen Jones to write a prescriptive book-length study of artistic and architectural ornamentation. (Jones’ book “The Grammar of Ornament,” published in 1856, is the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.)
“Clamor of Ornament” also offers evidence of the ruthlessness of industrialization and of colonialism – at least as it appeared in art. There is the drawing of “the Red Fort, Delhi, decorated according to English taste”; the stylized Kashmiri mango ripped off by textile mills in the Scottish town of Paisley; made the American flag in a Navajo weave after the Navajo were confined to a reservation where they had to import wool. (In her erudite catalog essay, Emily King, co-curator of the exhibition, quotes economic historian Kazuo Kobayashi as saying that Indian-made cotton “was the main trade in exchange for African slaves”.)
You also see people using appropriation to push back against oppression and cultural erasure. But none of these exchanges are easy. Appearing here via several photos, Harlem designer Dapper Dan pioneered a new take on black style that borrowed corporate and fashion logos—an innovation later appropriated by those same companies themselves. The artist Wendy Red Star annotates historic photographs of Crow diplomats and restores the meaning of feathers and hair bows that were belittled and misunderstood by white Americans at the time. But that meaning comes with its own kind of violence. One hair bow, she writes, represents “physically conquering an enemy and slitting his throat.”
In the end, the exhibition makes not so much an argument as a whole series – a conceptual hubbub that deepens and amplifies the already overwhelming visual experience. On the one hand, as the discussions of cultural appropriation become increasingly fierce and lose nuance, we desperately need reminders like this of how difficult it still is to untangle reality. On the other hand, as a visitor to the exhibition, I ended up in a decontextualization of my own, eliminating the hip but informative wall labels designed by Studio Frith and instead focusing on the pure sensual pleasures of an air-conditioned gallery filled with a special collection of beautiful objects.
Some people are drawn to the bold colors of Emma Pettway’s Gee’s Bend quilt (2021), Toyohara Kunichika’s 1864 woodblock series “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men” or the temporary wall covered in an 18th-century French pattern called “Reveillon Arabesque 810 .” But I found myself drawn to the simpler, monochromatic certainties of John Maeda’s trippy typographical posters, of a zigzagging “Tapa Cloth Fragment” from Oceania, or of a copy of 19th-century scrimshaw. The engraved bone is barely six inches long and shows a densely hatched whale surrounded by distressed sailors as it destroys their whaler.It was intoxicating to think that the very small scene, full of drama and pathos, might just be another piece of free-floating ornament.
The Scream of Ornament: Exchange, Power and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present
Until September 18 at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, Manhattan; (212) 219-2166, drawingcenter.org.