On ViewModern Art Oxford
October 2, 2020 – January 31, 2021
A water vessel with a hole cannot fulfill its intended function. In Between making and knowing something at Modern Art Oxford (MAO), Mariana Castillo Deball kills the utilitarian aspect of her Zuni pueblo-inspired red stoneware ceramics in a ceremonial action, perforating them with “kill-holes,” intentionally making them “something useless.” She reinforces Ad Reinhardt’s notion of art as art for art’s sake, departing from didacticism and opting instead toward play. In dialogue with artists such as Cecilia Vicuña, Nalini Malani, and Haegue Yang, who reorient viewers through scale in genre-defying installations, Deball forgoes formal systems of display, disinterested in simply imitating the original use of the objects or their museological function.
Strung precariously from the ceiling, the ceramics are threaded together by one continuous black rope which unspools across the space. They orbit around suspended swaths of ikat-pattern dyed fabric from unfinished rebozos, Mexican shawl-type garments made using backstrap looms. The textiles are traditionally two meters long, sometimes ceremonial, sometimes worn by pregnant women for belly massages, but here eight meters of fabric stretch from floor to ceiling, unwoven in order to highlight their complex technology. The exhibition is quietly immersive and offers a multitude of entry points and sight-lines, enveloping viewers in a phenomenological experience of the space. Born out of extensive archival research in the Pitt Rivers and Smithsonian Museum’s special collections, Deball’s work questions museological histories and uncovers the hidden legacies of four early female anthropologists. At its core, Between making and knowing something addresses how cultural knowledge is produced, and is both deeply rooted in historical research and playfully unmoored from it.
Although Deball has previously explored the biography of objects, here, she recenters the focus on the objects’ travel histories, their provenance and anthology and how they came to be where they are. Deball’s vessels began as reproductions of those made by We’wha (1849–96), a Zuni “two-spirit” or lhamana, a male-bodied person who performed tasks relegated to women, such as pottery and textiles. Deball began her process by consulting records by Matilda Coxe Stevenson, a female anthropologist who was among the first in the field, working during the emergence of the discipline when the borders between making and knowing were unclear. Notoriously rejected by the Zuni community for her forbidden documentation of their rituals, which they considered a violent intrusion, in 1886, Stevenson escorted We’wha to Washington D.C. to officially record indigenous cultural traditions for a museum setting. While in D.C., We’wha planted prayer feathers, weaved on a back-strap loom, and offered pottery, photographs, and textiles. However, as Smithsonian scholar Gwyneira Isaac notes, these contributions were accessioned into the museum without accreditation. We’wha's presence can only be inferred by scant photographs and newspaper accounts that documented her diplomatic visit, leaving gaps in her material legacy. Inspired by We’wha’s objects, Deball experiments with new techniques to form hybrid vessels. This dissonance between critiquing an anthropological gaze and creating objects that are only possible through vestiges of that gaze is a central tension in the work.
In order to produce the rebozos, Deball commissioned Michoacán-based weaving collective Ukata, due to the sophisticated technology of the backlooms they use. The newspapers which served as protection for the rebozos as they were shipped from Mexico to the UK, are repurposed in the exhibition as a domestic wallpaper in a nod to Deball’s interest in the discarded, extraneous, and ostensibly functional. Opposite the newsprint covered wall stand three 19th-century vitrines, two of which display photographs from the Pitt Rivers Museum, where the University of Oxford’s archaeological and anthropological collections reside. Deball’s selection of images showcase two early anthropologists, Elsie McDougall (1883–1961), and Makereti (1873–1930). McDougall devoted her academic life to studying textile cultures and her maps of insular Mayan villages in Guatemala and Mexico are a rarity. Makereti’s forgotten academic and material legacy is conveyed through images of her ethnographic fieldwork, domestic space, and highly staged portraits, which reveal her penchant for refashioning her self-image. Her mixed heritage allowed her to traverse both Maori and Victorian society, working as a Maori ambassador and studying anthropology as an Oxford student. Among many self-determined monikers, she called herself “Maggie Papakura,” after the “Papakura” geyser she once led tourists through.
The vitrines, on loan from Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, establish site specificity and root the photographs in a sense of place. The sheets of newspaper, incidental things, not artwork but ephemera, originate from the same region that McDougall once studied, establishing a lineage between the region’s ancient textile practices and its continued life with Ukata, who undertake the same technological process today, one hundred years later. The newsprint offers a contemporary backdrop, with headlines ranging from narcotics and human trafficking to women’s demonstrations and the U.S. election. Alongside McDougall’s photographs, this visual culture is rendered a palimpsest remnant of a pre-Colombian past and a post-colonial present.
Often taking turns toward the theatrical, Deball lets a third vitrine stand empty. A looping audio work from the perspective of the vitrine narrates confusion at its own void, concluding: “this vitrine is left empty, as a symbol of respect to all the objects that have been taken without consent.” Keenly attuned to the uncanny phenomena of material culture, Deball subverts traditional uses of museum vitrines by asserting their power, a material exploration of how cultural knowledge is produced. Disinterested in making moral judgements, she casts a speculative shadow on these objects and allows viewers to come to their own conclusions.
Deball calls her approach “absurd,” yet it is this approach—liberating objects from function and playing with scale—that gives her critique of the anthropological gaze its sting. Her commitment to playfulness, and to providing different entry points, is never stated explicitly yet it resounds throughout her practice. Almost umbilical, her kill holes, cotton rope, and museum vitrines raise questions around the ethics of documentation, reproduction, and display. They call attention to museological attempts to define a fixable value in an object or work of art and testify to how when they do, they miss the mark.