I have been very fortunate to work on the exhibition, Between Two Worlds, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. This is a unique collection of work from artists affected by war and intolerance in the 20th century, much of it never seen by the public before. On the surface, much of the artwork on display is vibrant and colourful but beneath are stories of artists who were persecuted, interned and displaced. Even within the permissive art world, these individuals faced discrimination and prejudice for not conforming to society’s expectations either through religious beliefs, race or sexuality. The exhibition is also about a time when colonial governments sought to impose Western society and religion, depriving indigenous communities of their cultural identity.
The exhibition draws on artworks from Derbyshire County Council’s own collection, the bequest of Arto Funduklian, the son of Armenian emigres, as well as from the Derbyshire School Library Service. Pictures and artefacts from around the world were purchased by Derbyshire County Council with the classroom in mind and was an innovative education resource, established in the 1930s to lend museum quality objects to schools. A project to oversee the dispersal of the collection, following the closure of the SLS in 2018, received funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, in conjunction with the Museum Association (MA). The MA Code of Ethics is guiding the work.
Some of my favourite objects in the exhibition, and which I was lucky to work on, are the Inuit items. These enigmatic pieces from the frozen Arctic reveal a way of life that is rapidly changing due to the imposition of a Western lifestyle, as well as climate change.
Some of these objects are associated with Shamanism, the practitioners of the indigenous Inuit animist religion. Animism was once widespread across the world and is possibly the oldest form of religious/spiritual expression. Evidence for it goes back at least to the hunter-gatherers of the Ice Age 35,000 years ago. Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This belief system perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems – as animated and alive.
A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing on behalf of an individual or entire community. The role of a shaman is often inherited, and both men and women can take on the role. Today, traditional animistic shamanism is found mainly in the Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia, the Himalayas and among Native American and First Nation tribes.
One of my personal favourite objects is a whale tooth carved into a strange creature, described by one of my colleagues as looking like a Moomin ! However, this is not as cute and cuddly as a Moomin. Known as a Tupilak, this one was made for the tourist market in the mid-20th century. The original Tupilaks were made from perishable materials and their purpose, once they were brought to life by a shaman performing a ritual, was to locate and destroy an enemy. After the ceremony the shaman would place it into water, where it was believed to swim off in search of its prey. Europeans were fascinated by these creatures and so the Inuit began to carve them from marine ivory to sell as curiosities.
Another intriguing object, also carved from marine ivory, depicts an aquatic bird, possibly a cormorant. Closer inspection reveals that the bird has human legs and feet. This beautiful carving depicts a shaman shapeshifting into a bird so that she/he could travel to the spirit world. Shamans believed that during the trance rituals their soul would transform into an animal so that it could safely travel to the spirit world to communicate with the ancestors and spirits to appeal for a good hunt, the safe birth of a child or to heal an illness.
Other Inuit shaman items in the exhibition include a whale tooth carved with depictions of plants and animals that was one of many that hung from a shaman’s cloak, and a soapstone pendant with the facial features contorted as the shaman transforms during a ritual.
These intriguing items have now been transferred from the School Library Service to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
Between two Worlds is on at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until June 10th. Entry to the museum and exhibitions is free and your donations to support the work of the museum are very welcome.