Edmund S. Carpenter was an anthropologist and media theorist who helped found the field of visual anthropology. He was also an astute collector of indigenous art. This followed life-changing experiences during Carpenter’s years of field work in the Arctic and his teaching and working with Marshall McLuhan during the 1950s (much of which was concerned with differences between oral and literate cultures). Carpenter conceived and installed the eye-opening and category-challenging installation in the Menil’s permanent collection galleries called Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, a critically and culturally astute cabinet of wonders.
The Menil exhibition MicroCosmos: Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art (August 2015–February 2016) displays the Old Bering Sea material he collected, and also includes two Yup’ik masks, one of which Carpenter included in the original 1999 installation of Witnesses. Here’s what he had to say in a book of 1973 about then-standard practices of museum display of such objects (still called “primitive”) compared with their native context.
I think a great deal of preliterate art is designed by artists who mute sight and that this art is viewed by audiences who perceive it in semidarkness or through half-closed eyes. Native house interiors are often dark. Ceremonies outside are frequently held at night by firelight. Costumed performers, which may include just about everyone, are generally masked, with restricted vision, and even when their faces aren’t covered, they frequently lower their eyelids, even close their eyes.
When we put primitive art on museum display, isolated, on a pedestal, against a white background, under intense light, we violate the intention of the maker & create an effect far removed from the original.(1)
You can see in these two pictures different installations of a single mask, a wolf: the photograph on the right shows it in Witnesses (upper left), and in the photograph above the wolf mask is beside the caribou mask with which it forms a pair, displayed together for the first time in a museum in the MicroCosmos exhibition.