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Artworks

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Works from the Permanent Collection
A hanging sculpture made of different sizes and shapes of tires and other rubber objects

A figural sculpture with long arms and legs appears to stride forward

L’homme qui marche II (Walking Man II)

Alberto Giacometti

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In what ways does this figure look similar to a real human? In what ways does this figure look very different from a real human?

If someone asked you to describe a human body, you might say it has arms, legs, a torso, and a head. This sculpture has all of those features, but something about them is very different from a regular human! Every part of his body looks stretched out.

The figure is as skinny as a skeleton, but the way his body parts are put together looks different from the way a human’s body is put together.

The sculpture is as skinny as a stick figure, but doesn’t quite look like a stick figure either.

A photo of a model skeleton next to a black line drawing of a stick figure

In what ways is this sculpture’s shape different from a stick figure or skeleton?

Why do you think the artist made this sculpture look both similar and different from the form of a human being?

How could this person be feeling?

Look closely at the sculpture’s face. Like the rest of his body, his face looks both similar to and different from a real face.

Does the sculpture have eyes, a nose, a mouth, and ears? In what ways do these features look both different from and similar to real ones?

The thin face of a weathered bronze figural sculpture

This person’s face looks stretched out and skinny, like the rest of his body. His nose sticks out a little bit, and his ear blends in with the texture of the rest of his face. The eyes are round and big, and look like they are staring straight ahead.

Even though the man’s face is very simple, it still looks like he is feeling something. What could he be feeling?

Emojis also look very different from real human faces, but look like they are feeling something. Does this man’s face look like any of these emojis?

A grid of 24 yellow face expression emojis

Have you ever heard the phrase “a long face”?

If someone describes “a long face,” they are talking about someone who looks sad or disappointed. In what ways does that description fit with this man’s face? In what ways is that description different from this man’s face?

How would it feel to stand like this sculpture?

Look closely at the way this figure is standing. He has one long leg stretched out in front of him. The other leg is extended behind him. He is leaning he body forward, with his hands and arms stretched out by his sides. His heels are lifting off the ground, but the rest of his foot looks stuck in place. His feet are very far apart. His head is looking forward and his eyes are looking straight ahead.

Try standing with the same position as this sculpture. Take a moment to stand still, just like this, and notice how it feels. What words come into your mind when you stand like this? Do you feel steady or unsteady? Do you feel confident or shy? Do you feel tired or awake?

You might have already read the title of this sculpture: “Walking Man II.” How can we tell this man is walking, even though the sculpture is completely still?

Pedestrians walk in a group down a city street

The artist who created this, Alberto Giacometti, spent many hours watching people as they moved around the city streets. He said, “every second the people stream together and go apart.”

If this sculpture could move, how do you think he would look while walking? Would he walk quickly or slowly?

 

If the sculpture came to life, what would this man do?

Imagine if this walking man were alive. What would he say if he could speak? What would his voice sound like? Would he speak loudly or softly?

Imagine having a conversation with an alive version of this sculpture. What would you ask him? What would he tell you? Where has he come from, and where is he going?

Giacometti created many sculptures in similar positions to this one. Sometimes they were different sizes or different materials, but very often they were human figures walking, like this one. Why do you think an artist would want to create similar works of art over and over again?

By making sculptures of human figures again and again, Giacometti got to learn about how humans look, and how they move. He used art to explore the idea of what makes a human being look like a human.

Once, Giacometti said that he was inspired to create these sculptures after watching a friend walk away from him, fading into the distance. The friend got smaller and smaller as he walked away. Giacometti stopped being able to see the details of how his friend looked, but still saw and felt something about who they were as a person.

Have you ever noticed something similar while watching a person who is far away?

A black and white photo of a figure standing at a far distance down a long road

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A painted jug with an animal head spout and two arms, supported by two feet and a tail

Jaguar effigy jar

Costa Rica

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In what ways does this work of art look similar to or different from a real jaguar?

Just like a real jaguar, the jaguar on this work of art has long, pointed fangs, rounded ears, and big eyes. Long black claws are painted onto its hands and feet. It has a tail, arms, legs, and a head.

A jaguar prowls on sand with green plants behind it

But the pattern on the jaguar jar is very different from a real jaguar! Instead of irregular spots, the jaguar jar is painted with many different designs. How many different types of designs and patterns can you find?

Of course, real jaguars aren’t usually shaped like jars! This jaguar also looks like he is sitting down, rather than crawling or running like a real jaguar. What other differences can you find?

Why did the artist choose to shape this jar like a jaguar?

The jaguar is a fierce, powerful, and beautiful animal. Jaguars live in the rainforests of Central America, the region between North America and South America. This jar was made in the same region, about 800 years ago! If you look at a map, the place where this artwork was created is located in a country that is today called Costa Rica.

A graphic map of North and South America highlighting Costa Rica

Jaguars are some of the most powerful hunters and predators (meaning that they eat other animals) in this part of the world! They are so strong that they can hunt many different kinds of animals, on land, in trees, and in the water. They can hunt and eat anything from crocodiles to deer, and can even crack through a tortoise’s thick shell.

This video can teach you more cool facts about jaguars:

The people who made this jar believed that jaguars were able to communicate with both human beings and gods! When they saw jaguars hunting on the ground, in the water, and in the trees, and they believed that jaguars were moving between multiple worlds—the world of humans, and the world of the gods. 

When would this jar have been used?

This jaguar-shaped vessel wasn’t just made to be looked at! People would have used this jar to drink out of, which is why it is sometimes called a drinking vessel. Vessel means something that can hold liquid.

What kinds of occasions do you think this jar would have been used for? Would people have used all the time, or only sometimes?

This jar would have been used for special occasions. We know this because the jar is decorated so carefully, because it isn’t chipped or broken, and because it is in the shape of this special animal.

Can you think of any objects that you only use for special occasions? Why do you save these things for special times?

This jar would have been used for ceremonies, which are special occasions and celebrations to honor an event, person, or thing. This jar would have been used in a ceremony connecting people to the gods.

The figure of the jaguar was one way this jar connected people to the gods. Another way this jar connected people to the gods was through sound! This jar makes a special sound—can you guess what kind of sound it might make?

If you look closely at the jar’s legs, you can see small openings. The arms have small holes in them too. The arms and legs are hollow, and contain tiny clay balls inside them. The clay balls are bigger than the openings, and can’t get out of the holes. Instead, whenever the jar is moved, the balls move around inside the legs and create a rattling sound! The people who used this jar believed that the rattling sound was another way to connect to the gods.

What kind of food or drink did this jar once hold?

During ceremonies, people would use this jar to drink a special beverage you might be familiar with, using this ingredient… 

A photo of brown cacao nibs next to a photo of hands harvesting seeds from a cacao plant

Cacao! Cacao beans come from the cacao tree, which grows in the rainforest. These beans were valuable not just as a food. Sometimes the beans were even used as currency, or a form of money, which could be traded for other things.

During ceremonies like the one this jar would be used for, people would grind up cacao beans, and create a hot, frothy drink with them… hot chocolate! If you’ve ever had chocolate, you’ve tasted cacao too, but it probably tasted very different from the way the people using this jar would have prepared it.

In order for cacao to taste good, the beans (which you can see in the image above) have to be fermented, and then roasted. Ferment means to let something change naturally over time. The technologies we use to do this today didn’t exist when this jar was made – instead of fermenting beans with special equipment, people would let the beans ferment outside, under leaves. Instead of using an oven with a carefully measured temperature, like we have today, people would have roasted the beans directly on an open fire.

The hot chocolate in this jar would also have tasted quite different from the hot chocolate we know, because people would not have added sugar or milk. Instead, they often added other spices and flavors, including spicy peppers!

What kinds of flavors have you tasted in chocolate? What kinds of flavors would you add, if you could add any from your imagination?

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A hanging sculpture made of different sizes and shapes of tires and other rubber objects

When Thoughts Collide

Chakaia Booker

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What different textures and patterns can you find on this sculpture? 

This sculpture is full of different textures! Texture describes how something would feel if you touched it.

Some sections on this sculpture are smooth and shiny. Some edges look sharp, some look rough. There are thick black chunks, and there are tiny white threads (those are hard to spot!). Small, hard circles are right next to rough, flexible tubes.

A pattern is a design that gets repeated over and over again. This sculpture contains many circles—small ones and large ones. There are also many loops, swirls, zigzags, and lines.

Can you find sections in the sculpture that match with the textures or patterns these images show?

A photo of wet stones, a photo of plain cooked noodles, and a photo of brown twigs

 

You’ve probably guessed by now…

The artist used many types of tires to create this work of art!

Can you match these images to the different kinds of tires the artist used in her sculpture?

A photo of a man's feet on a skateboard, a photo of a green tractor with red hubcaps, and a photo of a child riding a bicycle

Find a sections made out of a kind of tire or rubber you’ve never seen before.

What do the different patterns or textures on different sections tell you about what that piece might have been used for? 

Who made this sculpture?

Chakaia Booker is the name of the artist who created this sculpture. She is famous for making large sculptures out of recycled tires. In this picture she’s standing next to one of her huge sculptures in New York City.

A Black woman wears a colorful fabric sculpture on her head and stands on a city street next to a large tire sculpture

Chakaia Booker doesn’t just work with rubber. She is also famous for creating huge, fabric sculptures, which she wears. “I sculpt myself every day,” she sometimes says. It’s like getting dressed in the morning is another way of making art!

Imagine having so much fabric on your head—how would it feel? Would you move differently because of it? Try taking a little walk around your space, imagining you have a wearable sculpture on your head.

Does the tire sculpture we’re looking at have any similarities with the fabric sculptures Chakaia Booker makes? In what ways does it look similar or different?

What would it feel like to wear the tire sculpture? What would it smell like? What would it look like? 

Why did this artist make a sculpture out of tires?

Chakaia Booker has lived in New York City for most of her life. In the 1980s, she started using the old, broken tires she found in the city to create sculptures.

Why do you think she used old tires to make art, instead of using new materials?

We can find out some of these reasons from the artist herself! Listen to the artist speaking about the choices behind her work: 

Chakaia Booker says “discarded material comes with its own history!” Discarded means something has been thrown away.

What reasons for making art out of tires surprised you? What questions would you ask this artist if you got to have a conversations?

In other interviews with the artist, she has shared more reasons for using tires:

  • They were easy to find in New York City, where she was living when she started making art out of tires. People would leave old, broken tires around the city, and Chakaia Booker would use them to create sculptures.
  • They are strong, and won’t break if left outside. Sometimes sculptors choose to make art that can be left outside, so that anyone can see it and learn from it.
  • Old tires have stories attached to them, and mean so many different things to the different people who look at them.

Choose one piece of tire from the sculpture to focus on. Imagine: what could be the history of this piece of tire? Where did it come from? Where has it been? 

Have you ever made something out of an old, used material? Where did you find it? What did you do with it? 

How can the title help us understand this artwork?

This sculpture is called When Thoughts Collide. Collide means to hit or bump into something forcefully.

Can you think of examples of things colliding? What does it sound like when things collide? What does it feel like? 

A photo of a bowling ball striking pins, a graphic of two hands high-fiving, and a photo of a hammer above a nail

How does the title of this artwork change how you see it?

Why do you think Chakaia Booker gave her sculpture this title?

Artists name their artworks for many different reasons. Sometimes they create a work of art, then pick a title based on what the artwork reminds them of. Sometimes they create the artwork with a particular title in mind. The title adds meaning to the artwork, but we don’t always know exactly why.

What do your thoughts look like when they collide? What do they feel like when they collide? What sounds would they make if they collided? What material would you use to show your thoughts colliding? 

 

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A figural sculpture with a human face painted on

Solider

China

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Why are there openings in the figure’s hands?

These openings tell us that this figure was once holding something in his hands. Looking closely at his arms and hands can give us more clues: one arm is bent at the elbow, holding something up. The other is stretched straight to their side. Their hands are clenched in fists.

These details tell us that this figure once held some kind of weapon in their fists!

Why do you think the weapon is no longer there?

This figure was created in ancient China, about 2,000 years ago! The body is made out of clay, but the weapons the figure was holding were likely made out of medal or wood, which rotted or rusted away over time.

How do we know?

People who study the things humans have left behind, and how they have changed over time, are called archaeologists. Archaeologists helped discover this artwork, and helped figure out that it is missing its weapons. Learn more about what archaeologists do in this video: 

If this figure came to life, what would its job be?

Take a closer look at how this figure is standing. His feet are standing quite far apart, and his back is straight and tall. He is looking straight ahead. This figure is meant to represent a warrior, or a soldier! Warriors are meant to protect people and things. 

Imagine: What would this warrior say if he came to life? What would he tell you about?

What other examples of warriors, soldiers, or fighters can you think of? How do these look similar or different from the clay warrior figure? 

A full suit of samurai armor with a gold horned helmet and light blue coverings

This is the armor a samurai would wear. Samurai were powerful warriors from Japan.

An etching of an armored man on horseback centered in an apocalyptic landscape

This print shows a knight wearing metal armor! He is also holding many weapons—can you spot all the different kinds? 

 

 

What was the purpose of this artwork?

This object was made to be buried under ground, in a tomb. A tomb is a place where people who have died are buried. The inside of the tomb might have looked something like this: 

An enclosed stone crypt with golden light and carvings on the walls

In ancient China, where this object was created almost 2,000 years ago, people believed that once you passed away, you entered the afterlife. They believed that in the afterlife, people would need to be cared for, just as they had been cared for in life. People who had died needed tools, shelter, protection, and entertainment. These objects meant for burial are called mingqi, which means spirit objects.

This warrior figure would have had the job of protecting the person who had died.

The Johnson Museum has other objects from ancient China that would also be used for caring for people who had died. What do you think these things are used for? 

An old metal container with a spout and lid

This is a model of a stove. It would have been put in a tomb so that people could cook delicious food in the afterlife. 

A metal model of a well

This is a model of a well. People needed to be able to drink fresh water in the afterlife. 

A sculpture on a wood base of a figure holding a stringed musical instrument

This musician would have provided beautiful music to entertain people in the afterlife. 

What objects or people would you bring along to the afterlife? 

What can this object tell us about the people who made it?

People made these things to keep their ancestors safe and happy in the afterlife. Ancestors are your relatives who are older than you, from parents to uncles to great-great-great-grandmothers.

In the ancient Chinese society where this object was created, people believed that if their ancestors were happy, they would help the people who were still alive on earth.

The Johnson Museum has several of warrior figures who look similar to this one. Each one was found in a different person’s tomb, in different parts of China. Because there are so many of them from different areas, we know that many people from different places had the same beliefs about wanting to protect and honor their ancestors through these objects. 

A group of nine figural sculptures with a human faces

Have you learned about any other cultures that think about death in a similar way to ancient China? Have you ever seen art or objects from those cultures? 

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A landscape painting with white European and Black Caribbean people, a blue sky with white clouds, green trees, and a rocky ground.

View of Roseau Valley, Island of Dominica, showing Africans, Carib Indians, and Creole Planters

Agostino Brunias

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Agostino Brunias crafted popular pictures for elite European audiences before joining the British colonial administration in 1770 to document life on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Tasked with depicting the newly acquired colony for British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic, Brunias produced views that play up its exoticism and natural bounty.

Brunias’s official role suggests that this work must be an accurate observation of life on Dominica. However, he combined his sketches from life with established artistic genres to construct idealized scenes. Here, a stream provides a pretense to gather a spectrum of Dominica’s inhabitants. Brunias renders costume, skin color, and activities with ethnographic specificity. Each of his figure studies provides the viewer with cues about group identity and social status—the strolling landowners recall popular portraits of English gentry outdoors, while the women washing clothes bring to mind sentimental paintings of the working class. These types would have been familiar to Brunias’s audiences, allowing him to communicate the complicated social, class, and racial structures resulting from colonization on Dominica within a painting that reads as an attractive scene of leisure and labor.

—Leah Sweet, former Lynch Curatorial Coordinator for Academic Programs at the Johnson Museum

Sugar and Agriculture

Agriculturally, Brunias’s View of Roseau Valley shows the availability of four important components for successful farming: land, water, labor, and a tropical environment. To the left, land has been cleared for cropping, though the actual crop is not easy to identify. There is plenty of water flowing from the hills indicating sufficient rainfall, even for irrigation or watering in dry spells. Agricultural labor is not depicted, yet the fields beyond the river are harvested and the houses have thatched roofs made with straw from the crop. Domestic work such as washing clothes, gathering wood, and carrying heavy items also suggests an available work force. There seems to be no animosity toward the probable landowners strolling on the right. The peaceful scene only hints at the major land development that occurred on Dominica during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with indigenous, imported, and slave labor.

British Dominica was known in the eighteenth century for its sugarcane plantations, many of which were financed by absentee landowners in England. These estates populated the island’s coastal lowlands, whose productivity and availability are highlighted in this painting. In contrast, the lush, mountainous interior of the island in the background appears uncultivated, though it was and remains an important site for farming tree crops such as coffee due to its cooler climate. This omission likely stems from British economic and agricultural focus on sugarcane as an export crop in the mid- to late eighteenth century.

—Peter Hobbs, adjunct professor / associate director, IP-CALS academic program, School of Integrative Plant Science, Soil and Crop Sciences Section, Cornell University

 

Imperial Social Engineering

Imagine a part of the world where and when European imperial sovereignties could cast themselves across the Atlantic Ocean because of their unprecedented utopian and, at the same time, violent experiments with human labor. Besides having to “invent” the region theologically, intellectually, politically, and artistically because neither it nor its indigenous inhabitants existed in the Scriptures, what turned the islands into utopian experiments were accounts, such as Columbus’s, in which he depicted the archipelago as a bountiful new Eden, replete with familiar and strange resources and docile souls. It was not coincidental that later in Utopia (1516), Thomas More imagined his ideal society as an island that could be hewn from rock. Nor did Shakespeare miss the mark in his representation of the relations of power between masters, servants, and local slaves on an island in The Tempest (1611). By the eighteenth century, Caribbean sugar production, as C. L . R. James demonstrates in The Black Jacobins (1938), provided western Europe with room for its most advanced technologies and most widespread use of indigenous, slave, and indentured labor.

When I closely examine Brunias’s View of Roseau Valley, I consider the unlikely composite and staged nature of the landscape and its posed characters a fitting depiction of the power and wherewithal of European empires to invent and experiment with Dominica’s island society. The vegetation is both European and Caribbean, and the people, as in fictions of pure species, apparently unmixed. Brunias’s painting is both an erroneous depiction of the natural world and an appropriate rendering of imperial social engineering.

—Gerard Aching, Professor of Africana and Romance Studies (retired), Cornell University

 

Violence: Gendered and Raced

View of Roseau Valley might be viewed alongside the most visible literary portrayal of Caribbean slavery in eighteenth-century England, Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko (1688) and its subsequent theatrical redactions. Behn’s and Brunias’s visions are connected in two ways: both feature a female centerpiece; and Oroonoko places into fluid contact the indigenous Carib population, the African slave, and the British planters, just as the painting provides the viewer with a similarly shifting landscape of racial identities.

Behn’s narrative version of this scenario might then offer suggestions for an interpretation of Brunias’s vision. The central female figure of Oroonoko—the beautiful, doomed Imoinda—seems momentarily to resolve the dispersed identities of the novella, as her beauty transcends race and slavery. In the same way, Brunias’s bright, central female figure holds together the very fair-skinned Creole planters on the one side, her stature and whiteness gathering and balancing theirs, and the laboring, kneeling, washing African and Carib population that she emerges from on the other, since she is burdened as a laborer by the basket on her head.

Yet in Oroonoko violence is the implicit and unavoidable necessity of Imoinda’s perfection. For the reader of Oroonoko, then, the key question for Brunias might be about the violence lurking within this engagement with colonial gender and racial identity: Where is that violence concealed? When does it emerge? How does it taint the pleasant pastimes represented in the valley?

—Laura Schaefer Brown, John Wendell Anderson Professor of English, Cornell University

Textiles and Trade

Brunias depicts an amalgam of dress standards as modeled, shared, or imposed by French and English colonial plantation owners and adapted by various wearers. It is challenging to see this painting as a specific visual report, as the artist recycled figures and poses from one picture to another. However, the painstakingly detailed costumes not only help construct an artificial scene meant to edify and entice British audiences, they capture the very real demand on the island for finished goods such as cloth due to colonial mercantilism.

Dominica’s colonial inhabitants in the eighteenth century, whether free or enslaved, elite or humble, depended on imported textiles to dress. Some were manufactured in France or Britain, who battled for control of the island during this period, while others were imported goods from colonial markets in India and Africa. The British were the most successful in merchandising their own cottons, linens, wools, and silks around the “Atlantic rim,” but both empires had a vested interest in selling national manufactures to their colonies.

The emphatic display of red and blue textiles in this painting similarly raises the question of visible fact or fiction. Brunias gives particular attention to skirts and kerchiefs with red and blue borders or stripes, as well as a bright red parasol, which would have been an unusual sight in Europe. Though this repetition may serve to aesthetically and symbolically unify the figures into one composition, Turkey red and indigo blue were in fact common dyed colors of the day, favored for their beauty and resistance to fading in sunlight and laundering.

—Susan Greene, MA 1994, American Costume Studies, Fiber Science & Apparel Design, Cornell University / independent scholar

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