Objects of Unknown Origin

As you might already know Rob and I are the main frame of Shelter. We started the studio nearly 7 years ago, when we met in Vermont as interns at Yestermorrow Design/Build School. We knew within a few weeks of meeting each other that we wanted to collaborate on everything together - life, work, love, adventure, all of it. I hope you have the pleasure of spending time with Rob at some point - he has the most interesting mind and heart I've had the pleasure to know. This week he digs into textiles from the area that is now the country of Benin in West Africa. More on our Pinterest page. Thank you Rob!

Throughout my childhood there hung a cryptic appliquéd tapestry. Down through the years it moved from childhood home to bedroom to dorm room to apartment and finally here to our studio. A vibrant piece of crude but resonant colors and shapes that to me were completely devoid of meaning. The passing eye catches the bright reds and images of a fish but slowing down stops upon a dismembered leg and a man being hung. A stirring iconography that five years ago I finally found the meaning of. 

Although the piece that hangs on our studio wall is something made for the tourist trade, the technique and imagery is of royal decent; particularly that of the kings of Dahomey in what is now Benin. A complicated past of power consolidation, international trade, slavery, and vodun (voodoo) surrounds this particular piece. Each symbol is a pictogram representing a particular monarch in the nearly 300 year rule of the kings of Dahomey from the 1600's to 1900.

Living with objects from cultures outside of ones own can be complicated. What's sacred to some is rendered cute to others. I've always felt a bit of fear and fascination for this piece though. Vibrant color and bold forms only seem to enhance an iconography of strength and even brutality. I take it as an interesting lesson in the the way the essentials of color and shape inherently have their own power that no amount of cultural appropriation or lost context can deny.