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Souvenirs of encounters with Asian cultures of a "prisoner" with a distant horizon

20 April 2010 / 11:04:31  GRReporter
5335 reads

Zdravka Michailova 
Exclusively for GRReporter 

Hats can be a symbol of social status, age, national origin or denoting minority extract, a marker for sex or a ritual accessory. The poet Yannis Ritsos likens the Parthenon to "an elegant pink hat on the head of afternoon Athens”. In the miniature “Ariostos the Attentive Narrating Moments of his Life and Dreams”, entitled "Hats", the poet writes: "I find hats pleasant because they take away from the head the repulsive form of skull. A face becomes complete with a hat. It suddenly looks like a house under a roof, like a globe in the shade. Light falls softer on the nose and corners of the lips, ash-blue, mixed with shade and security." 

Another manifestation of the systemic efforts of Benaki Museum to acquaint the Greek public with the cultural diversity of the world is the exhibition "Headdresses: Souvenirs of Travels Among the Peoples of the East" held at the hall on the fourth floor (the building at 1 Koumbari St.). The displayed items are collected by designer Yoanna Koutsoudaki over thirty years, and bear evidence of her journeys from the Mediterranean to the Pacific: Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Oman, Iran, India, Pakistan, Tibet, China, Nepal, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Iran, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Most of the exhibits belong to her collection of traditional clothing accessories and are a defining feature for specific ethnic groups living in or migrating to countries in the Middle East, Central, South and Southeast Asia, but there are also items used in a modern environment. Except for the fact that they are interesting by themselves, those items are indicative of ethnic groups mobility and of grafting traditions to new lands and conditions. 

The passionate collector-traveler welcomes guests into her world with quotes from other similar to her people: "The desert has everything and nothing. This is God without people" (Balzac), "A trip in the desert is a journey to the borders of time ... meeting with the sources of creation..."(Pierre Loti), "Everything comes from the East: daylight and religions." (Fernando Pessoa), “Who would be so stupid as to die without traveling at least once around his prison?" (Marguerite Yourcenar). It is inhabited by the finds of a traveler with a curious spirit, usually collected on the spot. Only in rare occasions the collector has acquired some of the objects outside the natural environment in which they were created, i.e. sales, auctions or antique shops, rather than in the countries of their origin. 

Bridal head decorations from North Africa, coated with coins, symbolizing prosperity and fertility, raise the bar even higher from the very entry in the hall. These are rare, even unique hats, head bands, wedding wreaths, diadems, fezzes, straw hats, children’s caps with pompons from China and Tibet, hoods, caps of chiefs and shamans with feathers and tusks of wild animals in them, embroidered with small decorative shellfish, headscarves, decorations used in rites of initiation, helmets, ritual wedding crowns, turbans, tiaras, brooches and other various head and other head coverings and decorations. Among the exhibits there are even headgear for Indian sacred cow and a horse decoration of a Rajasthan bridegroom. In a nutshell, the only thing missing in this colorful ethnographic fan is an invisible cap. Exhibits are unique not only because they are made by hand and vary even when they are of the same type, but because they state the unique place of their users in the world and local communities. Feeling of their daily use is created by the accompanying photographs, on which we see them “in action” - on the heads of their natural carriers in weekdays and holiday scenes. 

Since ancient times the method of decorating the body and head was a sign of human identity and its place in society. Even today it is indicative of the place of a certain community in the world, marking the otherness of an ethnic or minority group. Especially in traditional societies, the use of strict head 'tackles', colors, decorative or symbolic elements in clothing, suggests marital status, age, gender and social status. Materials used for the head decorations reveal levels of production and the technical skills of their creators, their access to raw materials, their need for clothes in order to adapt to the natural environment, their aesthetic preferences, provide information on the social organization of certain groups of people. 

Some items are designed for everyday use, others have special - ceremonial or festive - purpose: marriage ritual, worship or initiation and transition from adolescence to adulthood.  Most representative samples among them are mainly those of minority groups from Indo-China, as the militant Naga tribe living on the frontier between Myanmar and India - "head hunters" who not so long ago have left the stage of cannibalism, female head ornaments - coated with small shells, beads and even buttons – of the Kalash people in North Pakistan, who consider themselves to be descendants of Alexander the Great, Apsara crowns for a ritual dance from Cambodia. However, the focal points of the exhibition are the two wrought silver crowns of the Miao ethnic group in southern China, whose grace and quivering filigree ornaments resemble oak leaves on the tiaras discovered by Manolis Andronikos in the tomb of Philip of Macedonia in Vergina, and probably even the "cast" of silver bead decorative wreaths of Akha/Hani ethnic group, inhabitants of China, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. 

The diversity of showcased exhibits prove the complex levels of human existence and communication in the dimensions of their cultural identity, highlighting unique historical and aesthetic details. These are objects charged with “powerful” and sometimes sacred, energy, loaded with social connotations with regard to the people who use them. The valuable exhibits in the display cabinets, around the two walls of the room, culminate in the improvised "sancta sanctorum" of the traveler in its bottom: a tightly covered with postcards with colored stamps from faraway places panel, shelves filled with travel literature, including the edition on India by connoisseur of Eastern religions William Dalrymple, maps with routes traveled, hotel reservations from exotic places and others. 

The exhibit is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog (€10) - almost pocket format - containing text by Yoanna Papandoniou, introductory words by the exhibition curator Sofia Handaka and a gift story for Yoanna Koutsoudaki written by the famous Italian writer and academic Antonio Tabucchi. “I love those items very much," shares collector Yoanna Koutsoudaki at a press conference, "because they remind me of the people I met”.  Journalist Spyros Yannaras describes in Kathemerini newspaper the first associations this exhibition awakens with its variety of colors and diverse, but at the same time harmoniously combined materials. What one realizes is that in our modern time hand embroidery has disappeared from our lives. Hand-embroidered head coverings, in the arranged with taste and professional awareness by curator Sofia Handaka exhibit, offer spiritual delight equivalent to major works of art. Yannaras even quotes a comment by an Athenian lady looking around the exhibition hall he overheard: "Which of my ready tailored clothes wouldn’t I give to have that hat!". 

According to Benaki Museum Director Angelos Delivorias, the unique exhibits refer us to Greek folk costumes - holiday and everyday ones, which have similar head decorations, for example with gold coins, golden Napoleons, Ottoman coins and related embroidered motifs and embroideries. Extremely interesting, open to the world, with high cognitive and educational value, the exhibition will continue until May 9 and it makes us feel distant peoples close and familiar to us through their customs, some of which bearing resemblance to the traditions of the Balkans. 

At the exit the exhibit bids farewell to the visitor with another aphoristic phrase, this time by traveler Bruce Chatwin: "The true home of a man is not his house but the road. Life itself is a journey that must be walked on foot.” The most immediate trip that Benaki Museum offers is a gastronomic one: in the spirit of the exhibition, on Thursday, April 22, visitors of its the restaurant on the last floor overlooking the garden behind the Parliament, will have the opportunity to taste Thai cuisine. More distant destinations depend on each one of us and whether we feel the world as our home.

Tags: Athens Greece exhibition Benaki Museum hats head decorations
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