Timeless Bonds: History Meets Modernity in SAM’s Concurrent Exhibitions

Helen Zughaib

At first glance, the two exhibits that recently opened at the Susquehanna Art Museum may seem like a world apart, but closer examination reveals connections that cut across the surface.

The first exhibit, “Fleeting Pleasures: Japanese Woodblock Prints,” introduces museum visitors to the rich history of ukiyo-e prints using some of the most beloved images in Japanese art history.

Although female figures frequently appear in woodcuts, the art form itself is masculine. To some extent it’s an older one, with pieces dating from the 1700s to the mid-20th century.

Among the woodcuts is “The Courtesan with Kamuro” by Toyohara Kunichika, dated 1865. It depicts a geisha wearing a red, purple and white kimono and wearing combs and pins in her hair. A young apprentice or kamuroassists him.

Torii Kiyonaga’s 1784 multicolored print, “Women Enjoying a Cool Evening by the River at Shijo in Kyoto”, exemplifies a style for which the artist became famous. The slender figures of the women are emphasized by the soft swaying of their richly decorated kimonos and the plain white background of the wooden block.

“The slender, richly dressed women of Kiyonaga became associated with an idealized view of beauty in Edo, Japan,” said Lauren Nye, director of exhibitions at SAM.

“Fleeting Pleasures” – his works from the Georgia Museum of Art – reflect the cultural traditions of the artists’ time. The woodblock prints are created through an elaborate and highly technical process, inspired by the bustling metropolis of Edo, which was the former name of Japan’s capital, Tokyo.

In contrast, “Deep Roots: ornamentation and identity” presents five contemporary artists, all female, who are inspired by their personal history, as well as their cultural roots. Unlike Japanese artists, they come from various places: India, China, Central America, Lebanon and Los Angeles.

But the two shows have a lot in common. The pieces of “Deep Roots” are inspired by traditional motifs and modes of ornamentation, that is, decoration or embellishment.

“Contemporary art complements the shared themes, patterns and aesthetics” of the older art form, Nye said.

“This unique pairing of exhibits illustrates how timeless ornamentation has been across cultures,” she said.

Over the past century, Nye pointed out, embellishment and ornamentation fell out of favor, being replaced by minimalism in art and architecture.

“But many contemporary artists are now referencing and relearning traditional techniques from the past to root themselves in their own cultural identity,” she said. “The ‘Deep Roots’ artists demonstrate this in their multimedia works, using rich patterns and textures and rooting our contemporary lives in the past.”

In Patton’s 2020 work “Untitled (Julia)”, the floral motif that appears in many of her paintings acts as custom ornamentation by the artist.

“In many cultures around the world, flowers denote care and devotion at weddings, funerals and celebrations,” Nye said. “The flowers in Patton’s work serve as a memorial to the lives of the characters depicted. By enlarging found photographs and adorning them with color, symbol and pattern, she celebrates the women photographed.

Zughaib’s article, titled “The Arab Spring,” reflects a complex context. His paternal grandparents were from villages in the mountains of Lebanon. However, before French settlers separated Lebanon and Syria, his family was considered Syrian.

In the Arab world, she was surrounded by the patterns on carpets, tiles, tableware and mosques and was drawn to their flat blocks of color and the way cultural patterns could tell stories and convey messages using symbols rather than numbers.

“These patterns and symbols can cross borders and communicate across cultures,” Nye said.

Alice Anne Schwab, Executive Director of SAM, encouraged the spontaneity and creative pairing of the two exhibitions. About once a year, Nye is “allowed to pull out all the stops” to put on an exhibit “from scratch,” Schwab explained.

“And this is one of those times,” she said.

“Fleeting Pleasures: Japanese Woodblock Prints” and “Deep Roots: Ornamentation and Identity” run through Jan. 22 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.SusquehannaArtMuseum.org.

The exhibitions are accompanied by visits and activities for young people of different ages, coordinated by Bonnie Mae Carrow, educational manager of the museum. Featured artist Helen Zughaib will be at the museum January 13-14 for an artist talk and hands-on workshop.

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James C. Tibbs