Womanhood: Adorning the Body – An SRU exhibition

The MA students of the Sainsbury Research Unit have spent the year studying the regions of Africa, Oceania and the America’s with a focus on the objects in the Sainsbury Centre. Every year the MA cohort create an exhibition which is displayed in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Library, using objects from both the Teaching Collection, and the collections of the Sainsbury Centre.

The students of the MA each proposed an idea for the exhibition using the database of objects in the collections. After selecting a proposal to work on, they reached the eventual title together. Each student took roles to ensure the run up to the exhibition, and the exhibition itself ran efficiently. This exhibition is acting as practical experience for the students, should they wish to go into museum curating or working with museum collections following their master’s. It gives them a greater understanding of the work that goes into an exhibition and the different roles needed for it to be successful.

This year the exhibition is called Womanhood: Adorning the Body, and explores body adornment throughout Africa, Oceania and South America through objects from these regions. The objects in the exhibition are ones that have been used by women or show cultural tradition associated with women. This theme was chosen to explore the concept of womanhood cross-culturally and challenge preconceptions of women in these cultures.

There are a variety of objects that can be found in this exhibition, extending from masks only used by women to figurines that depict bodily adornments. From South America, more specifically Brazil, there are three masks on display that were collected by a member of the Sainsbury Research Unit staff, Aristoteles Barcelo Neto in 1998. These colourful masks were used in Wauja society for dancing accompanied by Kuwakuho flutes, and are objects women made and wore.

Among the African objects is a range of depictions of female adornment. One is of stretched earlobes, which can be seen on a wooden figure from Kenya (which was likely made for the tourist industry). This figure of a female highlights a cultural tradition of the Massai community where women would stretch earlobes as part of the initiation process into adulthood. Whilst from Oceania, the objects range from ones worn on the head to ones that represents life cycles. One of the objects is a headband (known in Māori culture as a tīpare), which was worn by women on the head and is also often made by women as well.

There are numerous objects in the Sainsbury Centre Collection and Teaching Collections, so sadly not all could be exhibited in the limited space of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Library in the Sainsbury Centre. However, the objects that were selected by the MA course effectively illustrates the concept of womanhood throughout these regions and how diverse this topic is.

The exhibition will open on May 8th. It will remain in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury for a year – until the 2019 – 2020 MA cohort create their own exhibition!

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Rachel Glaves

July 2021
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