If these beautiful ornaments could talk

The Clamor of Ornament, a dazzling new exhibition at the Drawing Center, brings together nearly 200 drawings, etchings, photographs, tunics and weavings to tell an intricate story of cultural exchange and appropriation that spans five centuries.

The curators define ornament as “an ornamentation, surface or structure that can be taken out of context, revised, reproduced and repurposed”. This wide-open description gives them room for just about anything, and they do: There are Albrecht Dürer woodcuts from the early 1600’s that illustrator Tom Hovey drew for a coloring book version of The Great British Bake Off.

An ingenious exhibition design lets you imagine these flourishes and ruffles bouncing around the world as if weightless. One of Dürer’s, a lace rondel inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of an Ottoman design, hangs next to a 1968 poster of Bob Dylan with a similar circle on its forehead; elsewhere, in a series of 19th-century watercolors and woodcuts, textile patterns bounce back and forth between India, Europe and Japan.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Dylan’s forehead and the other circles that designer Martin Sharp used to depict the musician’s hair. But by the 19th century, when such patterns were all the rage in Western Europe, they became associated with racist notions of the “Orient”—a fantasy constructed to romanticize the very people these Europeans conquered and plundered.

You can see the Romanticism in Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s beguiling silver daguerreotype of an Egyptian mosque, or in a drawing attributed to the Persian court architect Mirza Akbar of the kind of intricate tile work which inspired English architect Owen Jones to write a book-length study of artistic and architectural ornamentation. (Jones’ book The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856, was the inspiration for the exhibition title.)

“Clamor of Ornament” also bears witness to the ruthlessness of industrialization and colonialism – at least in art. There is the drawing “The Red Fort, Delhi, Furnished to English Taste”; the stylized Kashmiri mango ripped from textile mills in the Scottish town of Paisley; the American flag included in a Navajo fabric made after the Navajo were restricted to a reservation where they had to import wool. (In her scholarly catalog essay, Emily King, a co-curator of the exhibition, quotes economic historian Kazuo Kobayashi as saying that Indian-made cotton “was the most important trade in exchange for African slaves.”)

You also see people using appropriation to resist oppression and cultural extinction. But none of these exchanges are easy. Harlem designer Dapper Dan, seen here in several photos, pioneered a new vision of black style that borrowed from corporate and fashion logos—an innovation later adopted by those same companies themselves. Artist Wendy Red Star comments on historical photos of Crow diplomats, restoring feathers and hair bows to a meaning that has been belittled and misunderstood by contemporary white Americans. But this meaning comes with a violence of its own. A hair bow, she writes, represents “physically overcoming an enemy and slitting his throat.”

In the end, the exhibition makes less of an argument than a whole series of them—a conceptual clamor that deepens and amplifies the already overwhelming visual experience. On the one hand, in the face of increasingly heated and nuanced debates about cultural appropriation, we desperately need reminders like this of how difficult it still is to disentangle realities. On the other hand, as a visitor to the exhibition, I ultimately embarked on a personal decontextualization, ditching the chic yet informative wall labels designed by Studio Frith and instead focusing on the pure sensual delights of an air-conditioned gallery filled with an extraordinary one Collection of beautiful objects.

Some people may be drawn to the bold colors of Emma Pettway’s Gee’s Bend Quilt (2021), Toyohara Kunichika’s 1864 woodblock print series Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men, or the temporary wall decorated with an 18th-century French pattern called “Reveillon Arabesque” covered is 810.” But I found myself drawn to the simpler, monochrome certainties of John Maeda’s trippy typographic posters; a zigzag-shaped “Tapa Cloth Fragment” from Oceania; or a specimen of a 19th century scrimshaw. Barely 15 cm long, the engraved bone depicts a densely hatched whale surrounded by distressed sailors wrecking their whaler. It was intoxicating to think that the whole little scene of drama and pathos could be just another speck of free-floating ornament.

The Noise of Ornamentation: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present

Until September 18 at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, Manhattan; (212) 219-2166, DrawingCenter.org.

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