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VOL. 126 | NO. 236 | Monday, December 5, 2011

Art That Kills on Display at Brooks

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art explores the artistry of weapons in “Armed + Dangerous: The Art of the Arsenal” on display through March 11. More than 100 pieces of armor and armaments demonstrates cultural connections over 3,000 years and several continents. (Photos courtesy of Berkshire Collection of Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.)

Now is not the time to cross staffers at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which has a massive exhibition of weaponry, armor, and related artwork on display through March 11.

Actually, said Marina Pacini, the Brooks’ curator, it’s pretty easy to look beyond the primal nature of the weapons and enjoy the exquisite beauty of their ornamentation at the exhibit, called “Armed + Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal.”

“We’re looking at functional objects and yet their makers lavished attention on them,” Pacini said, “They are extraordinarily crafted art objects.

“I think it says something about humans that our impulse to beautify things crosses outside conventional paintings and sculpture into things that have to do with combat.”

The 125-piece exhibition was organized by the Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Mass., though Pacini borrowed numerous pieces from local private collections, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, the Pink Palace Museum and the University of Mississippi. The exhibition is making a one-stop show in Memphis and then will return to Massachusetts. The extensiveness of the exhibition is noticeable from the entry to the first gallery.

“It is definitely different from most of what we do,” Pacini said. “Most of what makes it unusual is the fact that it covers such an extensive piece of time, over 3,000 years and so many different continents and peoples.”

Regions of the world covered in the exhibition include various parts of Africa, Persia, the Far East, Medieval Europe, and Colonial and Post-Colonial America.

“You start to understand that there are many similarities between these different cultures,” Pacini said. “In some cases there’s some cross pollination, things from the Middle East travels to Europe, but in a lot of instances, things develop independently but in a very similar fashion.”

For example, it’s easy to reference the use of animal imagery in armor from the horns and fangs of an Indo-Persian helmet to the razorback ridge of a dragon on the back of an English helmet. In both cases, the animal features were meant to make the warrior look fiercer and frighten foes.

A Persian chain mail suit of armor comprised of hundreds of circular and rectangular plates stitched together is etched with cats and rabbits—symbols of cleverness and surprise. A metal sword from the area of present-day Benin in West Africa is more to the point. About as long as a machete, the blade is fashioned as the arm of a woman with painted fingernails and the pointer finger extended forward. Attached above the hand is a chameleon with a spiraling tail.

Pacini explained that the sword would have belonged to a member of an elite class of warrior women. The chameleon was seen as a harbinger of death, so in this case, the sword is literally pointing death at its opponents. Other media used in the arms are bronze, leather, stone, animal skins, wood, iron, and fabric.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a set of three full suits of armor from medieval Europe, the first of which bears the smoothly fluted metal cape of a jouster.

“I liken these to suits in that the individual who commissioned the piece worked with the craftsman—they had to be measured so that everything fit perfectly,” Pacini said. “They are perfectly proportioned for one person.”

A suit of samurai armor, which is far lighter and thus cooler than the European suits, is also on display and nearby a cruciform shamshir (circa 1870) from Sudan displays verses from the Koran in tiny detail. The hilt is fashioned as a crocodile foot. Pacini said that some of the more regal weapons were clearly meant to by symbolic of the owner’s position, wealth or political power. The exhibition ends with the modern sword, the long rifle, some of which have stocks as big as the Figian clubs and almost as much decoration.

Appropriately, Brooks admission is always free for active military. Regular admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for students, and free for children age six and under.

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