An Afternoon with Ancient Art: Interviewing Curator Juliet Istrabadi

77.33Black Figure Water Jar
On shoulder: Dionysos and satyrs
On body: Herakles wrestling with Triton
Attributed to the Rycroft Painter
Greek, Attic, ca. 510 B.C.
Clay, glaze, added red
Gift of Thomas T. Soiley. 77.33
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When I sat down with Juliet Istrabadi, I wasn’t sure what to expect – I’ve never interviewed a curator before. What I received was an energetic and eager response to all my inquiries. She clearly has a passion for her work and I learned a lot while conversing with her.

Juliet actually began as a student here at IU Bloomington and worked as a graduate assistant at the IU Art Museum. This was how she first became familiar and connected with the museum’s collection. Istrabadi has always had a love of art and is an artist herself. She enjoys, “What [art] shows about us and our history,” and believes, “That talking and thinking about art is just as creative as making it.” This belief along with the experiences she had working at the museum led her to the career of being a curator.

In her four years here, she has been the curator of two exhibitions and is currently working on another for 2014 with Julie Van Voorhis, Associate Professor of the Department of History of Art. This exhibition will be titled Colors of Classical Art and will involve input and collaboration from students. Cooperation with other professors, curators, and staff is a big part of what goes into almost any event at the IU Art Museum.

Being the curator of ancient art, Juliet has a wide variety of objects to keep organized and to arrange. The timeline of these objects dates back to about 5,000 BC with a host of different countries and cultures represented. She estimates that about 500 objects are currently on display with the total amount of objects in the collection at 10,000! That’s a lot of pieces to take into consideration.

The museum also has one of the largest collections of ancient jewelry in North America! This includes pieces that are only half-made or have only one part, for instance, one earring or a piece of a necklace. These parts are important because, as Juliet puts it, “they help us understand how jewelry was made in the ancient world.” Another interesting fact is that many of the coins and gems in the collection are very tiny and yet still have greatly detailed scenes carved into them. What’s even more fascinating is this being done during an era without magnification!

Istrabadi feels that she is very lucky to have this job and is right at home amongst the collection and culture of the museum. Every day is a new experience and a new finding.

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B.W.

Motherhood, Femininity, & Strength: Carving the Female Figure

75.91Africa
Luluwa peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Female Figure, Lupinga lua Luimpe
Nineteenth century
Wood, incrustation, kaolin
H. 17 in. (43.2 cm)
Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection
Indiana University Art Museum, 75.91

A woman does not always have to be soft and delicate. This statement seems self-evident, yet, as a student of gender studies, I am always amazed at how often modern American media equates femininity with delicacy and softness. Many times, you will find television shows or magazine articles about wedding dresses and cupcakes directed at the female population from early childhood through young adulthood. These media streams are what teach women to be “correct” mothers throughout their lives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, there is something fascinating to me to see how gender roles throughout the world have evolved and changed during the course of history.

This is probably what led me to Female Figure (Lupingu Iwa Bwimpe) by the Luluwa peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tucked away in the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, this sculpture is as distinctive as it is beautiful. It was created around the second half of the nineteenth century and portrays femininity and motherhood within the Luluwa culture, which made me want to learn more about it.

The figure, made of wood, incrustation and kaolin, is a fertility figure used amongst the Luluwa peoples as part of a cult directed toward mothers and their newborns. This cult is a small religious group that uses the carved figures as a way to protect the fertility of the mother and to ensure the beauty and health of the newborn child. Spiritually charged—and recharged when necessary—the figure is said to protect the mother and child from harm and is a conduit for ancestral aid.

The notions of motherhood portrayed in this piece are similar to how we typically think of motherhood in America today: the mother as the nurturer, the selfless beacon, the caretaker. However, there is a particular look of power and determination in the eyes of the figure that tells that there is more to the story of Luluwa motherhood.

In the Luluwa culture, a woman who is a hard worker is often favored. This is portrayed with the large head (which symbolizes intelligence) and the muscular arms and calves of the figure. Motherhood is more than being gentle with the Luluwa; it is also about being strong and powerful.

This, to me, is powerful imagery. It is a great reminder that femininity and delicacy are not the only traits women and mothers possess—despite how our media might portray women in current American society.

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R.C.

Green Shutters

Emilio SanchezEmilio Sanchez 
American, born Cuba, 1921–1999 
Green Shutters, 1998 
Oil on canvas 
Gift of the Emilio Sanchez Foundation, 2011.69

Emilio Sanchez was born in Cuba in 1921, but he moved to New York when he was twenty-three years old to study at the Art Students League. His artwork features various landscapes and buildings from the tropics as well as cityscapes from New York City.

In an interview conducted by Arlene Jacobowitz, assistant curator of paintings and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Sanchez was asked what fascinated him about the houses he painted. He replied that he was “struck by the patterns in the little houses… and…when the sun is turned on, it’s absolutely incredible.” He was also quoted as saying that he liked tropical landscapes better, though, and when asked if this had to do with his Cuban background, he answered, “I suppose so, although I’ve been a terrible Cuban: I’ve never lived there [as an adult].” He said he grew more aware of the country when he was away and began to miss it. It was visiting Cuba that led to him becoming more interested in Cuban subjects and their beauty.

Green Shutters is one example of the many architectural paintings that Sanchez completed in his lifetime. I was drawn to this work because of its bright yellows and greens as well as its straight lines. I was impressed by its sharpness and perspective (two things I have trouble with in my own paintings).  My curiosity, though, was mainly about the bright and vibrant colors and if they were truly representational. In the interview is where I found my answer, Sanchez states, “I have to tone things down.… What is most interesting is how the sunlight will bring up contrast because…right in the middle of the day when the sun is at its brightest, the sun can wash the color out completely.… So just a little earlier or later I get this wonderful rich shading, especially with yellow that seems to be the best color.… Sometimes I have to wait for the sunny day to get the effect I want.”

I find it amazing that sometimes he actually had to tone down the colors. So when you look at these brilliant depictions of doors and windows, just think that they may be even more brilliant in person.

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B.W.

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References:

Emilio Sanchez Foundation. “Emilio Sanchez Biography.”  http://www.emiliosanchezfoundation.org/sanchez.html