Harn Diversity Project
Today’s society is made up of a variety of different people, cultures, lifestyles, and beliefs. The heterogeneity that exists is what prompts our society to be so creative and innovative. This particular trait can be observed in abundance in the field of art; which can be generally defined as the expression of human’s creativity – in this case, the focus will be of visual art. At the University of Florida, the Harn Museum of Art is a place where many pieces and forms of art are exhibited. A variety of art forms from different cultures, including Asia and Africa, make up the museum’s collection, thus creating a diverse atmosphere. This diversity Is also what attracts many people who are curious to learn more, as well as people who identify with those cultures and can directly relate to them.
The reason why this is possible is also because the Harn Museum is located in Gainesville where the population is generally very diverse as well. Not only is it diverse in terms of culture and people, but their lifestyles and upbringings are also different. The Gainesville population is approximately at 131,000 (“Gainesville, Florida Population 2018”), those of whom are Americans, Europeans, Asians, and many more. This high level of diversity can also be attributed to the fact that Gainesville houses the University of Florida. Since Gainesville is home to a large university, many of its residents are college students who are seeking higher education from many different states and even countries. Some students come all the way from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, England, Saudi Arabia, and many more countries. All these students contribute to their community and thus shapes Gainesville to be the diverse city it is. Aside from the fact that it is home to a large university, there are other attributes as to why Gainesville is such a diverse community. Gainesville itself reports to be home to 23 percent of African-Americans (“Gainesville, Florida Population 2018”).
From the different collections of art that the Harn Museum has, two of their collections are particularly relatable in terms of the diversity found in Gainesville. The two collections are the African and Asian Collection. Like what was previously mentioned, the African-American population in Gainesville is considerably significant; and the Asian community is large as well because of students from Asian countries who choose study to at the University of Florida. Therefore, the African and Asian collection at the museum really spoke loudly of Gainesville’s diversity.
The two pieces of art from the African collection that were relatable and helpful in the understanding of Gainesville’s diversity are entitled “Time Cycle III” by Skunder Boghossian and “Married Woman’s Dress” by the Mfengu people of South Africa. The image on the right is of “Time Cycle III.” The artist, Skunder Boghossian, is of African descent and is from Ethiopia. He is known to have great influence on other artists in Ethiopa as well as the United States. He collected this bark cloth from Uganda and “impregnated [it] with motor oil and sand and replete with Ethiopian traditional iconography” (“African Collection”).
Time Cycle III, Skunder Boghossian, 1981
It is officially described as an “embossed bark and sand with collage on board” (“African. Collection”). The color scheme appears to be monochromatic and of dark shades. There are appearances of dark brown and bronze shades, as well as black and grey. The art piece itself is made up of bark that has been shaped and embossed to portray an abstract of different shapes. One can observe circles and triangles as well as squares embossed on the art piece. The circle motif that is seen in the center of the art work serves as a “cosmogram” of ancient Ethiopian culture (“African Collection”). There is also a shadow of what appears to be some sort of four-legged wild animal with a long tail on the bottom right of the art piece. All the distinctions found resonate with the elements of Mother Nature and how earth-like it is (“Alexander ‘Skunder’ Boghossian”). The dark, brownish hues, especially, have very earthly traits. The embossed triangles and circles also seem to be parallel with the terrain on earth of mountains and valleys (Deressa).
This art reflects the cultural heritage of the different groups of people found in Gainesville. The different traits found on the art piece are similar to the landscape of Gainesville. Even though Gainesville is located in Florida where it is known to be flat in terms of terrain, Gainesville has several hills that stick out. Aside from that, the different shapes embossed on the wood could also represent the diversity of the people in Gainesville. There are people with all sorts of different backgrounds, hence the different shapes. The different colors also represent the different races in Gainesville. They are all different but can coexist with one another. Furthermore, not only can they coexist but they can complement one another in the way that the monochromatic shades in Time Cycle III does.
Another art work from the African collection that strengthens the cultural diversity found in Gainesville is made by the Mfengu people. The married woman’s dress is decorated with orange-brown hues as well as beads, metal, and rubber. There are so many elements that go into this dress, including leather. Like many other art pieces found in the museum, one might ask whether calling this dress “art” lessens its cultural significance. This question was brought up throughout this course and is certainly applicable now when assessing art collections by the Harn. It can be argued that because it is exhibited in the museum as art that it might not get the cultural recognition it deserves. The purpose of the African collection at the Harn Museum, however, is to showcase the vast array of African art and share its historical and cultural significance. It would be a shame to neglect the cultural origins of this dress. However, the Harn Museum does include a detailed label about the culture of this art. Therefore, this exhibition definitely adds great significance to the African collection. In turn, this allows people, who live in Gainesville in particular, to learn more about African culture and history. People who personally identify as an African-American will also find it interesting because they get to learn more about their ancestors.
Married Woman’s Dress, Mfengu People (Harn), Late 19th-mid 20th century
Aside from the African collection, the Asian collection at the Harn Museum also exhibits many art forms that represent different Asian countries and cultures. There are two in particular that are prominent in Asian culture and Asian countries and also in America. The first one is entitled “Uma-Mahesvara” from India. The art piece is of a Hindu god named Shiva with “his consort Uma” (“Asian Collection”). The Hindu religion is widely practiced in Asia, specifically in India. The art work that they produce to represent their gods are very significant because it sheds light on their values and beliefs. For example, in “Uma-Mahesvara,” Shiva and Uma symbolize the “ultimate creative power of the universe and the fullness of the supreme being” (“Asian Collection”). With Gainesville being diverse not only in terms of race but also religion, this piece of art work is a great representation for those who practice Hinduism.
Uma-Mahesvara, Indian People (Harn), 10th century
Furthermore, the University of Florida is also known to have students from all over the world, including India. Students are able to visit the Harn and connect with the art pieces being exhibited. Those who identify as Hindu are able to learn more about its history and how its represented in art. Those who are not familiar with the religion are able to learn more and expound on their knowledge of culture as well as diversify their knowledge on it.
Another art piece from the Asian collection is entitled “Buddha Seated in Meditation Under a Naga Canopy” from Thailand. Buddhism is also very prominent in Asian culture. It is not necessarily considered a religion; however, it is considered a way of life by many Asians. It originated from India but today the largest population of Buddhists is in China. One characteristic of early Buddhist art is non-figural or nonrepresentational art (Frank 304). However, this particular sculpture seems to be quite the opposite. The Buddha in the art piece on the left is made out of bronze. The word “Naga” in the title is a “Sanskrit word meaning serpent” (“Asian Collection”). Around the Buddha’s head is Muchalinda, who was the multi-headed king of the serpents. This particular sculpture shows how Muchalinda is sheltering the Buddha while he was meditating. One interesting thing to note is that these types of sculptures were common in Southeast Asia and acted as focal points for devotional cults (“Asian Collection”).
Buddha Seated in Meditation Under a Naga Canopy, Thai People (Harn), 12th-13th Century
Just like Hinduism, the Buddha represents many of the faiths and values of Asian countries. This type of sculpture could definitely affect Gainesville residents who follow Buddhism. They are able to learn more about the historical context of such a sculpture in relation to Buddhism. However, even though they might relate through its cultural origins, the culture is not the same as it is today, especially in a different country. For example, devotional cults may not be as prominent today to Buddhists in Gainesville as it was in the Southeast Asian countries many years ago.
This type of “mismatch” can also be found in other forms of art from other cultures that are not so relatable today. The “Ritual Beaker” is a beaker used for ritual offerings in China during the Shang Dynasty. Back then, it also served as a power symbol since bronze tools, which is the medium used for this ritual beaker, allowed the Shang people to dominate others. It was a primary source of power, both politically and religiously (“Asian Collection”).
Just like the African “Married Woman’s dress,” this beaker might not have been considered art back then; and the debate of whether calling this beaker art today would lessen its value still applies. But similarly to the dress, it is possible to still retain the cultural and historical value of this beaker while appreciating its aesthetic qualities.
Ritual Beaker, Chinese People (Harn), 12th century BCE
All the art pieces that have been presented prove relatable to the diversity of Gainesville. Each one of them highly the cultural norms of that particular culture. However, those of whom can relate with those rooted cultural norms do not necessarily practice those very norms today in Gainesville. It is possible for one to relate, appreciate, and value their cultural norms but not completely abide by all the traditions and practices. Gainesville’s mix of culture has created a new culture where its people have more modern traditions and values.
It is no longer the 19th-20th century where married women have to wear the dress once used by the Mfengu people. African-Americans today who live in Gainesville have created their own culture. They also differ today because women are no longer viewed as merely objects that have to be dressed with metals and glass beads to satisfy their husbands. It is no longer the 12th-13th century where Buddha statues serve as focal points for cult groups. Today people still follow Buddhism but they too have created their own culture of more modern practices. It is no longer the 12th century BCE where the Chinese people who live in Gainesville today drink from ritual beakers made out of bronze. The point here is that although Gainesville is diverse in terms of culture, it does not necessarily mean that they stuck with the ancient practices of each of their own cultures. We have all come together to live amongst one another and in the same time are able to practice what we believe in today. We have adjusted to the new times.
From my own perspective, the different art works from the African and Asian collection at the Harn have certainly contributed to my cultural awareness of groups in my community in Gainesville. I would have not known of these pieces and their cultural significance if they were not exhibited in the Harn Museum. Furthermore, it also made me reflect on how important and representative those pieces of art are. It serves as a reminder to many who are far away from their ancestor’s roots and have taken up root here in Gainesville. It also serves as an educational piece and cultural advocate to those who are not so familiar with the cultures and would like to learn more.
- “African Collection.” Harn Museum of Art, harn.ufl.edu/collections/african.
- “Alexander ‘Skunder’ Boghossian.” Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World / National Museum of African Art, Africa.si.edu, africa.si.edu/exhibits/passages/boghossian-time.html.
- “Asian Collection.” Harn Museum of Art, Harn.ufl.edu, harn.ufl.edu/collections/asian.
- “Gainesville, Florida Population 2018.” Total Population by Country 2018, 3 June 2018, worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/gainesville-population/.
- “Hinduism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 6 Oct. 2017, www.history.com/topics/religion/hinduism.
- “Religion: Buddhism.” BBC, BBC, 12 Aug. 2014, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/.
- Deressa, Solomon. “Skunder in Context.” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, vol. 11, 2000, pp. 80-85. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/422609.
- Frank, Patrick, and Duane Preble. Prebles’ Artforms. Pearson, 2019.