Jewels and Ashes: Vienna's Exhibition on the Nagas

Easterine Kire

Stately columns of marble encircle the hall where 600 of Vienna's elite have gathered for the opening of the Naga exhibition titled «Jewels and Ashes.» Amongst the guests are the ambassador of Australia, ambassador of Romania and ambassador of Tajikistan. Austria's oscar winning filmmaker is one of the guests. Two Viennese gentlemen in Angami lohe can be spotted and another gentleman in a Naga waistcoat with a wooden Naga tie flits about, camera in hand and a big smile on his face. A beautiful woman enters arrayed in an Ao costume, the bright indigo shawl adding just the right touch of colour to the event. 

This is how the show began at Vienna's Museum for Volker Kunde which has opened the exhibition of Naga jewellery, artefacts, photographs and handicrafts. The exhibition is from the 31st January to early June 2012. The two gentlemen in Angami shawls were the former Austrian ambassador to Ethiopia and former Austrian diplomat to New Delhi, Roland Bauer married to Angami Marina Bauer, the lady in Ao traditional costume. The camera enthusiast in the Naga waistcoat was John Marshall, the American photographer who had accompanied curator Christian Schicklgruber to Nagaland. 

As the guests seated themselves, their attention was drawn to the slide show of over a hundred photographs from Nagaland, of people in traditional clothes as well as daily wear, going about their normal day to day activities. 

Entitled «Jewels and Ashes,» the collection of Austrian anthropologist, Christoph Von Furer Haimendorf from the 1930s forms the main body of the exhibition.  The several artefacts, textiles, handicrafts and videos were collected from Nagaland by the research team on its trips to Nagaland between 2009 and 2011. 

Curator Christian Schicklgruber has done a great job of putting the show together, a project on which he worked for two long years, often travelling to Ungma, Mon, and Tuensang,  the Naga route that Haimendorf favoured. The museum has a priceless collection of objects that are no longer available on the common market in Nagaland. 

A huge barn door greets visitors on their first entry to the exhibition. A corner of the barn door had fallen prey to the elements before it was bought by the museum and lovingly restored. It gives an example of that rare quality of Naga culture: combining beauty and practicality. The barn door is decorated with beautiful geometrical designs. Objects of daily use decorated with such artistry is always a mystery to the western eye and the remark that was heard at the exhibition was: The Nagas have a very artistic nature and it is abundantly reflected in their culture. 

One of the captions quotes Naga artist, Iris Lotha: Every Naga is an artist. In the first room, there are body cloths hanging on the walls from both contemporary designs and the very carefully preserved cloths from the Haimendorf collection which were of special interest. There are at least two which are extant now. One is a decorated headhunter's body-cloth and the other, a village chief's body cloth, both from the Konyak tribe.

In the same room, jewelry such as  chest ornaments, earrings, wristlets and armlets as well as waist ornaments are aesthetically arranged before a wall to wall display of blown up photographs from Haimendorf's collection.

The quality of Haimendorf's photographs, even before the second world war was so good that the British anthropologist, Hutton admitted that he was quite envious of the Austrian's equipment.

The highlight of the Zurich exhibition in 2008, a Naga kitchen, was transported with great difficulty to Vienna and it now stands in the third room, inviting viewers to participate in the activities of a Naga kitchen which is shown in a 24-hour video. The family's  daily routine in the kitchen was filmed by the two collectors and shows the family preparing food, eating and bringing in vegetables, etc. It has long periods of visual silence when the only sounds that can be heard resemble the pounding of grain. At one stage a little mouse is seen scampering past. 

The other videos are a fashion show, a log-drum pulling ceremony, a political discourse and a priest's discourse. These videos serve to show the normal life led by the Naga people, their dreams, hopes and aspirations, without exoticising them. That is the best feature of the Vienna exhibition, steadily moving away from a stereotyped presentation. 

The end room shows a mountain landscape and displays weapons of war, skull trophies of war and shields and beautifully fashioned spears. At the same time, it shows the church and its central place in a more peaceful Naga society today even as models of log drums form part of the exhibtion showing the brave rich warring past of the Nagas. 

The exhibition is subtle and gentle and different from other exhibitions that have marketed themselves using the exotic images of Nagas as headhunters etc. In fact, the Vienna newspaper article in the late thirties that formerly announced Haimendorf's collection, heavily exploited the headhunting angle to get readers interested. By contrast, Schicklgruber has deliberately not put emphasis on the headhunting past in order to avoid stereotypes. The exhibition is arranged in such a way that it gives just enough information on the Naga culture to arouse curiousity in the viewer to want to learn more.

For me, the gentle emphasis of the exhibition was a challenge to the viewer to look beyond the  stereotypes of Nagas as barbaric, savage, crude and bloodthirsty headhunters. The items on display were speaking for themselves and saying that there was more to Nagas than the battlesport that is so popularly flouted. They were pointing back to a society that actually enjoyed long periods of peace, enabling them to create the objects of art both in the age-group houses and by the family hearths. The exhibition showed this other side of the Nagas that is so rarely presented by the media. Viennese media channels did us justice. TV journalists and radio journalists devoted sufficient time to cover the event and newspaper articles are appearing on this latest project of the museum. 

Following this lead, an event two evenings later of a reading by the Austrian actor Wolfgang Boch, from two Naga folktales in German translation and from the German translation of the novel, A Naga village Remembered, was very well attended in spite of the fact that it was minus 12 celsius in the Austrian capital city.

The title, «Jewels and Ashes» needs a quote from the museum to explain what they mean: «Today the Naga live between two extremes: a culture formed by norms and taboos from their forefathers with high aesthetic beauty (jewels) and a contemporary community fractured by violence (ashes). It is between these jewels and ashes that the Naga are now searching for their cultural identity.»