Subtle, seismic, and, to use her word, “subversive.” The reason: there’s a new sheriff in town. Actually, there’s a new curator at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. And while this well-endowed bulwark of Western culture, with endowments most recently valued at $614 million, has weathered a few temblors during its manicured 104-year history, the recent arrival of Dr. Lauren Cross, the new Gail-Oxford Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, is sure to shake things up.
Cross accepted her current post in January 2023 after leaving her former position as Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Art and Design Studies at the University of North Texas. The new curator holds a Ph.D. in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies from Texas Woman’s University, an MFA in visual arts from Lesley University, and a BA in Art, Design, and Media from Richmond, the American International University in London. She also studied photography and media arts at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Not incidentally, she’s also an artist, art historian, interdisciplinary scholar-practitioner and documentary filmmaker and has curated important installations across the U.S. One of her compelling works is the 2010 documentary The Skin Quilt Project which explores colorism among African Americans. The Black quilters interviewed describe quilting together as a safe space where the heavy social baggage of lighter and darker complexion (not to mention “good” and less-good hair) falls away as needle and thread allow for deep bonding, communication, connection, community.
Quilting was often more than girl-talk for Black Americans living in bondage. “Freedom quilts” were composed of fabric blocks containing coded instructions for reaching freedom, and these quilts were hung on clotheslines and in windows to put out the 411. For instance, a tree might symbolize following tree moss to the north. A church meant “find a safe place,” while a boat signaled that a boat would be waiting. And always, birds symbolized the longed-for flight from slavery.
“The decorative arts have not always been valued in the same ways that other works of art like paintings and sculpture have been valued.”Lauren Cross, Ph.D.
And not coincidentally, quilts hold an important place in the decorative arts realm where Cross now presides. “The decorative arts have not always been valued in the same ways that other works of art like paintings and sculpture have been valued,” says Cross. “Even the name itself is misleading, really, since a great many of the items in the Huntington’s collection have both utilitarian and decorative purposes, then elevated and made beautiful by the vision and skill of the maker.”
Quilts specifically, she points out, were often the most valuable item in an early American home. “Folk art suffers from the same kind of bias in the art hierarchy, especially if the object is not oil on canvas, and does not reflect academic training and European techniques. The word ‘craft’ also belongs in this conversation. These distinctions are still made in fine arts circles, although they are becoming less and less relevant.”
When exploring the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, consisting of 31 areas of dedicated permanent collection exhibition space, what first springs to mind is the Huntington’s gleaming trove of Waterford crystal, stately Wedgewood porcelains and sterling silver tableware. But Cross’s tour begins with something quite different in the form of the Borderlands installation which features the creations of artists of Latinx and indigenous heritage, including Huntington Fellows Sandy Rodriguez and Enrique Martínez Celaya, as well as more conventional works by Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer, among many others.
The anchor in this sprawling 5,000 square foot installation is the 8-by-8 foot watercolor by Rodriguez entitled YOU ARE HERE / Tovaangar / El Pueblo de Nuestro Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula. A coyote howls in one corner, above weeping ancestors like those in Maya codices.
A coyote howls in one corner, above weeping ancestors like those in Maya codices.
Painting on amate, the handmade, indigenous mulberry-bark paper outlawed by the arriving Spanish five centuries ago, Los Angeles-based Rodriguez used natural pigments foraged from the surrounding land, resonating with the Huntington’s dedication to botanical study and collecting.
Orange dots painted on the landscape identify bible schools which housed indigenous children who were often identified as orphans when they weren’t, and may have been classified as “Pagan Babies” for whom observant Catholics could obtain a papal indulgence for baptizing and converting. Purple dots represent migrant detention centers.
Cross calls Rodriguez’ choice of organic native materials as “…so crucial in the discussion of how we define the idea of home. Many objects in the American Decorative Arts are domestic in their function, from furniture and pots and pans to tools and candle sticks and boot scrapers.”
Even objects that are not functional offer an intimate glimpse into how life actually looked and felt a century or more ago. Seemingly-saccharine, often endearingly clumsy portraits of children, especially those including images of birds used to represent a pure soul winging off to glory, were often painted posthumously, since death frequently took young lives. Schoolgirl samplers were often embroidered by early-marrying teen girls as part of their modest trousseau. Elaborately lettered and illustrated marriage certificates, framed and hung with pride, may have been the only source of reading matter in many homes other than a well-thumbed family Bible. Understanding this enriches these objects with a humanity that’s less accessible in formal “fine” art.
Introducing the work of artists of color is a defining aspect of what Cross calls rethinking the galleries and their vast holdings, including the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection of American Decorative Arts. But this rethinking isn’t necessarily in-your-face in its activism and hastening what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King called the arc of the moral universe, and its long bending towards justice.
“Mahogany was traded for human lives. African lives. Stolen African lives.”Lauren Cross, Ph.D.
Cross is anything but shrill as she makes her way on soft-slippered feet into an enormous suite of mahogany estate furniture. The walls are painted a sandy salmon-pink, perhaps suggesting the mineral pigments, sienna and ochre, often used in colonial homes. Cross wears a vivid print dress that vibrates with energy in the staid setting. “Mahogany,” she says gently, “was traded for human lives. African lives. Stolen African lives.”
‘Tis so. The word “mahogany” is derived from the Yoruban word oganwo. The word’s usage is traced to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean where, for three centuries, they were forced to harvest mahogany.
Relentless logging in turn created open land for the establishing of sugar cane plantations, which also were worked by stolen Africans. Dr. Désha A. Osborne observes, “Plantation owners and enslavers in the West Indies were relieved to get rid of their mahogany, not only because of the extra profit from sales but also due to the additional benefit of removing a source of natural shelter for enslaved people looking to escape.”
During mahogany’s “golden age” between 1725 to 1825, groups of 30 to 40 men were the principal cutters and haulers, while the women worked to drag and clean up the heavy branches that the children then bundled, according to Jennifer Anderson’s book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America.
The hard, resilient, close-grained nature of mahogany made it popular among master craftsmen like Chippendale (who almost exclusively worked with West Indian mahogany), the Adam brothers, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. The Swietenia mahagoni variety, felled and harvested through the forced labor of enslaved people in West Indies, was the most popular and the most expensive species of the wood.
These furnishings, including the tall clocks of the period, although beautiful to look at, have a far more complex history than first meets the eye, a history which Cross is dedicated to unearthing and interrogating.
“As a truth-teller, I want to share insights on one of our interventions in the gallery,” she says, pointing out a specific tall clock entitled “Anchoring Escapement,” modified by Nari Ward, a contemporary Jamaican-born, New York artist who’s a professor and head of studio arts at Hunter College. The elegant clock initially resembles others in the suite, until one notices that the face has been “defaced,” gleaming with a bristle of shining copper nails gathering in a diamond-shaped cruciform.
A curious museum-goer asks if there is a correlation to the nails used to crucify Christ. There isn’t.
The shape initially suggests a Voudun Vèvè, a cosmogram that serves as a beacon to attract the attentions of the Lwa, or spirits. “Metal has energetic power in the spiritual and religious systems of West Africa,” explains Cross.
A curious museum-goer asks if there is a correlation to the nails used to crucify Christ. There isn’t. “In the sacred traditions of Africa, placing a nail into an object invests intention into that object. And in those traditions, copper specifically is associated with healing,” Cross explains.
The artist’s reference is not a direct reference to the cornmeal or chalk-drawn Vèvè, although perhaps there may be a syncretic relationship. Instead, the artist was moved to create the installment after a visit to Savannah’s First African Union Baptist Church, which was founded for and by stolen Africans in bondage.
The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a fact made clear by a neat grid of “breathing circles” cut into the floorboards that remain intact today. The function of the holes was literal. Enslaved families stood silently beneath the precious ventilation openings as they awaited passage to freedom.
The amulet-like pattern — a cross within a diamond shape — is repeated in Ward’s clockface. It’s impossible to view this without having a Sankofa (sort of like déjà-vu) moment, recalling “I can’t breathe” and “waiting to exhale.”
Cross slyly asks if there’s anything else unusual about Ward’s clock. Indeed, in the lower chamber where the pendulum would swing is a small, elegant carving of an African face, a Baule sculpture like those found in Ghana and along the Ivory Coast.
Cross says, “My work is dedicated to reclaiming what has been lost, and also what is still here. By expanding these impressive collections, visitors will hear voices that have been muted for centuries. And there is no more important work in the world to me.”