UB Anderson Gallery features 'The Language of Objects' exhibit

Tri-artist exhibition gives cultural artifacts new life


As museumgoers walked throughout UB’s Anderson gallery, UB dance students crawled out of the woodwork mimicking the works displayed throughout the gallery.

The dancers wore Styrofoam 3D-printed replicas of masks from UB’s Cravens Collection – a collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world dating as far back as 4,500 BC – which they incorporated into their routine. Patrons had the opportunity to interact with exhibit artists during an artist talk Sunday afternoon. Each artist talked and answered audience questions about their work.

Dancers placed their heads into empty showcases and posed next to the original copies of their masks, camouflaging themselves as real-life additions to the exhibit.

“The Language of Objects” – an exhibition featuring the works of Matthew Craven, Brendan Fernandes, and Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ­– opened Saturday night to a crowd of curious and mesmerized attendees.

Using archaic objects from across the globe – such as wooden African masks, ancient Greek vases and Roman busts – the artists presented new narratives through personal connections with each piece of artwork.

Craven used antiquated textbook images to collage artifacts onto the backs of vintage movie posters. He also collaged the images onto hand-sketched patterns from different cultures and time periods.

Fernandes worked closely with dancers from NYC’s American Ballet Theater who posed for pictures alongside African masks from the Cravens collection. He also choreographed the dance routine performed throughout the opening of the exhibit.

Pheobus Mumtaz used her own hand-made paper glued to silk, to make textiles of Asian inspired dress and robe designs. She used the same hand-made paper to display golden variations of prayer beads and abstracted flattened images of looms.

Robert Scalise, co-curator of the exhibit and acting director of the Anderson Gallery planned this exhibit for over two years. The seeds of the exhibit were planted after the arrival of the Cravens Collection in 2010.

“When we received the collection [our focus was] modern contemporary abstraction,” Scalise said. “After bringing in such a rich collection of antiquities and cultural materials, we needed a plan with what to do with it all.”

To take on such a large project, Scalise collaborated with schools and companies across Buffalo to turn the gallery’s vision into a reality.

Dr. Peter Biehl, UB professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, had students in his anthropology museum studies course study African Masks from the Cravens Collection.

Students provided critical research on the background of each artifact such as provenance, use and function of the objects.

After being studied, the masks were professionally documented for the first time using photos and 3D scans courtesy of Buffalo State’s Conservation Lab. After students made the 3D prints, UB’s school of Architecture and Planning’s fabrication lab cut the masks.

Fernandes designed an African mask of a hyena, which New Era Caps detailed onto a hat that’s on sale at the exhibition.

Scalise said it was important for Fernandes to incorporate one’s self-image into his work and New Era represented a platform to bring his art’s identity into a new modern outlet.

“You think of an African mask, which embodies the spirit of belonging to a tribe or a culture, it’s no different wearing a cap associating with the Yankees or Mets,” Scalise said.

“He saw the slogan “fly your own flag” and was really inspired by it.”

Prior to the opening, the three artists had never met before. It was a special moment to see all their hard work come together flawlessly.

Artist Pheobus Mumtaz commented on the connection between her past and what kind of dialogue those experiences represent now.

“For me, it’s a meditation in older forms that I find inspiration in,” Pheobus Mumtaz said. “Have a dialogue with these cultural objects, reflect in the functionality and status that they have now. Looking at where something came from helps spark a further connection with the art.”

A reoccurring theme in each of the artists’ works is giving old art new life. The mystery behind each cultural object adds another layer for the artists and viewers.

Grace Zabielski, a sophomore art and environmental design major was amazed with how well the exhibit combined two separate forms of art into one space.

“I really enjoyed [the exhibit’s] unique conjunction of anthropogenic discoveries and modern dance,” Zabielski said. “The dancers provided a captivating representation of movement that the masks and sculptures lacked.”

Throughout the night, the dancers sporadically interacted with the masks and sculptures on display, something that Zabielski thought paired well.

“You have the implied sense of movement through the lines within the sculptures, with the dancer’s literal movements,” Zabielski said. “Together they complement each other, adding to the sense of motion within the sculpture.”

Dancers met with Fernandes two months before the opening to begin rehearsing the routine. Each section was carefully choreographed to pair with different sections of the exhibit.

Taylor Heaphy, a junior dance major was one of the six students who performed Saturday night.

“The performance was a lot of fun since there had never been other people in the gallery when we were rehearsing before. Having these people to interact with during our performance definitely changed the feeling in the gallery,” Heaphy said. “It was clear that some people were very interested but others were slightly bothered, probably because they did not fully understand dance in this way.”

Adding any prop to a dance routine can be challenging and can possibly distract the dancer’s focus from the routine. Heaphy found that she enjoyed performing with the mask, especially when she interacted with the real version.

“I found that [the mask] actually added to my level of performance because I was able to tap into the character of the face on my mask,” Heaphy said. “I always listened when I was dancing near the mask that matched mine to see if the audience members recognized the connections too.”

Scalise intended for this exhibit to be the opposite of a traditional museum display. He encourages students and patrons alike to view the exhibit and interact with each piece.

“Collections in museums could get very static, pieces can just sit there and collect dust,” Scalise said. “There’s so many levels to this collection that people can get different experiences each time they visit the exhibit.

“The Language of Objects” is being shown through July 30 and admission is free.

Max Kalnitz is the senior features editor and can be reached at max.kalnitz@ubspectrum.com