Bowers Museum’s ‘Knights in Armor’ and ‘African Twilight’ Challenge the Concept of Civilization

Photo courtesy of Bowers Museum

As principal lyricist of the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter (yes, Virginia, those 28-minute meandering jams did have words from time to time) wrote in 1974’s “Scarlet Begonias”: “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”

That is one of the surprising takeaways from a Sunday afternoon spent at Bowers Museum, an OC institution that has transformed itself over the past 30 years from a City of Santa Ana-run homage to (often white-washed) Orange County history into one of the most acclaimed cultural arts museums on the West Coast. Two of its special exhibitions running through early January, while entirely unrelated, reveal one example of the dichotomy between so-called civilized societies and those that didn’t win enough wars and subjugate other peoples to hold membership in that club. They are “Knights in Armor,” a touring exhibition from a museum in Florence, Italy, featuring about 100 pieces of Medieval and Renaissance armor and arms, and “African Twilight: Vanishing Rituals & Ceremonies,” a world premiere exhibition of photographs taken in 45 African countries over a span of 40 years. On the surface, both seem to peddle in, unfortunately, commonly held Western cultural narratives: that of the chivalrous knight decked out in full armor, gallantly and nobly fighting for king and God; and that of the continent of Africa populated by a bunch of half-naked savages enacting garish rituals and courting the favor of spooky supernatural deities in order to make some sense of a world they lack the intelligence to make sense of. But when each exhibit is informed by the other, it’s clear that both stories are wildly incorrect.

To its credit, “Knights in Armor,” a collaboration between the Stibbert Museum and Contemporanea Progetti, a Florence-based company that specializes in events surrounding Italian art and history, doesn’t obscure the less-trumpeted aspects of the glorious fake age of chivalry: The texts accompanying the pieces is clear that many knights—particularly those adorned in pricy, full-body plate mail—were usually wealthy, and that class and allegiance to the Roman Catholic church were far more important than gallantry. What made them formidable on the battlefield wasn’t the bulky armor that made it tough to move and fight, but the fact they were the only ones who rode horses. The relatively short window of plate armor, about 200 years, was slammed shut with the advent of firearms in the 1500s. And armor became nothing but a costly costume, worn to show off a person’s wealth and status. In the 1800s, as many Europeans fearing rising industrialization and early globalization began to pine for a past that seemed purer and more honorable, armor became a wildly popular collectible if not outright fetish. The Stibbert Museum, which houses a vast collection of European armor, was founded by one such weirdo, an English antiquarian who turned his home into the ultimate Man Cave, as if that man loved the soft nurturing caress of metal on his naked white flesh.

But though the history and artistry of the armor, weapons and other accoutrements on display are obvious (rest assured, military-arms buffs, you’ll dig it), there’s also something gross about it. Whether used in battle or not, everything in this exhibition was, in some fashion, designed to kill, or not be killed—and to champion the war machine that made it possible.

In contrast to this hard-on for militaristic might-makes-right, the stunningly beautiful and colorful photographs and videos that comprise “African Twilight” illustrate that while cultures that champion individuality, borne out by men of steel, may write the history books, those more concerned with connection and community are far more interesting and real. The rituals, ceremonies and traditions documented by photographers and explorers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, feature people wearing wildly colorful costumes and enormous masks, staging elaborate dances, appealing to supernatural deities and disfiguring themselves. But while seeming bizarre to foreign eyes, it’s all about connection, to their ancestors, each other and the land. The pieces document rites of passage and wedding, courtship and death ceremonies. And, as the exhibit explains, most of those rituals and traditions have disappeared, obliterated by modernization.

The juxtaposition of the two exhibitions, perhaps completely unintentional, is a vivid and sobering reminder that while the cultural history of those in the fast lane on the Civilization Highway get the glorification and romantic nostalgia, the cultural traditions of those in the slow lane are overlooked, derided and, often, vanish without a trace, submerged in the endless sands of time. And who is to say, really, what parts of each truly deserve remembrance and commemoration, which are the more savage and barbaric, and which ones tell us something more substantive about the experience of being human?

Bowers Museum, 200 W. Broadway St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. “Knights in Shining Armor” runs through Jan 13, 2019. $20-$23; ages 3-11, $5. “African Twilight” runs through Jan. 6, 2019. $10-$13.

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