Tribal Genealogical Patterns: A Universal Language?

[download this pattern as an envelope design here]

’the folk has thus preserved, without understanding, the remains of old traditions that go back sometimes to the indeterminably distant past, to which we can only refer as “prehistoric”…’ Had the folk beliefs not indeed once been understood, we could not now speak of them as metaphysically intelligible, or explain the accuracy of their formulation.

—    Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The Nature of ‘Folklore’ & ‘Popular Art,’” Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society, 27, Bangalore, 1936.

 

Carl Schuster, a little-known art historian, spent about thirty years of his working life wandering the world, often by foot, talking to traditional (or “primitive”) people in remote places, collecting and/or recording the things they made, or that their ancestors had made. What he found was – perhaps – something like a universal language – a sophisticated, complex system of symbols and practices by which people told the story of who we are and where we come from. An aggressive cancer prevented him from putting the whole story down on paper, but some of it was published 20 years later by Edmund Carpenter, in a 12 volume set titled Materials for the study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. (Later, it was condensed into a single volume called, simply, Patterns That Connect.) This article is based on an initial inquiry into those two texts.

Schuster began by pursuing an interest specifically in Chinese peasant embroidery. This earned him a PhD in art history. As he branched out, geographically and conceptually, he finally collected an enormous record of objects, patterns, and designs, from weaponry to tatoos, to tools, furniture, architecture, and even labyrinths. He was particularly interested in how particular themes and designs seemed to crop up, again and again, in different places, at different times, despite barriers of language, geography, history, and culture.

One of the most common patterns he found was based on these symbolic icons that clearly represent individual people, arranged “to depict descent…linked arm-and-leg with diagonally adjacent figures…a graphic representation of the puzzle of procreation itself….” (p. 48-49)

Variations on the same pattern occur all over the world, in textiles, on pottery, in tattoos and body painting, on buildings, etc.

Body decoration suggests an interesting relationship between sophisticated social notions of genealogy and heritage, and the practical arts of survival. Schuster collected examples of primitive “clothing” like this fur quilt, pieced together from many skins of many animals, all of the same species and thus of similar enough size that the skins could be fitted together into a single, useful whole

(The rest of the article, with illustrations, is downloadable as a pdf file here]. There is also more information about Schuster on Wikipedia.

About Kiko Denzer

I live in western Oregon with my family and run Hand Print Press with help from friends Max and Eva. We are interested in restoring the arts of living to their rightful, traditional, public role, as cultural medium – and think the web is a poor substitute, but until we can fashion something better, we try to make the most of it.

4 Responses to Tribal Genealogical Patterns: A Universal Language?

  1. I have been attempting to unravel the meanings of the visual language of the Wabanaki People of the Northeast woodlands as I am enrolled in the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki of Vermont. We were recognized only last year and are trying to restore understanding of our earlier culture. As an artist, I have been researching the visual language. I recently received a small grant to cover expenses to a few museums which house collections of our artifacts, but I just discovered the works of Carl Schuster. I just purchased the smaller version (Patterns that Connect), but would very much like to access a copy of the original Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. Do you know if any copies were provided to establishments here in New England or if there are any (affordable) copies available anywhere? I just purchased your book on Knots and Threads, also.

    Jeanne Morningstar Kent, B.F.A., M.A.,Ed.

    • kiko says:

      you might try contacting Mark Siegeltuch (see his comment below — his publisher is Fons Vitae). His wikipedia article on Schuster is worth reading, and his book, The Thread Spirit, is wonderful and helps tremendously in making sense of Carpenter and Schuster’s work.

  2. Mark Siegeltuch says:

    Despite a general unfamiliarity with the subject, your review is more thoughtful than any other I’ve read thus far. There haven’t been many. I worked on these volumes with Dr. Carpenter, (who died in June) and I have recently posted a fuller biography of Carl Schuster on Wikipedia, if you are interested. I also completed a book last year titled “The Thread-Spirit” which applies some of these ideas to the fiber arts (knotting, weaving, spinning, basketry, etc.). Dr. Schuster, Dr. Coomaraswamy, and Dr. Carpenter were great men, who cared deeply about art, culture and history. Their works remains worthy of serious study and contemplation.

    Regards

    Mark

    • Kiko Denzer says:

      Dear Mark,

      thank you so much for getting in touch, and for your kind words about my inadequate (but heartfelt) effort. I was delighted to find that the Wikipedia article I started had been re-written by someone so much better qualified and informed than myself, but couldn’t (easily) figure out how to post my gratitude on the Wikipedia contributor’s pages — or wherever it is you’re supposed to do that. (Getting the article posted felt like quite an achievement.)

      You’re right about my lack of familiarity — I’ve only recently been introduced to Schuster and Carpenter’s work, partly through John Bishop, who (as you many know) did a documentary version of Dr. Carpenter’s book Oh What A Blow that Phantom Gave Me. I asked him for comment or advice on the Wikipedia article, but he’s busy and just encouraged me to put it up.

      In any case, I wrote out of enthusiasm and delight. John and his wife Naomi own a copy of Carpenter’s Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art that they got from Naomi’s mother, who worked with Carpenter in CA. They have very kindly allowed me to borrow it, which gives me an opportunity to pore through the images, consider some of the ideas, and lament what we have (apparently) lost — or have we? They also told me about Carpenter’s health and his recent passing. I m grateful for what he left behind him.

      And for you taking the trouble to comment. I will edit the post and encourage people to refer to the Wikipedia article.

      I’ve also requested your book from the library, and will look forward to looking at it. What are you working on now?

      Best wishes and gratitude from Oregon,

      — Kiko Denzer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <img alt="" align="" border="" height="" width="" hspace="" longdesc="" vspace="" src=""> <iframe title="" class="" type="" src="" height="" width="" allowfullscreen=""> <object src="" type="" wmode="" height="" width=""> <param name="" value="" wmode="" height="" width=""> <embed src="" type="" allowfullscreen="" allowscriptaccess="" wmode="" height="" width="">