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Featherwork – Living and Museum Practices in Dialogue

The practice of featherwork creates multi-faceted artefacts. They contain material, aesthetic, social, symbolic, ecological, political, ethical and other dimensions. This complexity is heightened when the objects in question are (historical) museum artefacts. In the collaborative video project Featherwork – Living and Museum Practices in Dialogue, we take a closer look at this multiplicity. Using a variety of experiences, knowledge and approaches, we provide insights into intercultural and interdisciplinary museum practices, address contexts of production and use, and shed light on the meanings of historical objects in the present, both inside and outside the museum.

People adorn themselves with feathers right around the world. They are used to represent the position of the wearer in the natural or supernatural world, or to convey their status and standing within their communities. The use of feathers involves social, political, economic, religious, aesthetic, ecological and ethical aspects. The birdlife in South America is particularly diverse, with around 27,000 avian species inhabiting the continent. And the use of bird feathers is just as diverse, though the species typically used for the production of featherwork is more limited. There is evidence of feathers being used on the Peruvian coast as far back as the 4th millennium BC, and people and objects, as well as buildings, are still decorated with feathers today, particularly in the Amazonian lowlands.

This group of materials therefore not only enables broad collaboration on diverse levels, but also demands it – firstly in order to adequately discuss and present the historical and contemporary complexity of feather art traditions, and secondly so that we can preserve – and further develop – both the objects and the practices as living cultural forms of expression for the future.

Video “Featherworks”

The video “Featherworks” is made up of four contributions:

  • The first contribution focuses on transdisciplinary research on featherwork at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. Here, cultural-anthropological, conservation/restoration and ornithological approaches and questions come together with the aim of understanding the entire biographies of these feather objects – from gathering the feathers to their presence in museum collections –, in order to treat them appropriately and preserving them for future generations.
  • The Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro contributes a further perspective in the second contribution. In this clip, artist and activist Glicéria Tupinambá talks about the revitalisation of the tradition of Tupinambá feather cloaks. This revival was inspired by preserved objects from the 16th century, all of which are in museums outside Brazil. Gliecéria vividly illustrates the production process and relates this feather art tradition with the revitalisation of their own culture and with the fight for their own (natural) environment.
  • The third contribution takes us to central Brazil, to the island of Bananal. In this clip, the Museu Antroplógico (Goiânia) shows the diversity of the feather art of the Iny-Karajá and its usage, underlining the social dimensions of how feathers are used. It presents the feather artist Kurania Iny-Karajá and accompanies him during the making of a latenira, a feather headdress, demonstrating both the central role of featherwork for the Iny-Karajá and the importance of feather artists for the community.
  • The fourth contribution takes us back to the museum. The Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia in São Paulo outlines the long history of its collection and explains the measures taken there to preserve and document the objects. Indigenous groups are increasingly playing an important role in research and documentation. This clip illustrates the value of intercultural collaboration – both for indigenous communities and for museums – and also discusses the changing self-image of the “museum” as an institution.

Institution: Ethnologisches Museum (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Project team: Friederike Berlekamp, Melanie Korn
Project coordination: Friederike Berlekamp (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Selina McKay (Stiftung Humboldt Forum)
Cooperation: Ethnologisches Museum/Stiftung Humboldt Forum, Museu Antropológico (UFG), Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (USP) and the Museu Nacional (UFRJ).
Other project participants: Pascal Eckhoff (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin), Sylke Frahnert (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin), Glicéria Tupinambá (artist, activist), Idjaruma Iny-Karajá (filmmaker), Kurania Iny-Karajá (feather artist), Pablo Antonio Vásquez Salvador (Instituto de Pesquisas Energéticas e Nucleares) and representatives of Terra Indígena Araribá and Terra Indígena Icatu
Funding: Stiftung Humboldt Forum
Duration: Summer 2021 to spring 2023

Video “Featherworks”

The video “Featherworks” shows in its four contributions:

  • The first contribution focuses on transdisciplinary research on featherwork in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. Here, cultural anthropological, conservation/restoration and ornithological approaches and questions come together with the aim of understanding the feather objects in their entire biography – from gathering the feathers to their presence in museum collections –, treating them appropriately and preserving them for future generations.
  • The Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro contributes a further perspective in the second contribution. In it, Glicéria Tupinambá, artist and activist, explains the revitalisation of the tradition of the Tupinambá feather cloaks. The starting point for this was the preserved objects from the 16th century, all of which are in museums outside Brazil. Gliecéria vividly illustrates the production process and relates this feather art traditione with the revitalisation of their own culture and with the fight for their own (natural) environment.
  • The third contribution takes us to central Brazil, to the island of Bananal. In its video, the Museu Antroplógico (Goiânia) shows the diversity of the feather art of the Iny-Karajá and its use, underlining the social dimensions of feather use. It presents the feather artist Kurania Iny-Karajá and accompanies him during the making of a latenira, a feather headdress. In this way this contribution dicusses the central role of featherwork for the Iny-Karajá, the importance of feather artists for the community.
  • The fourth contribution takes us back to the museum. The Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia in São Paulo outlines the long history of its collection and explains the measures taken there to preserve and document the objects. Indigenous groups are increasingly playing an important role in research and documentation. The video thus illustrates the value of intercultural collaboration – for indigenous communities and for museums – and also points to the change in the self-image of the institution “museum”.

Institution: Ethnologisches Museum (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Project team: Friederike Berlekamp, Melanie Korn
Project coordination: Friederike Berlekamp (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Selina McKay (Stiftung Humboldt Forum)
Cooperation: Ethnologisches Museum/Stiftung Humboldt Forum, Museu Antropológico (UFG), Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (USP) and the Museu Nacional (UFRJ).
Other project participants: Pascal Eckhoff (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin), Sylke Frahnert (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin), Glicéria Tupinambá (artist, activist), Idjaruma Iny-Karajá (filmmaker), Kurania Iny-Karajá (feather artist), Pablo Antonio Vásquez Salvador (Instituto de Pesquisas Energéticas e Nucleares) and representatives of Terra Indígena Araribá and Terra Indígena Icatu
Sponsorship: Stiftung Humboldt Forum
Duration: summer 2021 to spring 2023