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Adornment: Jewelry of South Asia’s Nomadic Cultures

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The wide range of vegetal, geometric, and animal motifs that tribal jewelers wrought into silver and gold reflects the diverse functions and varied origins of these artworks.

A substantial silver bracelet featuring a temple-shaped design at top and intricate detail work throughout.

Bracelet (Tada) with Temple Tower (Shikara) Finial, early 20th century


Odisha, India. Promised gift of Barbara and David Kipper.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, cattle-herding nomads from tribes as geographically and culturally diverse as the Ersari and Kuchi of Afghanistan, the Balti of Pakistan, and the Rabari and Ahir of India moved seasonally across Central and South Asia in search of fresh pastures. Although they carried few belongings, these travelers developed a material legacy of adornment practices embodied in the textiles and finely crafted jewelry they wore and bartered, practices that continued as they settled into modest villages over time.

Pair of Geometric Snake Earrings (Pambadam), early 20th century


Velallar; Tamil Nadu, India. Promised gift of Barbara and David Kipper.

These adornments were made by artists of tremendous skill using a range of traditional techniques still practiced today, including sandcasting, lost-wax casting, stamping, engraving, enamel inlay, and the careful twisting and sodering of wire. In their original contexts, such objects served as expressions of tribal affiliation, personal wealth, spiritual beliefs, and cultural heritage. They functioned as capital and currency for men as well as women, protected skin from sunburn and insect bites, and stimulated vital pressure points, or marma, to enhance fertility and relieve pain.

Pair of silver pendants in the shape of two overlapping squares rotated 90 degrees, with a border of blue and red glass beading and a blue bead at center in a circle-shaped detail.

Pair of Temple Pendants (Muchley), late 19th/early 20th century


Katawaz Basin, Afghanistan. Promised gift of Barbara and David Kipper.

This focused exhibition, made up of promised works from the collection of Barbara and David Kipper, presents a sampling of these objects, from ornate headdresses to simple stud earrings, lending insight into their cultural legacy. In recent decades, loss of land due to population growth and industrialization has had significant impact on traditions of adornment. As rapid urbanization continues, preserving and understanding the diverse visual legacies of South Asia’s nomadic cultures remain urgent endeavors.

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