Philip Greenberg for The New York Times
By KEN JOHNSON
It would be hard to imagine a more misleading title than “Fiercely Modern: Art of the Naga Warrior,” the name of a show at the Rubin Museum of Art. The Naga, a diverse collection of peoples speaking similar languages and residing in a mountainous area in northeastern India, certainly were fierce. Headhunting was one of their prized pursuits. But they were far from modern by present-day standards. In fact, the culture of the Naga was nearly destroyed by modern Europeans. First came mid-19-century subjugation by the British, who wanted to stop the irritation of headhunting raids on neighboring Indian territories. Then American Baptist missionaries invaded, eventually succeeding in almost totally suppressing the Naga’s “satanic” practices and converting nearly all of the population to nominal Christianity.
Including clothing, jewelry, weapons and ceremonial objects, the Rubin’s exhibition serves more as an enticing introduction than a deep and wide exploration of its subject. It was drawn from a collection assembled in the 1930s by the anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf and now owned by the Welt Museum Wien in Vienna (previously the Museum für Völkerkunde).
The exhibition’s most attractive objects are those worn by warriors, including bracelets, chest pieces and elaborate ceremonial headdresses made from metal, beads, feathers, animal bones and teeth, dyed hair and fur. Many are extraordinarily beautiful and positively flamboyant. Wonderfully imaginative hats rigged with extensions from which hang feathers, hair and other richly colored materials have a surrealistic and sometimes comical appearance that might have inspired Dr. Seuss.
To contemporary Western eyes, however, the most sophisticated works are the shawls and wrap skirts, which, in the Naga’s strict division of labor, were woven exclusively by women. (Basketry was the men’s purview, and the show includes some impressive examples of that craft.) With their stripes, grids and zigzagging lines producing rhythmic geometric patterns, the textiles on view look as if they were designed by a mid-20th-century Modernist like Anni Albers.
The Naga were not just aesthetes, however. The things they made were loaded with codified meanings. Motifs woven into shawls and skirts could be read by others as indicators of identity, status, family relations and notable accomplishments. A striking example consists of gridded red and black squares and stripes. The museum label explains: “The large black boxes on each end represent the dark side of life, which could be made brighter only through headhunting and hosting feasts of merit. The red squares represent the parts of flesh distributed to the community after a successful headhunt, and the red on the edges commemorates the blood that has been spilled.”
For a modern viewer it is hard to fathom that something so lovely should be designed to celebrate such an abhorrent practice. The grisly style of a “Head Trophy” on display seems more appropriate. It consists of a series of woven rattan spheres hanging in a line ending at the bottom with a pair of human skulls, one of which has bull’s horns attached to each side. The horns, notes the museum label, were supposed to make the victim “deaf to the calls of his own community asking for the name of the man who had killed him.”
While this head trophy has a bracing and disturbing ugliness, what is more shocking is that headhunting was so thoroughly woven into the fabric of Naga culture at every level. Successful headhunters were like star athletes, admired by all and especially attractive to women. “A young man who had yet to bag a head would be teased by the girls in his clan, and simply ignored by those in other clans,” notes the introduction to “Naga Identities: Changing Local Cultures in the Northeast of India,” a book of scholarly essays sold in the museum bookstore and a must for anyone who wants to know more about the Naga. (There is no catalog for this show.)
More important, the Naga believed that bringing home heads would ensure the prosperity and general happiness of their village. It was important, for example, to consecrate with fresh heads the giant dugout log drums they made and used as musical instruments and as communication devices. On the other hand, daily life was not oriented around headhunting. It was an occasional activity pursued when villagers felt a need for community uplift. An old, former headhunter quoted in “Naga Identities” said, “Headhunting, that was like Christmas!”
Mostly the Naga devoted themselves to the less sensational practices of farming and constructing mountainside villages of considerable complexity. Old photographs in “Naga Identities” show big thatched-roof houses outfitted with monumental wooden sculptures. The Rubin’s show gives but an intriguing glimpse of how highly developed Naga culture was.
Since World War II, Nagaland has been rived by continuous violent conflicts between the Indian government and groups seeking independence and, internally, between radical and conservative factions. To the extent that the old Naga culture survives today, it is in the form mostly of nostalgic revivals catering to tourists. Younger Nagas generally are more interested in assimilating into Western consumer and entertainment cultures than in connecting to their precolonial roots. As it does everywhere in the world, modernity rolls on, fiercely.