Art and Design of Vanishing Cultures: Historical Preservation – Part Three

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Chambers Architects Visits the Neufeld Collection of Tribal Treasures of Nagaland

When we go to Santa Fe in the summer, we try to catch up with Harry and Tiala Neufeld, ethnographic collectors and dealers who live in Philadelphia. We knew they had a love story nourished by a mutual passion for art the first time we started to converse with them about their work to preserve the design and cultural artifacts of Nagaland. All photos by Stephanie Chambers, Chambers Architects, unless indicated otherwise.

Through the Neufelds, Texas architect, Steve Chambers became deeply attracted to the art, design, aesthetics, and culture of Nagaland. We care about all dying cultures and, in ten years, there may be nothing remaining of this illustrative society, whose tribes occupy a mountainous state in the northeastern part of India. The Naga culture’s adornment is unsurpassed in terms of individuality and artistry. The breadth of diversity, volume, quality, symmetry and detail are unusual in tribes who possess only primitive tools with which to make their art. It takes strong traditions and dedication to specific design principles to produce textiles, body adornment, costuming, jewelry and basketry of enduring quality and design. With their stripes, grids and zigzagging lines that produce rhythmic geometric patterns, the textiles could have been designed by any number of mid-20th-century Modernists like Anni Albers, or by many of the contemporary artists today. Whimsical hats and headgear fashioned with extensions of spiked and hanging Hornbill feathers, hair and brightly colored materials remind us of the art of the surrealists.

When Harry met Tiala Marsosang in New Delhi in the 1970s, he was there because of a prescription from the counter — culture — find a personal adventure. Like many young men in the late 60s and 70s, Harry was looking for something more individually inspiring than the usual professional career. Turned off by his lock-step path through medical school and the life that often follows it, Harry dropped out and tuned in to India. His passion in life came in the form of Tiala and their son.

The name Tiala means “luck.” She originated from Ao Tribe in Nagaland, where her father was the most respected man in his tribe and one of the most successful businessmen in northeastern India. The Naga women who came to New Delhi from the eastern hill country of India were approachable for Western men. Hindu women were not. If Harry wanted to find a special someone, he needed to hang out with the warm and colorful Naga people. While appearing to be one society, Harry soon discovered that the Nagas were actually many diverse tribes. The Ao Tribe was but one of the major seventeen officially recognized clans that staked out territory in the thousands of tribal villages perched on secluded spiky ridges that range from Northeast India into Burma. While sharing many social and cultural traits, each Naga tribe was quite different from another in both their political systems and more than a dozen mutually unintelligible languages. A strong oral tradition exists and many of the languages and history are still unwritten. Tiala explains why with this Ao legend. “A great writer penned our history, but unfortunately it was placed on leather. When dogs found it, they carried it away and ate it.”

Story continues after gallery below.

Supplemental weaving on a classic Angami shawl. Angamis are the finest weavers among the Naga tribes.

The tribes were so isolated from the West that they came to exemplify an exotic culture. Dubbed “Naga” (naked) by the British, the People of the Hills were radically different in culture and beliefs from the better-known Hindu of the plains. Renowned for their fierce resistance to British rule, their practice of head hunting, and subsequent disruption of British tea trade, Nagas were the target of British subjugation. Christian missionaries soon followed with total suppression of Naga “heathen” practices and actively converted the tribes to Christianity. Both factors substantially changed this exuberantly animist Naga culture. Animists believe that souls exist in animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, thunder, wind, and shadows, as well as humans.

Art and Architecture

The theme of animism was also apparent in Naga design. Many motifs and patterns related to the intangible commodity of fertility. Daily life competed for and attempted to maximize fertility, focusing on the importance of natural cycles.

Naga lifestyle and artifacts were charged with codified meanings, giving each artifact its “power.” Motifs woven into shawls and skirts indicate identity, status, family relations and notable accomplishments. A striking example consists of gridded red and black squares and stripes. Large black boxes on the ends of textiles represented the dark side of life. Red squares commemorated blood. The right to wear particular items and patterns was strictly controlled. Those with the dominant status wore animal parts, especially tiger’s teeth, the most sacred animal. The tribes used decorative tattoos to distinguish among the tribes and regulate marriage within the tribes.

Konyak woman’s chank shell “slice” necklace laid over a Konyak multi-strand cobalt bead necklace

By virtue of geography, there was a common agriculture and cuisine. More diversity was seen through the patterns, motifs, materials and art media produced. Tribes differed in the creation of textiles, basketry, jewelry, weapons, metalwork, architecture and woodcarvings. Certain art forms were gender-specific. Men made baskets. Only women wove the textiles.

This Angami morung, youth dormitory, is an excellent example of Naga vernacular architecture. Photo courtesy of Tiala Neufeld

The morung, or youth dormitory, was an essential part of Naga life and the dissemination of culture. These grand buildings were positioned at the village entrance and fiercely guarded. Apart from family, living in a morung was the most important means of education. At puberty, young boys and girls were admitted to dormitories separated by gender. Elders conveyed the Naga customs and traditions to the youth through folk music and dance, folk tales and oral tradition, woodcarving and weaving. Announcements of meetings, the death of a villager, or warnings of impending dangers were made from the morungs by the beating of immense handmade log drums. Forced acculturation by Westerners destroyed Naga architecture in order to suppress the transmission of its practices and traditions to younger generations.

Which brings us back to why we should care about the preservation of a culture that celebrates practices naturally abhorrent to Western civilization. What’s there to mourn in its passing? One benefit to making sense of an unfamiliar culture is that it allows us an opportunity to escape the unconscious bonds and biases of our own culture. A strict adherence to the judgment that one’s arts are the most beautiful, our values the most virtuous, and beliefs the most truthful, tends to limit our perception, understanding and the growth that allows us to embrace others and deepen the realization of who we are as human beings.

Traditional Angami tribal attire and ornamentation. Photo courtesy of Tiala Neufeld.

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