The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

The Power of Images: The National Museum of Ethnology Collection

Exhibition Guide

Prologue The Experience of the Gaze

In the Prologue to the exhibition, we present a large number of masks assembled from all over the world.

When we abruptly encounter a mask, our hearts begin to tremble and are nearly frozen in place. This is probably caused by the peculiar sensation of receiving a one-sided gaze without being able to see the person behind the mask. But we do not necessarily have to remain at the mercy of a mask. By welcoming or poking fun at its wearer, we can tap into the power of the "other world" embodied by the mask. Masks are in a sense the most dynamic expression of the relationship between images and people.

In this section, where we are exposed to the masks' overwhelming gazes, we experience images as a form of physical encroachment. At that moment, the museum is transformed from a space to look at objects (or images) into an interactive place in which images and people see and are seen by each other.


Section 1 Images of the Invisible

1-1 Portraying humans, portraying gods

 There are many things in the world that are not visible to the eye. People have long given forms to things that they cannot see, and attempted to control their power through these images. In this section, we examine the figures of gods and spirits that have arisen out of this human desire. People tend to make images of gods with forms that resemble their own bodies to establish a link to their own lives.

The numerous figures displayed in this section were created on the basis of some religious, ritualistic or magical belief. Some are repainted every year as part of an annual ritual, and others are never touched and simply left to decay. There are also figures with appearances that change over time, such as minkisi, a magical figure with nails covering its entire body, and oshirasama, to which a new layer of cloth is added every year. These figures of gods and spirits can be seen as formed objects that are rooted in human appeals.


1-2 Portraying time

The actions of those who possess invisible powers and the deeds of heroes and ancestors from the past are recounted in our stories and also incorporated into images. Attempting to establish a myth or legend through images or visualizing a narrative is essentially an act of portraying time. In this section, devoted to "invisible images," we take a wide-ranging look at various methods of depicting time throughout the world, including an illustrated biography of Buddha, a Christian icon, and tree-bark paintings of the Aboriginal Australians.

Among the temporal expressions in this section, we find a variety of devices to provide a vicarious experience linked to the past or future. While some are readily understandable examples that convey multiple temporal states in a single picture like a panel in a comic strip, there are also expressions that seem to be deciphered only by those who are part of the community in which the story is told. These images, a product of a specific group of people and their memories and knowledge, have the power to arouse our imaginations.


Section 2 Dynamics of Images

2-1 The Power of light, the power of colors

In Section 2, we turn our attention to the functions and effects of images. First let us examine the power of light and color. Radiant or brilliantly colored things attract people in many regions of the world.

Personal accessories and containers covered with multicolored beads and richly colored feathers accentuate the wealth or authority of the wearer or owner through their splendid effects. But their brilliant appearance is not merely an indication of social standing or position. Covering a person or container with light or color can be used to exert a specific type of power. One aspect of this is the ability to repulse or deflect evil powers. Mirrors or metals that are attached to the surface of a container protect its contents in the same way that silver or gold accessories and clothing that is covered with silver- or gold-threaded embroidery protects the body of the wearer. In that sense, we see a shared response to light and color that transcends cultural boundaries.


2-2 Links to the heavens

Tall objects, effectively establishing a link between a "higher realm" or the "heavens" and the terrestrial world, can be found in many different cultures. In this section, we present a variety of towering images from around the world that strive to attain greater heights.

Images that stress height are used to guide the viewer's gaze upward and send off dead souls or spirits to another (higher) world, or by contacting places in which gods are believed to dwell, provide them with a way of descending to Earth. In this section, we trace the deep-seated human desire to connect with some distant realm through the bis poles erected in front of spirit halls by the Asmat people of western New Guinea, the pukamani funerary poles made by the Tiwi people of Australia, and the wooden staffs decorated with paper streamers used in Japanese Shinto ceremonies. The totem poles created by the indigenous people of Canada's Northwest Coast originated as house or grave posts that were engraved with crests to signify an ancestral link. It is thought that the poles' gradual increase in height was intended as a display of wealth and power.


Section 3 Playing with Images

Not only do human beings create things with a specific objective in mind, they also take pleasure in the act of creating and appreciating images. In Section 3, we present objects from around the world that were both enjoyable for the creator to make and fulfilling as images.

For example, the appliqués made by Kuba women in the Congo supersede the practical aim of patching up a hole and lucidly convey each creator's original idea. The women realize a succession of new designs and give a name to each of the appliqué patterns. If in looking at these light-hearted patterns, we imagine the enjoyment that must have gone into creating them, the images can be said to have a common effect and the ability to transcend cultures. Other items that convey the pleasure and joy of playing with images include the Ghanaian goldweights and the bowl of a Taiwanese pipe, which are notable for their humorous designs, and a Peruvian ornamental gourd and Romanian Easter eggs that cleverly accentuate of the shape of their materials.


Section 4 The Translation of Images

4-1 Hybrid images

New customs and images that have emerged through movements, contact, and exchanges between people, objects, and information can be identified in every geographical area and historical period. In the first part of Section 4, dealing with the transformation and diffusion of images, we focus on hybrid forms as a product of cultural exchange.

For example, the forms of "white people" that are engraved in Nigerian and Alaskan Eskimo masks are included among masks that represent spirits and the dead as entities that emanate from an unknown realm or "spirit world." On the other hand, the Fante people of Ghana have incorporated the Union Jack (the national flag of the United Kingdom) into their battle flags as a symbol of military power. In these examples, we see the universal human impulse to create new culture through contact with others. In this section, we also present the results of a project to create contemporary art works out of the countless weapons that remained in Mozambique after the country's civil war to send out a message of peace.


4-2 Consuming images

In today's global society, a huge quantity of images are created, copied, commodified, and consumed. In this section, we focus on images that are unique to the contemporary era.

The tin and aluminum toys that are sold as tourist souvenirs in Senegal and Vietnam are made out of empty beverage cans with trademarks that are well known throughout the world. On the other hand, there are ethnic artifacts from various regions that capture the interest of tourists and are quickly transformed into commercial products as a result. Among these are the wooden sculptures made by the Makonde people in Africa, the wooden alebrije sculptures produced in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and the silkscreen prints created by the indigenous people of Canada's Northwest Coast. The development of these new items, sometimes referred to "tourist art," is clearly a reflection of the state of the world as a whole since the late 20th century.


Epilogue Found Images

The images that people create are not necessarily accepted and interpreted in the same manner in every region or culture. Not only are they sometimes misunderstood or used in different ways, they are sometimes imbued with completely new meanings and values, greatly altering their original forms. In fact, this is one means by which new culture is created.

In the Epilogue, we display various practical articles from everyday life using the installation method of contemporary art. Seen in this context, objects that would normally be classified as "artifacts" in an ethnology museum are instantly transformed into "works of art." This calls attention to the fact that images are constantly open to new meanings. In this final section, we have created a place to reexamine and relativize the relationship between images and human beings.