Indo-Pacific Art Gallery broadens YUAG offerings

The Kubler-Thompson Gallery of Indo-Pacific Art explores the art of cultures from Madagascar to Easter Island.
The Kubler-Thompson Gallery of Indo-Pacific Art explores the art of cultures from Madagascar to Easter Island. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

This Sunday at the Yale University Art Gallery, visitors got an inside look at one of the museum’s newest collections.

Ruth Barnes, who has been the inaugural curator of Indo-Pacific art since 2010, publicly introduced the Kubler-Thompson Gallery of Indo-Pacific Art for the first time since the museum’s reopening in December 2012. Founded in 2009, the YUAG’s Indo-Pacific Department explores the artwork of cultures ranging from Madagascar to Easter Island. The collection is divided into three principal groups: textiles, Javanese gold samples and ethnographic objects, Barnes said. Throughout the talk, she focused on the collection’s history, as well as the cultural significance of Yale’s holdings.

The creation of the department and the YUAG collection was part of an initiative to broaden the range of holdings at the YUAG, Barnes said. In addition to creating a balanced museum, the acquisition will prove invaluable to the Southeast Asia Studies Department. Barnes noted how scholars, upon studying the ethnographic objects in the collection, might observe the details of cultural beliefs like ancestor veneration and spirit worlds that could inform their research.

The collection is famous among experts not only for its breadth, but also for the extraordinarily high quality of its materials, Barnes added. The textiles on display and in storage exceed those housed in museums throughout Europe in overall quality and are rivaled only by the holdings of the National Gallery of Australia.

Barnes explained that the man behind the department’s creation is Thomas Jaffe ’71, who was inspired as a student at Yale by the teachings of art historians George Kubler ’34 and Robert Farris Thompson ’55 GRD ’65. Jaffe began collecting ethnographic art from Asia and the Pacific in the late 1970s, and by the early 2000s, his New York apartment was overflowing with material from Sumatra, Borneo, eastern Indonesia and the Philippines.

Jaffe decided to donate part of his collection to a public museum, choosing Yale due to his fond memories of taking classes at the YUAG and interacting with artifacts as a student, Barnes said. His donation also called for the establishment of a curatorial department.

Since Jaffe’s primary area of interest lies in ethnographic material, he turned to other collectors to round out the collection he planned to donate. He purchased 400 textile samples from Indonesian textile experts Jeff Holmgren and Anita Spertus. Since textiles are metaphors for fertility, Barnes explained, they commonly play a role in ceremonial rituals from weddings to funerals.

“It is often said that a person can neither die nor marry without textiles,” Barnes said.

In addition, Holmgren convinced donors Hunter and Valerie Thompson that the YUAG was the right home for their collection of Javanese gold from the eighth to 11th centuries. Even now, the collection continues to grow, Barnes said.  The Indo-Pacific collection has so far attracted students and members of the Yale and local community. Three audience members interviewed found the talk engaging since they were exposed to a type of artwork that had previously received only limited coverage.

“I visited Indonesia two years ago, and so it’s very meaningful to me to see these objects again and to talk about them here,” said New Haven resident Nan Ross, a frequent attendee of Collection Lectures and Barnes’ talks in particular.

Barnes’ talk was an installment in the YUAG’s Collection Lecture Series, which serves to introduce the new exhibits and collections since the museum’s reopening. The series continues on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with Jennifer Gross’ presentation, “The New Era for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Gallery.”

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