“Sight and the idea of seeing is hugely important,” she said. “Eyes can show a sense of real power.”
Jensen began “The Eyes Have It” tour on the third floor, centered on African art. Many African pieces feature what are called coffee bean eyes, which are almond shaped with a slit down the middle.
Other sculptures have eyes that pop out from the face and are depicted to be wide open, a symbol of an all-seeing being to protect others.
In art, eyes can reveal a lot about the piece being viewed, Jensen said.
Jensen also focused on the materials the eyes were made from, specifically iridescent
seashells. When the light from the fire would hit them in ancient temples, the eyes would flicker and give life to the piece.
“When these sculptures were created, the eyes were so important and treated in a specific way,” Jensen said.
Eyes were made to symbolize power and protection in Africa, seen in the various pieces in the museum. These traditions spread into later cultures in Asia and the Western world as well.
In Egyptian culture, people are often portrayed with a heavy black cosmetic surrounding their eyes, which has often been thought of as only a decorative detail.
Jensen explained it’s actually a way of preventing the “curse of the evil eye.” It was used especially on infants and small children, which dates back to the protective uses of eyes in Africa.
In more modern art, Jensen explained that viewers can see artists begin to learn about the eye itself. They started to put that knowledge into the way they made pieces and how they were meant to be seen by others.
She described the way artists painted portraits so that the eyes of the subject seem to follow the viewer around the room. This is achieved by painting their gaze straight out of the painting and keeping other variables constant.
Ending her tour, Jensen told of a historic fad. Europeans from about 1780-1830 would request small portraits of their eyes to be attached to jewelry and given as gifts to their loved ones.
“People actually exchanged these and commissioned artists to create them,” Jensen said. “But they led to something else.”
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