One World: 40 Artists Respond to Covid-19. Exhibition review

Published: 18.09.2020
Makiko Akiyama
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How can jewellery help people? It may be a question that comes to the minds of many people in the jewellery field when a major disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic strikes.

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There is an exhibition that offers an excellent opportunity to think about this proposition. It is One World: 40 Artists Respond to Covid-19, a group exhibition organized by Gallery Loupe in New Jersey. Forty national and international artists participated and created necklaces as a response to the pandemic. The show is available online in the format of a digital catalogue which begins with a text by a jewellery and metalwork historian, Toni Greenbaum, followed by photographs of the works and statements by the artists.
The anxiety of the pandemic may affect the psychology of the viewer—as I flipped through the pages of the catalogue, I couldn't help wondering which piece of jewellery I would like to get through this challenging time with. That I'm not alone in this sentiment is evident from the title of Greenbaum's text, "Amulet for a New Age". And some of the exhibits display an awareness of their role as amulets. (I must add, however, that making a piece of jewellery with an amuletic purpose is not a requirement of the exhibition).
The exhibits representative of such awareness is the ones in a round, spiked coronavirus shape. The examples of this type are Annamaria Zanella's Red Alien in striking, vivid red colour and Barbara Seidenath's Cobeaded-'20, a beaded, pop-toned charm. These virus-shaped jewels can be seen as amulets that make use of the form of sinister animals or evil gods to ward off something evil. Also, the act of magnifying the virus to make it visible to the naked eyes can be regarded as the need to feel secure.
Emiko Oye's work is also noteworthy in her use of a common amulet motif. Oye has been repurposing LEGO® to make ingenious jewellery for many years. For this show, she made Sunday, a pendant featuring a light blue eye placed against a rainbow-coloured circle. The eye is a famous symbol to ward off the "evil eye" which is a folk belief in many parts of the world that one's jealous or malicious gaze brings misfortune to the person to whom it is directed.

Emiko Oye, Sunday, (fr. ser. 2 Be Seen) pendant, 2020. Repurposed & chromed LEGO®, bronze, argentium, sterling silver. 2.75"L x 2.625"W x 1" D. Photo by the artist.

It is tempting to associate Sunday with protection against the evil eye, but it differs from it in that it is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it is a part of "2 be seen" series1 that Oye has been making since 2019. The concept of the series is to encourage people to look inward and practice non-violent communication (NVC). In this body of works, the eye appears again and again to symbolize not only certain NVC practitioners that Oye knows but also people's universal desire to be seen and the concern for self and others, both of which are vital to NVC. To sum it up, the eyes in this series and Sunday represent love for others and affect the owner positively. If keeping one's mind strong is also an integral function of a talisman, then Oye's work can be considered a reinvigorated form of amulet, giving new value to the motif of the eyes.
Another superb example of a contemporary interpretation of a traditional amulet is Shachar Cohen's Hamsa. In general, hamsa means a popular amulet to ward off the evil eye in the Middle East, Maghreb and Jewish communities and is a stylized, symmetry open right hand, often with an eye on the palm. But Cohen's version is unbalanced, with a flat palm and short fingers. And its shape and size suggest it represents a specific person's hand, and consequently the universality of the original symbolism of hamsa is lost.
The mirror-like surface is worth noting as well. According to Cohen, he used this effect as an expression of hyper-self-consciousness of modern society, symbolized by the culture of selfies2. In Japan, however, a mirror has been considered as an object of divine possession and is one of the three Sacred Treasures symbolizing the nation's Imperial throne3. Interestingly, the representations of amulets from the two cultures coincidentally coexist in one work, although the artist seems to be unaware of this point. At the same time, Hamsa shows an ambiguous attitude towards it. It appears to be his view as well as that of modern people in general, and it incidentally embodies the "amulet of the new age" of Greenbaum's text, which is one of the intriguing points of this work.

Shachar Cohen, Hamsa, pendant, 2020. Stainless steel, cotton thread. 12.5cm x 9cm x 0.6cm edition 1/3. Photo by the artist.

Now I would like to focus on the element that would be worth paying attention to when thinking about the role of jewellery as a talisman, namely a gesture.
One of the works that incorporate a gesture is Timothy Veske-McMahon's Contact, a circular thermochromatic coated necklace. In the accompanying video, McMahon is knitting, but stops midway and looks away in the distance, looking anxious and at a loss. Then, when the necklace changes colour, he returns to his knitting again. Esther Knobel's work also entails a gesture. Knobel exhibited a necklace with a rectangular, flat, ceramic container with indescribably shaped objects placed in it. In her portrait, she holds the box in her hand and looks into it—perhaps many people would take the same action when given this piece.

Timothy Veske-McMahon, Contact, pendant, 2020. (Multiple) aluminum, thermochromatic coating, cotton. 6" x 6" x 1/8". Photo by the artist.

Esther Knobel, pendant, 2020, Porcelain. Photo by Roni Cnaani.

Luci Jockel's necklace features elliptical-shaped obsidian. The surface is interspersed with the carved droplet shapes with bees' feathers glued to them. When the light passes, the form of the droplets and the stone's inherent stripes emerge over the landscape seen through the piece, which makes up a graphical, poetic image.
What is seen in the photographs of these works is underlying anxiety and loneliness. MacMahon looks anxious and worried, and Jockel's pictures allude to a longing for freedom. Knobel's gaze somewhat looks to suggest an introspective sentiment seeming many are experiencing in the solitude imposed by the lockdowns. And, subtle as they may be, the gestures appear to work as modest means of easing anxiety in these pieces. Then, it could be possible to see it this way—these gestures, repeated daily, could develop into a comforting ritual, and the jewellery could eventually become a talisman for its owner.

Luci Jockel, Winged Tears, pendant, 2020. Obsidian, honey bee wings, silk thread, archival glue. 29" x 2 1/4" x 1/4". Photo by the artist.

I have discussed amulets here based on my personal views and the situation in the country I live in. Some people may find it irrelevant. But amulets, and by extension jewellery, are inherently very personal and local. The talismanic aspect of jewellery is a topic worthy of consideration for those who make, study, and wear it. It is not only a role that people have sought from jewellery since time immemorial but also a part that is more and more necessary for an age of increasing natural disasters, such as viruses and climate change.
In contemporary jewellery, people have thought about what jewellery could do for long. It makes me feel that we can explore the possibilities of jewellery as a talisman from various perspectives other than ethnographic and cultural anthropological points of view. And looking at the inherent qualities of jewellery such as the gestures I mentioned earlier could be one way to pursue the possibilities.
And, I might add, to prevent misunderstanding, I am not urging makers to create jewels as amulets, because what psychological effect the jewel could have is solely up to its owner. That is one of the differences between traditional amulets and modern ones—whether the talismanic impact stands on either collective beliefs and customs or personal psychological ties between the individual and the piece.
If there is one thing I can say for sure, it is that people are fortunate to have such jewellery. And if you are a maker, then the jewellery you make has the potential to bring strength to someone who is in a vulnerable state of mind. And if this can become a reality, it would be a great blessing for those who make jewellery even if it happens outside of your control.
One World is a significant exhibition in that it elicits timely responses from the artists to ongoing events and preserves in a digital and physical catalogue for a future reference. Also, it presents a relevant theme to think, namely amulet and encases the artists' unbeaten will for creation. With the last point, in particular, the use of portraits was a success. At a time when "Stay Home" was a worldwide slogan, the artists' photograph mostly taken in and around their homes, had the effect of making viewers feel a sense of solidarity.
I have been focusing on the theme of jewellery as a talisman in this review, but, You can see the approaches from other points of view. Also, I referred to McMahon, Jockel, and Knobel to showcase effective use of gesture, but several more works evoke a gesture. If you haven't visited the exhibition, I strongly recommend you to do so because it is undoubtedly worth it. Since it is a virtual exhibition, you can spend as much time as you want from wherever you are, whenever you want to.
1. See Emiko Oye's website for the details of "2 be seen" project:
2. See the artist introduction on Gallery Loupe's website:
3. According to Japanese mythology, the three sacred artefacts, a mirror, magatama (a comma-shaped stone) and a sword were given to the first Emperor, and they are still stored in the Imperial Palace and a couple of shrines to this day.


About the author

Makiko Akiyama. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.