There are 25,000 objects in the Brooklyn Museum decorative arts collection, and each one has a story. We’ll highlight one particularly interesting piece each month, starting with one of the the collection’s most controversial acquisitions.
By design, decorative art objects are intended to be one of two things: pretty or purposeful. “It’s unusual that they have something to say, and even rarer when they have a strong political statement,” says Barry Harwood, curator of the decorative arts collection at Brooklyn Museum.
Five years ago, an object came across his desk, however, so rife with outdated political sentiment, yet historically significant, that he decided to display it in the entryway to the museum’s largest permanent exhibition.
The 19th-century porcelain figure in the pictured here was created in Greenpoint by Union Porcelain Works around 1882, when the neighborhood was less known for its food scene and more for its ceramic manufacturing. “There were over a dozen ceramic makers, including the most famous ones in America at the time–the Union Porcelain Works and the Faience Manufacturing Company,” Harwood explains.
Founded by Thomas C. Smith, Union Porcelain Works was best known for its fine china, as well as for manufacturing the country’s first oyster plates, but its pottery took a political turn around 1882 when its kilns started firing a series of statues lampooning the Chinese Exclusion Act–a federal law passed that year, which prohibited Chinese immigration to America.
“The 1870s was not unlike our times–it was filled with economic boom followed by bust,” Harwood says. “They were looking for a scapegoat, and who do they point to? The Chinese, who were so obviously the other, even though they’d started to come to the United States at the time of the great gold rush in California in 1840.”
Sitting just over 11 inches high, the figurine, titled Chinese Argument, fed into common racial stereotypes. As you can see, it depicts a bald eagle sharing its nest with a white child wearing a Phrygian cap–the conical hat worn by French revolutionaries as a symbol of freedom (it also resembles the headgear of a garden gnome). He’s sitting on the back of a black child–“This was post-Civil War period,” Harwood says, “so he’s in the nest, but he’s being literally held down and oppressed”–who is peering over the side of the nest watching a Chinese man (depicted with a long braid), cling for dear life to twigs, trying unsuccessfully to make it into the nest–into America.
Though our satire tends not to be rendered in porcelain these days, Chinese Argument is a sort of three-dimensional political cartoon, a Jon Stewart sketch in fine china. It’s unclear how many statues were made in all or who bought them, though Harwood says it’d be a liberal-minded person who’d have owned one, given how rampant the anti-Chinese sentiment was at the time.
“We only know of four of these, but clearly more were made, though it was never made to be sold and then go into a store and buy it,” Harwood says. “This was not a very proud moment in the history of the United States. But it’s a real echo of today. The Chinese had been here even longer than the recent immigrants, but they were willing to take any job, and of course, these were jobs that the European immigrants probably didn’t want. You think about today with the Mexican and Latino immigrants–it was the same thing. As I said, not a very proud moment.”