07 February 2013

House Cleaning Project - The Old Man's Head

Clearing out parents' house; they have moved to a retirement home. Forgotten objects come to light; others take on new meaning when considered out of the familiar context. As we go along I will feel compelled to share my observations; I hope it will be fun.

This is The Old Man's Head.

It is a humidor, in which gentlemen could keep their tobacco.

Nobody in our family knows now where it came from originally, but for as long as my mother can remember it stood on the bookcase in the corner of the dining room. When she was very young she found it terrifying.

My grandfather smoked a pipe, but I don't think The Old Man's Head ever contained tobacco. Instead, it was a repository for spare keys, packs of cards, pipe cleaners and other bits and pieces

My grandparents' dining room was dark in the way rooms were dark in my childhood. When they set up house in the 1920s Grandpa ordered hand-carved blackwood dining chairs, dining table and the huge, glass-fronted blackwood bookcase. All the woodwork in the room was dark brown. Over the years the walls, whatever their original colour, had been stained dark brown by smoke from the fireplace and the gentlemen's pipes. Heavy curtains and dark brown Holland blinds protected furnishings and carpet from the afternoon sun.

To me, the Old Man's Head was one more dark brown object in a dark, brown room.

Years passed. My grandparents died; Mum inherited both the furniture and The Old Man's Head, which was no longer scary at all. It remained on the blackwood bookcase in our house and it remained a repository for spare keys and broken pencils, but things were stacked around it from time to time and nobody worried too much whether it was knocked or bumped. The years were not kind to it.

Late last year my mother moved into a unit. She took the glass-fronted bookcase with her, but left me The Old Man's Head. She still doesn't like his eyes.

Not long after taking custody of him, I was listening to a radio programme in which colonialism and, inevitably, racism were mentioned. Disgust was expressed at the insensitivity of colonial overlords who actually owned humidors in the shape of the heads of so-called inferior races. Horrifyingly racist. You what?

I rushed off to consult The Old Man's Head. He looked rather confused and perhaps a bit startled by it all, but hardly inferior to anyone.

Until then, it had never occurred to me to wonder which "race", if any, The Old Man's Head is supposed to represent. It was brown, because everything else in the room was brown; it could just as well have been green or purple.

Although it's comical and slightly grotesque a high degree of skill has been lavished on the detail, suggesting it may be a portrait of a specific person. Was it then the acceptable representative of an entire nation, a generic face like that of Gwoya Jungarai, model for the stereotypical aborigine?

With no idea of its original context, I have always accepted The Old Man's Head as merely another ornament; now I have to worry about whether I am perpetuating a racial stereotype. By keeping it in a conspicuous place in my lounge room do I run the risk of insulting my friends?

Would it still be racist and offensive if it were green, rather than brown?
Is this stereotypical Toby Jug (made in Japan, sold in Australia) just as insulting to Englishmen? 

Perhaps it is! Alas, racism seems to be like sexual innuendo – start looking for it, and you can find it everywhere.

Having said that, I expect some of the nineteenth century Englishmen who owned humidors in the form of human heads did have attitudes towards other people that I would find totally offensive. But I rather like The Old Man's Head, so I prefer to imagine that it is its association with the filthy, disgusting habits of tobacco addicts that is offensive, not the object itself.  


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