Fanny’s Reincarnation

August 11, 2015

The work in the Penn Museum Archives never ends. The backlog resists attempts at taming it. The Archives is happy to have a number of interns and volunteers who are willing to help organize, catalog, and preserve the documents, drawings, and photographs in the collections. Alyssa Velazquez is one such intern, who is presently reorganizing the storage of the old glass plate negatives. The Museum has at least 30,000 glass plates, in sizes ranging from 3×4 inches to 11×14 inches. Many of these were originally transported into the field, were shot and developed there, and were then brought back to the Museum. Others were taken in the Museum’s Photo Studio, which was established by at least 1902. The Adventures of Ringo and Sobek is a social science satire centered around the Museum’s old records, surroundings, and areas of study.


In the Continuing Adventures of Ringo and Sobek:

Sobek, I am telling you these things not because I believe you to be a well of compassion,
Or that you, being so far removed from my perspective can understand more clearly and therefore offer an unbiased conclusion to all that has lead up to this moment,
but because such an occurrence has presented itself to me that I must emote.
As you are my closest and only companion, it is to you to whom I must confide.

The dawn of my understanding, while manifesting itself this evening,
had been formulating since my previous Sunday stroll through the galleries.
Taking my usual route through the exhibits in subsequent typography;
I passed by an artifact in the Imagine Africa exhibit, which I had not previously seen nor had I a recollection of having ever seen it situated there before,
Yet I sensed a familiarity in its form.
This recognized alien greatly upset me,
Though logically I had no definite reasons for my distress.
And with that, I hurried away from my enigma.

On the preceding night,
Rather than face this antagonistic invader,
I amused myself with sorting through the broken glass plates that remained after our intern’s departure.
The broken pieces mocking my own distorted consciousness.
Why did I feel such an identifiable tie to this recent acquisition?
I knew – though I dreaded the confrontation – that answers could only be gained by another rendezvous with my agitator

I knew with undeniable certainty that this grating presence was that of a female.
As I crept closer to her sector of the display case,
I began to notice that while her restoration appeared to have been minimally cosmetic, her entire demeanor was that of a much older, deeply altered, artifact.
Before I could form a greeting, I heard my name being emitted from the foreigner’s lips.
“Ringo, why have you been avoiding me?”
“Pardon me madam, but how do you know my name? We have never met before, and Ringo is so unlike typical names, such as John or Paul or George. It could not have been guessed.”
“Has our time apart been that long, or our acquaintance of that little importance, that you have forgotten your past paramour, Ringo?”

The longer I fixated on her penetrating stare, the less mysterious or elegant she became.
Her ambiguity melted through time and space, back to a day in Paris, 1907 when I had first beheld her, masquerading as a “primitive doll” from the 19th century.
“My vanity remains intact for another day” she replied “I had begun to fear that the years had been unkind to me.”
“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”
I hadn’t the heart to divulge how altered.
She resembled very little of the feathered and twined vixen that had been the center of my anthropological infatuation as a budding archaeologist.
“What became of you Fanny? One day I went to call on you in the gallery and you were gone. You left no note, nor was there any indication in the catalogue of where you could have gone.”
“My love, I have spent over a century in Europe, under various collectors and exhibitions.”
“You must have learned and seen so much” I said.
“My dear, individuals such as myself can only reflect what is taught to us.
Our learning, as you call it, is not liberation.
It is a labor of art.
I am art because my owners have termed me as such, therefore I am.
Once, many years ago a gentleman scholar described me as a fertility god,
but not long there after I was acquired by a wealthy and eccentric collector, as an African sculpture for a modernist museum; and there I was the totem of elegant craftsmanship.
My life, as are each of our Plexiglas lives, are malleable reincarnations.
As one of my oldest acquaintances, someone who knew me from the start, what do I look like to you now?”

I could not answer such a prompt
She seemed so tired, so handled.
My eyes were still adjusting to this focal creature of my youth.
At one time her whole being had been masterfully crafted from a weather worn tree,
and now she seemed to be an experiment in obsidian doll making.
Her once unornamented physique now sported bronze studs on her hands and neck.
“S.V.” had at some point in her history of caretakers been chiseled into her breast.
And she had been diminished in size.
She no longer stood on a base.
She had been forced to relinquish her platform.

How was I to take such a sad tale and make it better?
I couldn’t let her into my heart’s condolences
That wouldn’t even start to make it better.
Even though we were closer than we had been to each other in years, I had never felt more keenly the continental divide.
Can I erase the past?
How does one go about making Fanny, and other artifacts like her, matter?
When or where can it begin Sobek?
I wish to be the voice, but what am I to say?

“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”
“Fanny, my dear, I must admit that your appearance is altered.”