What I like about working at a museum is running into curators who offhandedly tell you something really interesting about art that you didn’t know and never would have found out otherwise. Not long before Art of the Pacific opened, for example, I happened to meet Nancy Thomas, museum deputy director and curator, as she was about to enter the galleries. So Nancy kindly gave me a spontaneous tour of the installation, pointing out the canoe prow, the skull rack … and the operculum eyes.
The operculum is a convex rounded plate that serves as the trapdoor on the shell of a number of marine snails and some land ones too, protecting the snails from predators and from drying out. The operculum has a smooth side and a rough side. Set into a sculpted face of approximately human dimensions, as some long-ago artist discovered and many others would confirm, an operculum with the smooth side out makes an uncannily convincing eye: soft, three-dimensional, with an irislike ring of color around a glossy dark center.
“If you look at it straight on, the eyes are staring in a very piercing way,” Nancy said of a Memorial Figure, c. 1900, from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. “And this represents a significant village chief; it was carved to honor an individual at the time of death. The eyes have a certain dimensionality—they’re not just a flat painted disk. They’re almost luminous in a way, because they’re probably composed of an accumulation of layers of pigment.”
The opercula are individual as well, each one forged by the life and times of a lone maritime snail. As eyes they give the masks or statues a strangely personal presence and almost an air of distraction or being lost in thought, as if the figures represented were trying to sort out some important things on their minds.