The Engagement Trap

Karma Henry is an artist of Native American descent.   The context of her work stems from a foundation of Native American topics, land based issues and the integral use of mapping as a tool for segregation and coding. While consistently a painter, Karma also works in other media.

For STATE OF THE UNION, Karma presented me with a human sized cardboard box that was propped up on its end by two twigs forming what looked like a large primitive trap.  Inside, beneath the tilted structure, serving as bait, was a velvet ring box containing a diamond engagement ring.  Tied to the box was a piece of twine that led away from the structure, its end hidden from view so the trapper would go unseen.

The engagement ring as bait.  The promise of value, status, gifts, etc. Which is more important, that it is the symbol of one’s love, or is it the size and the price that was paid? A public handcuff?  Why does the man not wear a similar ring? Where did this custom start? Questions that I sought to answer.

In Ancient Egypt an engagement band was given to symbolize a never-ending cycle.  In contemporary Jewish and Christian wedding ceremonies they speak of this same thing.  This got me thinking and I created a ring that I feel is much more indicative of the marriage experience.

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It is made of gold, but the never ending circle is contained within a rounded square, symbolizing the bumps in the road ahead, and how the joining of two people can sometimes be like fitting a round peg into a square hole. It is worn on the ring finger, but in divorce should be moved to the middle finger for obvious reasons.

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Engagement rings were also found in Ancient Rome, however their rings included a small key thought to be symbolic of the bride’s ability to protect and cherish the husband’s heart, but more likely stood for the unlocking of wealth.  After all, women came with money.  It just wasn’t enough to have this human being love you and partner with you, one needed an added incentive.  I can think of couples today that marry because one has wealth and the other desires it, so this is not such a ancient idea.

The Romans also believed that the ring was a symbol of ownership, the husband claiming his wife, similar to a conquering party that stabs a flag into the ground.  And, Romans also usually gave two rings, a gold one, which the wife wore in public, and one made of iron that she would wear at home.  Now, that sounds about right.  And to think I find Rome to be such a romantic city!

Europeans continued to give engagement rings as a form of promise of fidelity and love,  however, newly proclaimed Americans, during the Colonial period, were much more practical and far less romantic, as they gave thimbles as a sign of eternal companionship.  Thimbles? The stereotype holds true, where Europeans were all wine and dine and woo, we hit it right on the nose with what is to be expected of our women…work!  It was the Colonial woman who cut off the top of those thimbles and turned them into rings.  No doubt a symbol of second-guessing their decision to leave Europe in the first place.

It was not until 1477 that the first diamond engagement ring was thought to be used.  It was by an Austrian, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, to be exact.  Of course this set the bar for other wannabes who wished to be seen as being of a higher social class, and once the African diamond mines were discovered in 1870, well, we all could pretend to be of the upper class.

Of course, if there was money to be made on all of this display of “one’s undying devotion”, then we here in the US were ready to throw out our thimbles and take part in the custom. In the 1930s the US began aggressively promoting the diamond engagement ring through the entertainment industry and today over 80% of American woman wear diamond engagement rings as a result of that successful marketing campaign.  As with most things, we woman are usually complicit in our own demise.

The purpose of this project is to debunk, disrupt and examine those things that are rarely questioned when one agrees to participate in the commercialized ritual of the wedding. Don’t get me wrong, I am a hopeless romantic, and I too have gotten sucked into the vortex of the wedding machine…twice! But, as they say, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. And, the third time? Well, today I am with someone I wish to partner with for the rest of my life, but whether or not we choose to make the decision to become a legal partnership still remains to be seen.  And, an engagement ring?  I don’t see the point. What’s the need for a promise for some future act?  Live in the now!  A set of commitment rings, one for him and one for me seem more appropriate. Or maybe we will follow in the footsteps of another artist friend of mine who, when getting married, tattooed a ring on her ring finger, as did her husband. Now, THAT is commitment.

Getting back to Karma’s practice, Native American wedding traditions tended to focus on necessities like food, clothing and shelter, though jewelry was considered a shield against evils including hunger, poverty and bad luck, and both man and woman wore this in their ceremony.  As far as my answer to Karma’s art piece, I merely changed the box to a Bankers Box, for all of the reasons set forth above.

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