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Cleveland Museum of Art
11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44130
April 16, 2011 - February 26, 2012

Portable Objects from Southeast Los Angeles
by Andrew Berardini


Angeleno people, North America
Plastic, metal
Private Collection


The lighter’s considerable wear and tear is an obvious sign of intense use. Often, as a result of continuous handling, the translucency of the lighter darkens over time and receives a deep, glossy patina through scratching associated with overuse. Lighters were frequently acquired at local locations by its original owner or as gifts to maintain harmonious family or kinship ties. As prized daily possessions, lighters were regularly passed down from one person to the next through accidental and intentional thieveries in a practice known as “pocketing” and used only on special occasions, usually involved in the lighting of cigarettes.



Package of Rolling Tobacco
Angeleno people, California
Paper, leaves, plastic
Private Collection


A preparation of processed tobacco and cigarette papers in a specially designed package, rolling tobacco has been widely used in North America since the introduction of machine-processed tobacco on the continent by Europeans in the 16th century. It was typically offered to visitors and shared among friends—a way of establishing or solidifying harmonious social relationships. Used by men and women alike, packages of rolling tobacco were carried in pockets, or they adorned for prestige the café table or bar.



Paper Cup (Coffee or Tea?)
Echo Park people, California, or Southern Silver Lake, Los Angeles (widespread regional usage)
Private collection


Containers wrapped in a cardboard sleeve are extremely rare to be found preserved, as they were usually discarded after a single use. Because none of the surviving examples appears to have tell-tale signs of its previous liquid, it is possible that these virtuoso works served as display objects to denote prestige or industriousness. They may also have been used by important individuals to store coffee or tea, the lid functioning as a way to contain heat or hide contents.



Communication Tool
unknown people, believed widespread throughout region
Metal, plastic
Private Collection


Relatively thin communication tools were traditionally used for hunting and fighting and were customarily called “cellphones.” The name refers to the breakdown of neighborhoods into “cells” or subregions, and had characteristic buttons atop a hand-sized structure. The tools could be decorated with copper or brass studs or in skins of various materials and colors. This heavily patinated non-skinned tool, with its battered case, exemplifies a classic lower-caste style.




Door Opening Tools
Angeleno people, North America
Plastic, metal
Private Collection


Among the regional peoples, carefully carved and appliquéd metal tools for the opening of doors were among the many accoutrements of the quotidian costume. The geometric shapes decorating this tool’s finial suggest a schematic representation of the inside of its mate. In the past, among an isolated Chinatown group in Los Angeles (where these were discovered), a thin man-made colored ring surround the crown of each metal object, each color (along with the shape of the item) presumably defined its use. They are renowned for their ability to appear and disappear in rituals before big trips. Many of the tools here, have only guessed-at intentions but were a part of daily life, given their crackled patina due to constant misuse.


Andrew Berardini


Pipe, 1800s–1900s. Lesotho, Southern Sotho people, or South Africa, Nguni people. Wood, iron; h. 37 cm. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Museum purchase, 89-14-16). Photo: © National Museum of African Art, photography by Franko Khoury 

Posted by Andrew Berardini on 12/19/11

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