Unit 5: Mud Toys: Situating Symbolic Toys in Context

Artist:   Nie Xiewei

Media:  Mud, molds, sealant, and paint

Read/View: https://chinavine.uoregon.edu/artist/mud-toys-nie-xiewei/

Overview of Unit: The mud toys that Nie Xiewei makes are all tigers, an image that can be found all over China. The tiger is a symbol of beauty and strength and is often used to symbolize China’s spirit of progress. The tiger also protects good people from evil and disease. Therefore, giving toy tigers to children is not only a protective act, it also a part of their education as it teaches them to be strong and persevering.  Examples of toys used in this manner can be found all over the world.

Philosophy/Folklore: Throughout history, art has been a major recording and communication system.  It the case of Nie Xiewei’s mud toys, the tiger is recognized as a major symbol as it communicates characteristics associated with the animal.  In the United States, folk artists often use President Washington as  a symbol of national pride and trustworthiness.  Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester wrote that in the 19th century U.S., people would stencil their walls and floors with symbols intended to communicate varying ideas: “…hearts and bells suggested joy, the eagle was a popular American symbol of liberty, the pineapple was a traditional emblem of hospitality, and the willow—always seen in mourning pictures—stood for immortality.” Anthropologist Victor Turner defines a symbol as “something that represents something else by association, resemblance or convention.” He also claims that a message in an artwork is “greatly enhanced and expanded when the objects are recognized as being culturally specific symbols to be decoded and set in their proper context.”  Symbols can be interpreted differently over time and space.  Sometimes artists express anger or confusion when viewers misunderstand a symbol’s intended meaning.  Other artists take great pleasure in creating artworks with symbols that are interpreted differently as their context changes.

The Lipman and Winchester quote is from page 204 of: Lipman. Jean and Winchester, Alice. The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

The Turner quotes are from pages 15 and 16 of: Turner, Victor (ed). Introduction. Celebration: Studies in Festivals and Ritual.  Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1982.


Lesson 1: Reading Symbols and Incorporating Them into Toys

Symbols are so common in our everyday lives that we don’t often think about how they influence us. This lesson encourages an awareness of symbols and the power they have when incorporated into a toy.

Lesson 2: Pursuing Symbolic Meaning in Context

Symbols become more powerful when interaction or movement becomes part of an artwork. This lesson explores movement and the cultural context of artworks.

Lesson 3: Communicating Ideas through Symbols

Symbols are not always interpreted clearly for a number of reasons. This lesson examines ways that symbols are communicated and how they can be pitched for better understanding.