Known for coining one the most recognized phrases in the world – “Believe it or Not” – Robert Ripley was an American cartoonist, entrepreneur, and amateur anthropologist who travelled to over 200 countries through the 1920s, 30s and 40s to find interesting and unusual facts from around the world. So says the plaque at the entrance of the exhibition, alongside a wax figure of an average and awkward-looking man in a khaki suit.
Enclosed in a single floor and cluttered with artifacts and oddities, the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibition feels on first impression like a curio shop. However, it is doubtful that even the most impressive souvenir store could inspire such ardent exclamations of “Oh my god, look!” “Eeeeuw!”, “That looks NOTHING like Charlize Theron” or “Wait, hold on, is that dog hair?” Boasting a variety of displays with a myriad of themes including Africa, the Orient, Dinosaurs and even Space, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not simultaneously shocks, scares, informs, repulses and inspires.
I stood aghast at the Fantasy Coffin fire-truck from Ghana, which was handcrafted by a Ghanaian craftsman known as Paa Joe. The Ga people of Ghana apparently order designer fantasy coffins that reflect the occupation, status or achievements of the deceased. Other fantasy designs owned by Ripley’s include coffins shaped like crabs, an airplane and even a coke bottle. More bizarre oddities at the exhibit include a vampire killing kit from Eastern Europe, cannibal skulls from New Guinea, a giant angel sculpture made entirely of household objects, a wax figure of the tallest man who ever lived, a mural of Nelson Mandela made entirely out of duct-tape and the forked-tongued wax figure of the Lizard Man.
Exhibits are placed alongside descriptive plaques that provide a brief background of the display. There are also flat-screen TVs hanging on the walls, replaying old clips of the Ripley’s show that you may have seen before on TV or YouTube. This I found mildly annoying as I often couldn’t hear what was being narrated and would have appreciated accompanying headphones.
Be that as it may, nothing impressed me more than the jaw-dropping art that is so small, you need a microscope to see it. Entitled ‘Buzz Aldrin in the Eye of the Needle’, the micro-miniature masterpiece was created by British sculptor Willard Wigan and is inspired by the Biblical passage concerning how hard it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Due to the size and fragility of the pieces, Wigan has to slow his breathing to a near trance-like state to complete his sculptures, which usually take months.
Leaving the exhibition, I was inundated with the sensation of pure marvel. Display after display the message emphasises how truly remarkable we human beings are. Our unique cultures, our habits, and our beliefs all deviate from what is ‘the ordinary’ to the degree that we could each have our own segment on Ripley’s. Unbelievable? Believe it.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Exhibition runs at the Clock Tower at the V&A Waterfront until 30 April 2017.