Rediscovering Afghan Designs


I opened up the package and gave a yelp. Inside was a small book of about one hundred pages stapled together, featuring text in Dari—one of the languages of Afghanistan—and floral and geometric motifs. The document was a little ripped and bleached with age, but otherwise looked in pretty good nick.

A small note revealed that the book had been sent to me by a ninety-something visitor named Leila Poullada. Two weeks before, I had given a curator’s tour of my exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. This tiny, birdlike lady had concentrated intensely during my talk and asked me rounds of quick-fire questions afterward, in which she proved herself deeply knowledgeable and insightful. We sat chatting for forty minutes in the middle of the exhibition as she told me about her life and travels.

It turns out that Leila had lived in Afghanistan in the 1960s, moving with her husband, Leon Poullada, a US diplomat and scholar of Afghanistan. Poullada is a major name in the historiography of Afghanistan, having written one of the main accounts of the country in the early twentieth century. I knew his work well from my time as a PhD student of Afghan history.

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy in this 1961 photograph. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Leon had died several decades ago, Leila told me, and she now lives in a condominium in St. Louis, Missouri. She still keeps in touch with friends from their Afghanistan days. Leila had been a great traveler in Afghanistan, visiting sites like the remote Minaret of Jam that are now extremely difficult for people to reach. She had seen more of the country than I had in all my years there.

The book Leila sent was one of many that she had collected during her time in Afghanistan. Titled Afghan Designs, it was printed in Kabul in 1967. It is a design book for teachers of art and craft skills, containing patterns found in buildings and sites across the country.

I recently spent a few years working with artisans in Afghanistan—woodworkers, calligraphers, jewelers, ceramicists—as part of the Turquoise Mountain organization. As explored in the Freer|Sackler exhibition, we focus on preserving and reviving techniques and designs that have fallen or were in danger of falling out of use. Here in Leila’s book were hundreds and hundreds of those designs, recorded and detailed by researchers in the 1960s. I recognized many from buildings that Turquoise Mountain has restored in the old city district of Murad Khani in Kabul, designs that were often carved into Himalayan cedar or wet clay up in the pottery village of Istalif.


Aside from the practical uses of the work for Turquoise Mountain students in Kabul, I was struck by the nature of the designs. From the several hundred varieties that the researchers had collected, more than three-quarters are plant and flower motifs. Only a few are purely geometric, and about a fifth are a mix of geometric and floral. In a country with such a rich appreciation of flowers and gardening, it is interesting to see how this focus has played out historically in designs that artisans use in their work. It also challenges the common misapprehension that geometric design is the overwhelming mode used in the decorative arts of the Islamic world.

I’ll be taking the book back to where it belongs—Kabul—on my next trip over. I’m very grateful to Leila Poullada for sharing it with me.

Secretary Skorton on “The Art of the Qur’an”

Qur’an; calligrapher: Abd al-Qadir b. Abd al-Wahhab b. Shahmir al-Husayni; Iran, Shiraz, Safavid period, ca. 1580; ink, color, and gold on paper; each page 58 x 39 cm; Istanbul, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Qur’an; calligrapher: Abd al-Qadir b. Abd al-Wahhab b. Shahmir al-Husayni; Iran, Shiraz, Safavid period, ca. 1580; ink, color, and gold on paper; each page 58 x 39 cm; Istanbul, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Starting tomorrow, our visitors have a rare opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and precious religious manuscripts ever created. In the words of Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton:

“At a time when cultural differences can provoke division and conflict, The Art of the Qur’an opens the door to understanding. I urge you to see this stunning exhibition—the culmination of years of research, diplomacy and serendipity—and recommend it to others.”

Read the rest of Secretary Skorton’s take on The Art of the Qur’an on the Torch.

Performing Indonesia: Music from Sulawesi and West Java

Tricia Sumarijanto conducting the House of Angklung.

Tricia Sumarijanto conducting the House of Angklung.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Tricia Sumarijanto is a leading ambassador for the music of angklung, which UNESCO has named intangible cultural heritage from Indonesia. She also is cofounder of Rumah Indonesia and conductor of the House of Angklung, which will perform at Music from Sulawesi and West Java this Saturday. 


Tell me a bit about your personal history with Indonesian music.

My musical interest started quite early, focusing on the piano, organ, and angklung. As part of a Javanese family living in the capital city, I did not really listen to Indonesian traditional music. The angklung is the only traditional Indonesian instrument I play. I first played it when I was in elementary school as part of music class. I think most schools in Indonesia teach students to play the angklung because it is such an easy and fun instrument.

I didn’t play the instrument again until I came to the United States in 2007. The House of Angklung (known back then as Rumpun Wargi Pasundan) was looking for a new conductor when someone heard me playing piano in a friend’s house. I was asked to be their teacher, and I accepted.

Since 2009, I have been the music arranger and conductor of House of Angklung. We have become a solid community group and have performed in many different cities and states.

Why do you work to introduce American audiences to angklung music?

The House of Angklung participated in a 2011 Guinness World Records event at the Washington Monument, where more than 5,100 people played angklung together. The experience opened my eyes to the fact that the angklung is an effective tool for introducing Indonesia to the American people.

My most recent programming, Angklung Goes to School, promotes Indonesia in general and angklung in particular to a younger generation of Americans by bringing education on the instrument to schools and universities. With the support of House of Angklung and the Indonesian Embassy, the program is now active in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and it will soon arrive in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the DMV and Philadelphia, the program has already reached more than 2,000 students. In fact, students in the Angklung Goes to School program performed at the Freer|Sackler as part of the 2014 Performing Indonesia festival.

Angklung Goes to School

Angklung Goes to School

What can audiences expect from the performance on October 22? What do you hope they take away?

The audience will hear the unique sound of bamboo in the angklung in harmony with the sound of wood in the kolintang and other instruments. The angklung is from West Java, where the majority of people are Muslim, and the kolintang is from Minahasa, Sulawesi, where the majority are Christian.

The song selection is a picture of how diverse Indonesia is. We have more than 17,000 islands and about 600 dialects. Indonesian music and arts are influenced by many other cultures, such as those of Spain, India, China, and the Middle East. Despite how diverse it is, Indonesia is one nation, with its motto of “Unity in Diversity.”

I also hope that the audience will see how these ancient instruments can perform modern songs, including Western songs, in the spirit of the philosophy of the angklung: teamwork, mutual respect, and social harmony. Finally, this performance is to show how different religions and cultures interact peacefully in Indonesia through the universal language of music.

Chinamania in 3D


Take a spin with 3D versions of the porcelains in Chinamania. Smithsonian Digitization scanned more than sixty of our Chinese porcelains using turntable photogrammetry and laser arm scanning. Click through to view, download, and—if you have a 3D printer handy—create your own versions of these gorgeous blue-and-whites.

Want to know more about the exhibition? Here’s the overview from Lee Glazer, our curator of American art:

Contemporary sculptor Walter McConnell explores the West’s enduring obsession with Chinese ceramics through multiple lenses: museum collections, digital technology, and his own artistic vision. McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures are juxtaposed with export wares from China’s Kangxi period (1662–1722) similar to those that once decorated the Peacock Room in London. These historical porcelains, in turn, inspired the artist to create a new work based on 3D-printed replicas. (McConnell’s interest in replication and the serialized mass production of ceramic forms began more than a decade ago, after he visited China. His encounters with the kilns and factories at Jingdezhen prompted him to consider the history of China as an enduring resource for ceramic production.)

Created from digital scans that can be reprinted over and over, these replicas further underscore the intersection of art, technology, commerce, and mass production that has always defined Chinamania.

National Fossil Day: A Mysterious Mammoth Carving

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

In almost every regard, this Chinese figurine is perplexing and intriguing. Until recently, it was dated to 1025, based on an inscription carved into the base. Yet, no figural ivory carvings have been documented from the Song dynasty (960–1279). Was the inscription added legitimately or by an unscrupulous modern dealer?

The intricacy of this carving and its exaggeratedly long body and hands suggest a date of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The figure is similar to Dehua (blanc de chine) porcelain figures made during this period. Radiocarbon test results on the ivory do not tell much, since the carver used fossil mammoth ivory more than 32,000 years old.


Jades for Life and Death


Jade has been one of China’s most highly valued materials for millennia, and we happen to have some of the world’s finest Chinese jades in our collections. Now, more than 250 jades produced during the Chinese Stone Age (ca. 5000―1700 BCE) are globally accessible through our new online catalogue Jades for Life and Death. Most of these works were produced by the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300―2250 BCE), the most prolific and advanced center for jade production in ancient China.

Why “life and death”? The title refers to ways that Chinese people used jade thousands of years ago. Pieces of jewelry—beads and pendants, for example—show that the ancient Chinese donned jade items as accessories. Then there are jade ritual disks (bi) and tubes (cong) that have been discovered at Liangzhu burial sites. Sometimes, the tubes had been arranged in a circle around the deceased’s body; sometimes, the disks were placed near the body and stacked below its feet.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

Peruse Jades for Life and Death to marvel at these objects and to learn about their histories. You can find label text that our curators have written about the jades, as well as a host of related materials. Archival purchase records, for example, trace the objects’ journeys to the Freer|Sackler. Several essays delve into such topics as how museum founder Charles Lang Freer gathered this collection and the culture that created them. Research spanning the twentieth century reveals how the understanding of our jades shifted with each archaeological discovery in China.

And there’s more to come. This book is only the first in a series of five volumes we have planned about our jades. The next one, scheduled to come out in fall 2017, is dedicated to jades of the early Bronze Age, chiefly the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600―1050 BCE).

Art & Me: Conservators in Training

Conservator Ellen Chase works with program participants on reassembling their “ceramic” puzzles during the first Art and Me workshop.

Conservator Ellen Chase works with program participants on reassembling their “ceramic” puzzles during the first Art & Me workshop.

Calling all children ages 3–5 with adult companions! Registration is now open for an art conservation workshop where art and science will collide. On Sunday, October 23, join conservator Ellen Chase to see what goes into preserving precious art objects made of silver. Look at silver works on a gallery tour, and then return to the ImaginAsia classroom to make silver-inspired creations using your newly acquired conservation skills.

This workshop marks the second in a series of Art & Me workshops focusing on art conservation for children ages 3–5. If you are not able to join us in October, here’s a fun activity to try at home, inspired by our May 2016 workshop.

Adrian having fun trying on conservator’s gear at our first workshop in May 2016.

Adrian having fun trying on a conservator’s gear at our first workshop in May 2016.

Become an Art Conservator: The Basics
Your future as an art conservator begins now! There are 40,000 works of art at the Freer|Sackler. How does the museum take care of them all? Cleaning, preserving, and occasionally repairing works of art is known as art conservation, and the people who do this specialized work are called conservators. Art conservators make sure that art and historical objects stay safe for the future—so that they will be there when you grow up and even when your grandchildren grow up.

Try this: Sometimes, the best way to learn is to try things out yourself! Conservators look at objects very carefully to learn about how they are made and to figure out what they need to do to preserve them. Explore your home, and choose an object that’s important and special to you. Look carefully at your special object. What do you see? Do you think that there any parts missing? Would you say it is clean or dirty?

Write down why your object is important to you, and draw a picture of it. Send in your response and picture, and we’ll send back a conservator-in-training button as a prize!

Insider’s tip: It can be hard to see a familiar thing with fresh eyes. Try using a magnifying glass as you examine your object.

Head to our families page to find more events and resources for young museum visitors.

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

Welcoming NMAAHC with “Kung Fu Wildstyle”

Fab 5 Freddy's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Fab 5 Freddy’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is such a major event that fellow Smithsonian museums will spend the next year celebrating it. Here at the Freer|Sackler, we are cooking up, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a month-long celebration of the deep—and sometimes surprising—connections among African American, Asian American, and Asian pop culture. These connections formed when the rappers and break-dancers who pioneered hip-hop in New York started incorporating moves from Hong Kong martial arts movies they had binge-watched in Manhattan theaters—and they continue to flourish today.

One of those pioneers is the incomparable Fab Five Freddy. As the first graffiti artist to have his work exhibited in commercial galleries, Fab was a bridge between the uptown hip-hop scene and the downtown art and new wave music scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. (As a tween growing up in rural Pennsylvania obsessed with Blondie, I first heard of him in the band’s megahit “Rapture.”)

Since those early days as a fixture in New York, Fab has been, among other things, a television star (as the host of Yo! MTV Raps) and a music video director. In fact, his impact on the hip-hop and art worlds is so impressive that the Smithsonian itself has recognized it: a portrait of him currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the iconic boombox that was always by his side back in the day is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Fab's boombox at the National Museum of American History

Fab’s boombox at the National Museum of American History

A few years ago, Fab reconnected with an old buddy, Sean Dinsmore, who now lives in Hong Kong. Dinsmore told him about a street artist there named MC Yan, whose work was inspired by what Fab and his friends had done three decades earlier and half a world away.

Amazed and flattered, Fab struck up a friendship with Yan, and Kung Fu Wildstyle was born. A dialogue between these two artists in the form of paintings of the legendary movie star Bruce Lee, this pop-up exhibition has already popped up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. In 2017, it comes to the Freer|Sackler, along with a plethora of film screenings, discussions, and performances exploring these long-running cross-cultural connections.

Fab and Sean

Fab and Sean

In September, Fab, Sean, and I convened in Fab’s studio for a brainstorming session that resulted in what I think will be some truly amazing, fun, and informative events to be held at the Freer|Sackler, NMAAHC, and possibly elsewhere. I can’t reveal the details now, but be sure to mark your calendars for what we hope will be an entirely new Smithsonian experience welcoming an entirely new kind of museum to the fold.