Author Archives: Joelle Seligson

About Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.

Performing Indonesia: Sumarsam

Performing Indonesia

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of 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 people involved with the festival. Sumarsam, a scholar, puppeteer, and professor of music at Wesleyan University, helped plan tomorrow night’s lecture series. He also will share his talents at our shadow-puppet play (wayang kulit) Thursday evening.

You have a long history with music, particularly the gamelan. How has that passion intersected with your interest in puppeteering? 

I began playing gamelan when I was seven years old, in the village where I was born, in East Java. That was also the time when I became interested in wayang puppet plays, which gamelan groups often accompany.

I continued studying and teaching gamelan at the conservatory and academy in Solo [Surakarta, Indonesia] from 1962–68. When I was a student at the conservatory/academy, no major on puppetry was offered, but students were required to take a course on the subject. So that’s the only formal training I have received on puppeteering. But I was determined to continue learning, so I learned on my own, with occasional guidance. I still feel I am a student of the art of wayang, especially in performing wayang for a Western audience.

How does wayang kulit intersect with music in general?

Gamelan music accompanies wayang performances almost without a break. It is played to accompany entrances, exits, journeys, battles, the puppeteer’s chanting, and dialogues and narrations. Different pieces and songs are performed for the particular moods of the scenes. Kendhang (a two-headed drum) closely accompanies the puppets—certain puppets’ movements are accompanied by certain rhythmic patterns.

The puppeteer (dhalang) has complete control over the music. He (or, rarely, she) signals the ensemble to start and end the music, to cue dynamic changes, and to ask musicians to play certain pieces. The cues are conveyed by sounding a box with a mallet; there are also verbal cues and cues from certain puppet movements. The puppeteer also produces clashing sounds from a set of metal plates that he kicks against the box to accentuate the movements of the puppets. Besides delivering dialogue and narration, the puppeteer sings songs to heighten the mood of a scene.

I think that the complex connections between the play and its musical accompaniment make it difficult to stage wayang performances in the United States. Many rehearsals are needed. I am glad that I have had ample time to rehearse with the Indonesian Embassy gamelan group and with an ad hoc group consisting of gamelan teachers and players, members of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Tell me a bit about the story that the puppets will tell on November 10.

Here’s a synopsis of Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment:

Durna, a spiritual preceptor, asks his loyal student Bima to search for divine enlightenment. To commence his quest, Bima must go to dangerous places. First, he must search for the “Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind” on the peak of Mt. Candramuka. There, Bima encounters two ferocious ogres who attempt to foil his effort—they are actually transformed gods testing his will and strength by attacking him. Bima repels and kills the giants, but he does not find the tall tree. Disappointed, he returns to Durna empty-handed.

On the second leg of Bima’s quest, his guru orders him to search for lustrating water in the depths of the ocean. Plunging himself into the sea, he is attacked by a dragon monster. Using his long, sharp nails, Bima destroys the dragon. Miraculously, a tiny figure, Dewa Ruci, appears from nowhere. He teaches Bima the highest mystical insight: the divine enlightenment, which includes some aspects of Islamic Sufi teachings.

What do you hope audiences will experience and take away from the play?

In my early years at Wesleyan, I used to perform wayang in the Javanese language. One hundred or more people came to watch the performance. However, after two hours or so, people started leaving; only a dozen stayed until the end.

Like all of my more recent performances, Thursday’s will be about two hours long and presented mostly in English. For me, performing wayang in English is an ongoing project. Finding well-constructed English sentences that suit the mood of wayang is a challenge (not to mention making sure to pronounce English words clearly). Fortunately, several wayang stories and a number of Javanese literary works from past centuries have been translated into English—they are my main references. For example, the eighteenth-century Serat Cabolek (composed by R. Ng. Yasadipura, a court poet) has been translated into English by Professor Soebardi. This classic work has sections that tell the story of Bima’s quest for enlightenment.

The November 10 performance will be a condensed version of an all-night wayang play, featuring only the main episodes of the story. But it will have almost all aspects of a wayang play, including the three-division plot structure of the story (music, fight scene, and clown scene), popular songs and local jokes, and the teaching of a mystical path.

You’ve been closely involved with Performing Indonesia from the start. Why do you feel the festival is important?

I am always happy to be part of the festival to introduce the performing arts in Indonesia, exploring the diversity of their content and context, and the crisscrossing of their national, ethnic, and religious identities. This year’s Performing Indonesia, with the theme of Islamic Intersections, is a way to introduce the dynamic formative and transformational process of performing arts in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

National Cat Day: Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

This scene of a courtesan emerging from a mosquito net as her cat returns her gaze alludes to a well-known episode from the eleventh-century Japanese work The Tale of Genji. Prince Genji’s wife, the Third Princess, was concealed from public view, as was the custom among women of high status. When her cat pushed aside a bamboo blind, however, the princess was revealed to the courtier Kashiwagi, and thus began a secret affair between the two.

Inscribed at the top of the painting is a poem by Honda Jinzaburo (1781–1861), whose pen name was Tenmei Rojin. The poem alludes to the source of mosquito nets—the vendors from Omi near Lake Biwa—and to the trysts of courtesans beneath the netting on steamy summer nights:

No matter whom
the maiden meets
under the omi net,
her arm shows the mark
of a mosquito’s stinger.

Translation by John Carpenter

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).

Ask An Archivist



It’s #AskAnArchivist day. What questions do you have for our Archives staff? Check out their extensive collections and fire away!

Taken in 1908, this archival image shows the Peacock Room in museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home. Whistler’s masterpiece now has a permanent home in the Freer Gallery, which is currently under renovation and will reopen next year.

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.”