Category Archives: Events

ImaginAsia: Celebrating Stories from the Persian Book of Kings

 

Meet Sophie Benini Pietromarchi, a French Italian illustrator and author of The Book Book (published by Tarabooks). On the days leading up to this year’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, she organized two workshops at the Freer|Sackler. Attendees produced illustrated folios of the stories of Rustam and the Simurgh from the Persian national epic: the Shahnama.

In the video, Benini gives her unique perspective on what it means to create art and what she feels is the role of museums in modern society. She begins by sharing how it dawned upon her to create a bookmaking guide for children and how the same themes of curiosity and artistic exploration inspired her to organize her collage-based workshops. Describing her own process of creating illustrations for La legión perdida (published by Thule), she notes that she drew upon mosaic art she directly observed in museums.

Benini also notes that one of the main ideas of her workshop was not only to celebrate Persian culture, but to help draw out the innate curiosity of children and demonstrate to them they have the power to create. She credits her friend Azar Nafisi, with whom she collaborated to produce the book Bibi e la voce verde (published by Adelphi), for her interest in Persian culture.

Arguing that the museum is one of the few institutions in contemporary society that cares for preserving human culture, Benini reminds us that museums like the Freer|Sackler have a significant role to play in providing sources of inspiration for us all.

Benini’s workshops were generously supported by the Foundation for Iranian Studies.

Utamaro: The Musical at the Freer|Sackler

“Utamaro: The Musical,” recently performed at the Freer|Sackler.

More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.

Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.

Actress Kurumi Sakai as the kabuki-style narrator of the show.

Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”

Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.

Utamaro (played by Yu Yoshida, left) persuades teahouse worker Okita Naniwaya (played by Tamami Mizutani) to pose for some of his best-selling portraits.

By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”

“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”

Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.

One of Utamaro’s many famous illustrations of Okita. “Naniwaya Okita,” Kitagawa Utamaro (early 1750s–1806), Japanese, Edo period (about 1793), woodblock print, publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (Kôshodô), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.14243, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.

The rise of an intolerant new ruler is dramatized in the program.

Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.

“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”

Utamaro (center) demonstrates his determination to continue painting, despite the repressive regime that has taken over Edo.

Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:

I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.

The full ensemble sings the finale, “Rock Land,” with (left to right) Yuko Katsube as Toyohina Tomimoto, Kurumi Sakai as Kyogenmawashi, Yu Yoshida as Kitagawa Utamaro, Haruka Ohkawa as Ohisa Takashima, and Tamami Mizutani as Okita Naniwaya.

In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”

Photographs by Hutomo Wicaksono

Music from the Muslim World at the Freer|Sackler

image of Naseer Shamma’s Al-Oyoun Ensemble

Naseer Shamma and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

The Muslim world is deeply represented not only in the visual arts at the Freer|Sackler but also among our concert podcasts, which are enhanced with program notes, photos, and images of related artwork. These concerts feature musicians from across the Islamic world covering genres ranging from traditional and classical to jazz and crossover styles.

One special treat is a performance by the Cairo-based composer and ‘ud (lute) artist Naseer Shamma, a native of Iraq who studied at the Baghdad Conservatory before relocating to Egypt. He appeared at the Freer in 2012 during his first US tour in ten years. His evocative solos and refreshing arrangements feature an ensemble of ‘ud, violin, flute (nay), dulcimer (qanun), cello, and percussion.

Another Iraqi-born ‘ud artist, Omar Bashir (now based in Budapest), played original music to celebrate the legacy of his legendary father, Munir Bashir, widely considered the greatest ‘ud master of the twentieth century. Omar performed gorgeous improvisations on Arab modes (maqams) in addition to several of his father’s most famous compositions, including Love and Peace, Seville, and Andalusian Señora.

Rahim Alhaj, who studied under Munir Bashir, was joined by percussionist Souhail Kaspar to perform selections from his Grammy-nominated album When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq. For a jazz take on Arab music, the Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his quintet performed Two Rivers, an original work inspired by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the recent strife in Iraq, and the common ground between American jazz and Iraqi classical music.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Three-time Grammy nominee Kayhan Kalhor is a virtuoso on the Persian fiddle (kamānche) and an original member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He has appeared repeatedly at the Freer to perform Persian and Persian-inspired music. Kayhan opened and closed this recital in the melodic mode called rāst-panjgāh, which is comparable to the Western major scale, but (like all Persian modes) has its own trademark phrases and moods. Rāst-panjgāh expresses mostly positive sentiments but, in its lower range, conveys a more serene and contemplative mood. In between these opening and closing solos, Kayhan offered a thirty-minute meditation on the ancient mode called segāh, one of the oldest in Persian music.

image of Persian Classical Music: Kayhan Kalhor, kamanche

Kayhan Kalhor performs at the Freer|Sackler.

Another giant in Persian music is the two-time Grammy nominee Hossein Alizadeh, a master of the Persian lutes called tar and setar. In addition to his performing career, he wrote the soundtracks for the Iranian films GabbehTurtles Can Fly, and A Time for Drunken Horses, all screened in the United States and internationally. A fascinating instrument of Persia is the delicate yet powerful santur (hammered dulcimer), played here at the Freer by two wonderful Iranian American artists, Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian.

image of Masters of the Persian Santur: Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian

Santur artists Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Among the younger generation of Persian classical musicians is Paris-based virtuoso Bahman Panahi, who performed at the Freer on setar (lute) with percussionist Ali Mojallal. They played entirely in the mode named for Iran’s ancient capital city, Esfahan. For an original take on Persian vocal music, listen to this concert by Los Angeles-based vocalist Mamak Khadem recorded during our annual Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration. She adapted melodies from Iran as well as Armenia, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Turkey, accompanied by an unusual ensemble of clarinet, saxophone, keyboard, santur (hammered dulcimer), and percussion.

Mamak Khadem and her ensemble

Vocalist Mamak Khadem and her ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

One of our most unusual podcasts from the Muslim world is our 2013 concert by artists from Iran and Syria who joined together to perform a program they called Sound: The Encounter. These four jazz-oriented musicians—Saeid and Naghib Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Kenan Adnawi—merged Middle Eastern traditions with modern improvisations on bagpipe, double clarinet, saxophone, ‘ud, and drums. You won’t hear anything like it anywhere else.

Also in the jazz idiom, Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani performed his renditions of classic Egyptian songs from the 1950s. Folk-based music is heard on our podcast by the Saudi Ensemble, including melodies for weddings, fishing expeditions, love songs, and other occasions performed on violin, ‘ud (lute), nay (flute), tabla (drum), and qanun (zither). Our only podcast of musicians from Palestine features faculty of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem from their debut American tour. The conservatory was famously endorsed by both Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim for its teaching of Western and Arab music to Palestinian youth. For a taste of gorgeous music from the Turkish Ottoman period, listen to the outstanding Neva Duo on tanbur (lute) and ney (flute).

Our music from Islamic cultures extends beyond the Middle East to music from India, including the Chisti Sufi Sama Ensemble as well as gamelan music from the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia.

Teaching about World Religions

Teaching about world religions through scriptural, literary, and artistic sources is an excellent way to introduce students to diverse traditions and cultures. However, using such information in the classroom can often be challenging and confusing. To explore this topic, two daylong professional development workshops for educators took place at the museum during the recent exhibition The Art of the Qur’an. Held on on November 5, 2016, and January 28, 2017, the workshops, titled “Exploring World Religions: Focus on Islam,” were organized by the Freer|Sackler and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University. More than fifty educators attended.

I recently asked Dr. Susan Douglass, K–14 education outreach coordinator at CCAS, about her work at the center and the impact of our work together.

As an educator, how do you resolve the need for a more inclusive worldview in the face of forces that seem to be pulling us in the opposite direction?

I am a world historian, and I believe that learning about the entire human experience on a global level is as important a civic enterprise as learning about the United States or any country’s national history. We are all citizens of nations whose formation is a modern phenomenon, but our common roots go back to the Africans who ventured across the continents tens of thousands of years ago. We have, in short, common origins. Knowing how human cultures interacted to give our generation the gifts and challenges that we share lends us a sense of responsibility for the future that overshadows artificial divisions. The United States is among the most diverse nations, and we have found a way to live together that we can maintain if we insist on elevating knowledge over ignorance of one another, and [on] encouraging respectful speech and behavior toward one another.

What messages and approaches do you hope the teachers in the workshop took back to their classrooms?

The once-in-a-lifetime The Art of the Qur’an exhibition gave visitors a chance to discover the Qur’an as a scripture [and] what stories it tells. I hope that teachers gained familiarity with it as a meaningful historical document on that level. The exhibit and the lectures also showed the artistic care given to preserving the Qur’an and refining its expression in Arabic script. I hope the teachers gained an appreciation for the technical process of calligraphy and illumination, and for the sheer beauty of the manuscripts and other objects. In fact, the teachers expressed great appreciation for the workshop and felt that their day at the gallery was a wonderful one.

Teachers have an opportunity to influence students’ perspectives about others. How can art provide a non-threatening way to explore tricky issues of race, religion, and identity?

One of the remarkable things about the exhibition that [didn’t] jump out at first glance is that these works represent the thought, effort, and artistry of people who belonged to a vast array of ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds, who coalesced around the Arabic Qur’an without necessarily being Arabs [themselves]. Those artists also represented enormous class differences over time, from common people elevated by their commitment to belief to those whose acquired skill brought them royal commissions to illuminate the manuscripts with powdered gold and precious stones.

The art of beautiful writing is a shared human contribution to the continuity of learning that transcends loss over time. I try to expose teachers and students to primary source documents that show how people of many faiths contributed to the preservation of knowledge. Because of their commitment to knowledge, they were willing and able to transcend individual differences to build bridges of continuity across time. Without such diverse people’s love of learning, we would have lost the link to valuable accumulated knowledge. In short, if we cannot overcome trivial differences to work toward the common good, we face tremendous loss that will affect all of us. Putting evidence of this continuity of human achievement in front of the public is among the most important functions of art museums.

As a convert to Islam, you have a foot in more than one world. What insight have you gained about how others may view your adopted faith?

I have been a practicing Muslim for more than forty years, or about two-thirds of my life. I have spent time in Germany, Egypt, and the US as a Muslim, each offering very different perspectives that have changed over time with world events. I find it easy to locate common ground with the people with whom I interact directly, who often include educators, but also people of many walks of life. A lot of the problem with Islamophobia is that many people have never met a Muslim—or don’t think they have. In fact, they may very well not have known the person’s religious identity. There are certainly distinctive elements in the many different Muslim cultures with which I am acquainted, but they all have much in common with who I am as a person raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family with Scotch-Irish and German immigrant roots going back to the eighteenth century. In order to overcome real and perceived divisions, it is necessary to learn about each other’s deepest differences, but also our common hopes and dreams for a just society and sustainable world.