Category Archives: Exhibitions

Art Must Bring Change: A Turquoise Mountain-Inspired Project

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibit "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan"

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibition “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan”

Located in Arlington, Virginia, Studio PAUSE is a space where artist Sushmita Mazumdar writes, teaches, and creates Handmade Storybooks and other mixed-media work. It is also where she invites people to explore creativity and celebrate community. Sushmita’s current project, Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity, was inspired by Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy and her work in the Freer|Sackler exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. Below, Sushmita talks about the project and how everything around us can connect to tell one story.

“The Body Needs Food but the Soul Needs Art”

I was captivated by this quote splashed across a wall in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition. They are the words of Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy, a graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she studied miniature painting, illumination, and calligraphy. As I read a text panel that tells her story, I found yet more inspirational words, phrases, and ideas.

When I met Sughra in March 2016—and saw her demonstrate manuscript painting and illumination in the exhibition—it struck me that in sixteen years of being a docent at this museum, I had seen only rare and centuries-old examples of this beautiful art, preserved behind protective cases. To see Sughra making this art right in front of my eyes was unbelievable. And then to have her tell me to sit down and try it myself was a whole other experience.

“It’s tracing paper and a mechanical pencil,” she said, offering the tools to me and a nine-year-old boy as we watched her work. “Sit. Try it.” As my fingers traced her designs and she showed us how she made gold paint in an oyster shell, we talked. I told her I was an artist, and I invited her to visit my studio. She agreed happily.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., visits Sughra in the "Turquoise Mountain" exhibition with her son Aidan in October 2016.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., and her son Aidan visit Sughra in the “Turquoise Mountain” exhibition.

On her visit to Studio PAUSE, about eight miles from the museum, Sughra created a quick and beautiful sample of her work for studio members to see. She also joined me at a workshop I was doing with teenagers called Exploring Identity Through Book Arts. The teens were there as part of an after-school program run by AHC Inc., a local organization that creates affordable housing and runs on-site educational programs for residents. I introduced Sughra to the teens, most of them immigrants, as an outstanding Afghan artist whose work was on view in a Smithsonian museum and who had come from Kabul to show museum visitors how she does her art.

That day’s workshop topic was stereotypes. Students were learning to make a book to help them explore how we see others and how others see us. We each shared our personal experiences, and Sughra shared hers, too—about how people in the United States reacted when she told them she was from Afghanistan. “Their eyes grow big,” she said, “as if I was going to explode.” We were all surprised, but we knew people make a lot of assumptions based on how we appear to them.

 “Making art is a link for me with my past—with my family and with those who went before me.” —Sughra Hussainy

When I started my art-making years ago, I wrote down stories from my childhood in India and of family members I left behind when I moved to the United States, and incorporated them into unique handmade storybooks for my children. Since then, my work has been to encourage people to share their stories and teach them how to preserve these stories in creative, handmade books. When you know how to make a book, I often say, you always have a place for your stories to live.

Sughra’s art links to her past as she continues the ancient tradition of miniature painting and illumination. I find her story so powerful. The art that I had always thought of as something made in the past and found in museums is here right now, thriving and bringing beauty to the world. I wondered if we could take it into the future in new ways.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

So I asked members of the Studio PAUSE community—everyday people who come to my studio to pause, making time to explore creativity and celebrate community—for their thoughts on an idea: What if we wrote poems about identity and asked Sughra to decorate them with a bit of her gorgeous miniature painting in traditional Afghan style? I could then design a book of poetry unlike most we might come across, print the pages in my studio, and bind them into copies by hand. It would be a book that held something about each of us that is more than what we look like, letting us express ourselves through art and show our individuality. We would be like a big, diverse family making something beautiful.

In October 2016, Sughra and Bilal Askaryar, program manager for Turquoise Mountain, visited the studio to discuss the project. “The book will be called Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity,” I told them. When Bilal explained the archaic grammar of the phrase “thou art” to Sughra, her eyes twinkled. “It has two meanings! I like it,” she smiled.

I created a mock-up of the book to show them. Sughra preferred the Japanese binding style, so the cover will comprise two pieces—the longer back cover tucking into the front cover. Each will be on a different paper, symbolizing the coming together of two forms of expression (writing and art), the people of two countries (United States and Afghanistan), and the two ideas of understanding and celebrating our community.

Studio Pause writers meet Sughra, see her art, and compose poems about identity.

Studio PAUSE members met Sughra, saw her art, and composed poems about identity.

The next week, some studio members met for our weekly Writing PAUSE session. There were poets and activists, a lawyer and social scientist, an artist and entrepreneur, a dancer and politician, and an educator. They met Sughra and saw her work. We wrote, exploring the project and sharing our ideas on identity. Today, I continue to invite people to join the project.

We plan to launch the book Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity in April 2017, in celebration of National Poetry Month. The handmade books will be available online—each sale including two copies, one for the buyer to keep, and one to give away. We’ll mark the occasion with an event at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, where contributors will read their poems aloud. The celebration also will kick off a new school-wide project for 2017, in which families will be invited to share their poetry with students and to form their own community poetry book.

This idea came from Oakridge teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala, who is part of the school’s Mosaic Project. She had been thinking of doing a poetry book project for a while. I took Sughra to meet her at Oakridge (which both my children have attended), and then Dawn came to the Freer|Sackler to see Turquoise Mountain and watch Sughra work.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Once the Oakbridge community poetry book is created, Dawn plans to have her fellow teachers use it in their K–5 classes. The text will support the school’s Mosaic objectives—to help students become better writers and to practice global stewardship. “Global stewardship includes the idea that we all have our own stories that are worth telling and worth listening to. Our individual stories connect us as a community,” Dawn explained.

After that, the students will also make a poetry book. Through this extension of our current project, we could link our lives, our arts, and our stories with more than eight hundred young Americans and their families, who come from every corner of the country and all over the world.

It’s hard to believe this is all really happening, but just writing this post makes it feel so real. I am eager to see how many people will be part of this project and what they think. In a world where we work so hard to get food for our body, here is a chance for us to create art by and for our souls.

A Monumental Qur’an

Two folios from a Qur’an; sura 45:9–13, 45:13–16; attributed to Omar Aqta‘; historic Iran, present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand, Timurid period, ca. 1400; ink, color, and gold on paper; lent by the Art and History Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, LTS1995.2.16.1 and LTS1995.2.16.2

Two folios from a Qur’an; sura 45:9–13, 45:13–16; attributed to Omar Aqta‘; historic Iran, present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand, Timurid period, ca. 1400; ink, color, and gold on paper; lent by the Art and History Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, LTS1995.2.16.1 and LTS1995.2.16.2

The content of the Qur’an has not changed since the beginning of Islam in the seventh century. By choosing different sizes, formats, materials, calligraphic styles, and illumination, however, artists have created a stunning variety of Qur’anic manuscripts through the ages.

These consecutive folios, written in majestic muhaqqaq script, belong to one of the largest and most impressive Qur’ans ever produced in the Islamic world. They were originally attributed to Baysunghur (died 1433), a Timurid prince and an accomplished calligrapher who governed the vibrant cultural and artistic center of Herat. More recently, they have been associated with his grandfather Timur, who established a vast empire centered on Iran and Central Asia.

Allegedly, the left-handed calligrapher Omar Aqta‘ wanted to impress Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405) with his skill. He copied a Qur’an that was so small it fit into a signet ring. When the sovereign was unimpressed, Omar Aqta‘ then transcribed a second Qur’an that was so large it had to be transported to the palace in a wheelbarrow. This time Timur was extremely pleased, and he rewarded the calligrapher accordingly. These folios are believed to be among the few remaining examples of the enormous manuscript that was displayed in Timur’s mosque in Samarqand, the first Timurid capital.

Curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig with a monumental Qur'an. Photo c/o AP.

Curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig with a monumental Qur’an. Photo c/o AP.

Rediscovering Afghan Designs

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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.

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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.

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.

Afghan Arts and PechaKucha

Our speakers at tomorrow's open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Our speakers at tomorrow’s open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Tomorrow afternoon, we celebrate Afghan Independence Day and Afghan arts at our third and final open house of the summer season. This six-hour event is an opportunity for making art, tasting Afghan food, hearing from artisans, watching musical performances, listening to traditional stories read by ARCH International, and exploring the arts of Afghanistan, as seen in our Turquoise Mountain exhibition.

The day concludes with PechaKucha-style presentations—a talk given alongside twenty images, each shown for twenty seconds—by social entrepreneurs working with artisans in Asia and beyond, who will share how they got involved and the lives they’ve seen changed. Read their stories below, and meet them tomorrow at 5 pm.

 

Dawa Drolma was born and raised in Kham Dege, Tibet. Fluent in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, she is passionate about Tibetan culture and traditions and has focused on cultural preservation and folklore studies since 2009. Her documentary films and photos about Tibetan culture have won several international awards, and her first book about Tibetan folksongs, Silence in the Valley of Song, was published in 2012. Drolma also is the brand director of Khyenle, a Tibetan bronze artwork business.

Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo is a Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, technologist, and educator. Her artwork, centered around themes of time and transience, has been internationally exhibited and performed, including at the Kitchen (NYC), UCLA Hammer Museum (LA), Point Éphémère (Paris), and the Museums of Modern Art in Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia). Since 2003, Jaramillo has worked at the New School in New York City, where she is currently associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design and interim vice president for distributed and global education. Her published research is in the area of community-engaged and socially responsible design education. In 2013, Jaramillo was honored with a Fulbright Scholarship for the inaugural Higher Education Administrator’s Program in France.

Brendan Groves is a national security lawyer, a military veteran, and an experienced social entrepreneur. He has received the Bronze Star Medal, the NSA Director’s Award, and two awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other honors. Apart from his government service, Groves is the cofounder of Flying Scarfs, a veteran-run enterprise that empowers marginalized widows in Afghanistan and Kenya by selling handmade artisan items. He also founded the Wishing Well, a nonprofit that has funded more than one hundred water projects in the developing world.

Peggy Clark is vice president of policy programs and executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, as well as director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. She has had a thirty-year career working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. Serving in founding and leadership roles at the Ford Foundation, Save the Children, and Realizing Rights, among others, Clark has been a leading figure in identifying and building industries, movements, and creative advocacy on key issues. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise from President Bill Clinton, and she was instrumental in passing the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Ethical Recruitment of Health Workers.

Annie O. Waterman has more than a decade of experience within the global artisan sector. She is the founder of AOW Handmade, which works with wholesalers, designers, and retailers to create unique, high-quality artisan collections while sustaining craft traditions and creating market exposure for artisans worldwide. Waterman recently worked as a project manager for ByHand Consulting, for which she traveled extensively, identifying new artisan companies that qualified for exhibiting in the artisan resource market at NY NOW. She also was a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication dedicated to global creativity and sustainable design.

Memories of Mecca and Medina

A view of Mecca. All photos by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

A view of Mecca. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

There are some cities you would expect to be frozen in time, perpetual testaments to past eras, like Pompeii or Petra. Mecca is not that city. Instead, the city is more modern than Times Square—and twice as crowded. At its axis is the holiest shrine in Islam, the Kaaba, believed to be built by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Isma’il). The Kaaba sits at the center of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque), itself encircled by hotels, restaurants, and many, many shops, all catering to the hordes of pilgrims who visit the site daily. This January, I was part of that horde.

The view from the hotel-mall-clocktower complexes: Ahmed Mater’s Nature Morte (S2014.6) and my parents at a window in our hotel overlooking the Kaaba.

Performing a “small pilgrimage” (umra), I was able to witness the extraordinary—and ongoing—transformation of the city, as captured by the photographs of Ahmed Mater. Our first stop was the hotel: a new skyscraper located just behind the enormous clocktower-mall-hotel complex that has dominated the Mecca skyline since 2012. From there, we were within walking distance to the Masjid al-Haram.

The outer mosque is a construction zone. Cranes intermix with minarets in the horizon. Navigating through the labyrinthine mosque was complicated, as sections were blocked off for renovation and temporary structures had been created to redirect pilgrims. And it was loud. The chanting of pilgrims both near and far intermingled with individuals on cell phones and posing for selfies. Yet all of it seemed to fade at that first glimpse of the Kaaba, when we merged into the circumambulating crowd. Stunned to be in front of the structure we turned toward in prayer five times a day, we were oblivious to our surroundings.

  • View of the Kaaba in Mecca.

My parents’ memory of Mecca and Medina paints a picture that is almost incompatible with the cities today. When they made the obligatory pilgrimage (hajj) as newlyweds in 1977, the crowds were smaller—as were the mosques. Instead of skyscrapers and malls surrounding the Masjid al-Haram, there were small houses and traditional bazaars.

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

My mother recalls praying on sand outside the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina. Now the plaza is entirely paved in marble. The small historic mosques in Medina, each tied to a critical moment in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, were then barely able to hold fifty people. They since have been rebuilt in the distinctive contemporary style of the Arabian Peninsula and accommodate hundreds. The huge increase of annual hajj pilgrims, from less than a million in the ’70s to more than two million in 2015, has pushed the mega-mosques beyond capacity, partially fueling these programs of expansion and renovation. The two holiest cities of Islam no longer feel historic as practical demands and ideologies supersede preservation. My parents’ nostalgia for the older cities was palpable as we visited each mosque.

In Medina, the juxtaposition of historic and modern was more apparent. Walking through the mosque to the Tomb of the Prophet, we could see subtle shifts in architectural style, from the very recent courtyard (left) and extension of the prayer hall (center), to early twentieth-century additions, and finally, the late Ottoman-period prayer hall that contains the tomb (F1907.222).

Running late for prayer one evening, my sister and I were still making our way through the mall within the gigantic clocktower complex when the call to prayer sounded. At that signal, every shop closed, and what had seemed like decorative floor tiles turned into guidelines for prayer lines. At that moment, we felt the same sense of community my parents had described, a feeling that permeated each aspect of our own pilgrimage. Mecca may have gotten a twenty-first-century facelift, but the Kaaba is still at its heart. Gazing at Ahmed Mater’s work in Symbolic Cities, I am transported back to those moments—when the disjunction between architecture and place was superseded by pure awe.

Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater is on view through September 18, 2016.

Sky Blue

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Shades of turquoise and deep blue sing out on ceramics made in the Islamic world. Generations of potters throughout the region have shared the distinctive mineral colors of cobalt blue and copper green, using them as pigments to write and paint on clay or as colorants to saturate glazes. The vessels on view in Sky Blue: Color in Ceramics of the Islamic World, opening tomorrow, were created in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Uzbekistan, and span the ninth through the nineteenth century.

Over the centuries, potters have perfected a complex process to incorporate these colorants into their glazes. In Iran, for example, potters ground quartz pebbles into a fine powder to provide the silica (the “glass”) needed in traditional glaze-making practices. The ash of burned plants was a source of alkali fluxes that helped the silica melt. Silica and ash were usually combined and heated to produce a glass that was then shattered and ground into frit. This was mixed with water and other ingredients to make a glaze. Cobalt or copper oxide was added for color.

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Typically ceramic vessels were first fired without glaze to harden the body. They were then coated with glaze and fired again at a temperature high enough to melt the frit mixture into a smooth, translucent surface. Lead and tin oxides were added if an opaque glaze was desired. Sometimes vessels were fired several times, depending on the complexity of the decoration.

The cheerful, eye-catching shades of blue and green belie the effort required to bring them forth. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a potter from Afghanistan whose work is on view in the exhibition Turquoise Mountain, describes the blue-green glaze of his bowls as “the color of peace, the color of competence.”

See more of these blue-green bowls in "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan."

See more of these blue-green bowls in “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

The Man behind the “Mania”

A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956) 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Owls, skulls, demure shepherdesses and bucking broncos: all of these figures and dozens more coexist in Walter McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures. These “stupas,” as he describes them, are part of Chinamania, an installation named for the craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that swept London in the 1870s and still exists in the West. Coated in glistening crystalline glazes, the stupas are juxtaposed with Kangxi period (1662–1722) ceramics from our collection—as well as a piece made up of 3D-printed replicas of these historical objects. While installing the exhibition, which opens July 9, McConnell sat down with Bento to talk about his work.

Bento: Tell me about your travels to China. Why did you go?

Walter McConnell: As a ceramic artist, I was really interested in experiencing ceramic production in China. In the States, I had been working with this collection of recycled hobby industry molds, weird figurines, kitsch ceramic bric-a-brac, and the like. I had an invitation to participate in an international workshop held in a figurine manufactory in China, so I was curious to see what confluences there might be in terms of outputs from these different cultural milieus. Though the manufactory I worked in was mostly producing high-end items, they were also very good at producing kitsch novelties, like statuettes of Bruce Lee in various karate poses.

On that same trip, I had the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen, the source of the blue-and-white porcelains I rearranged for the Chinamania show. . . . I remember being enamored with the dizzying array of ceramic products on display in Jingdezhen market stalls, one after the other after the other—literally stacks of pots, enormous porcelain vessels, and figurines. So in China, I constructed an early version of my “stupa” sculptures by shopping the markets of Jingdezhen for seconds and castoff pieces. I built a piece called Pagoda—a tall, cylindrical stack of market ceramics, figurines, teapots, roof tile, etc. . . . with a waxed paper parasol on top, a motif often represented on the finial of architectural stupas as well.

Bento: Why do you refer to your works as stupas?

WM: The stepped pyramid architecture allowed for an arrangement of ceramic objects that is presentational: you can see them all at once as you circulate around the work. And then, of course, the structure bore a strong resemblance to the stupa and other Asian temple architecture. Furthering the analogy, they’re also, in a sense, reliquaries, housing cultural remains of North American popular ceramics.

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China's Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

My interest really is in the way that these objects are evidence of a kind of collective consciousness, an encyclopedic display of a slice of popular culture at a particular moment in time. These things don’t have an explicit function; they’re objects of a momentary caprice, perhaps, a particular passion—[someone deciding] “I need this thing” to fit my home décor, my curio cabinet. So you find things in the mix that are readily familiar or completely arcane, objects that have gone in and out of fashion.

Take an inventory: There are vessels of all kinds, beer steins, adorable animals, neoclassical motifs, collectables, commemoratives, Americana, all markers of cultural heritage and class structure. There’s the pastoral, the shepherdess, garden ornaments, antiquities . . . All facsimiles, of course—relatively cheap, slip cast replicas. Ceramic has always been a medium for translating the aristocratic into the democratic, accessible, cheap, ubiquitous.

Bento: Do you collect anything?

WM: I don’t, at least nothing obsessive that we live with. Perhaps, intermittently, Fiestaware and pottery—but generally I’ve saved the compulsion for my artwork. The obsessive/maniacal part of this is in the accumulation, surely, but also in the arrangement. I think I’m a little obsessive compulsive about how these things get placed and displayed. But that’s what’s required, right? The meticulous arrangement really compels the audience to sit up and take notice. Otherwise, the objects are simply dismissible novelties. Coat them with a fabulously flamboyant glaze with blooms of crystalline zinc and accretions of sand and you get this sense of geologic strata, which allows the stupa and its collected relics to feel connected to nature in some way.

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

BentoChinamania complements Peacock Room REMIX, a contemporary take on Whistler’s masterpiece. How does your work relate to the Peacock Room?

WM: In one sense, they both say something about the psychology of the collector and collections, the need for systems and order. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetic of abundance and ostentatious display in porcelain rooms that predate the Peacock Room. I’ve researched the history of porcelain manufacture and its migration and reinvention in the West—the aristocratic nature of the medium, the maniacal passion for collecting. In the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger to make lead into gold, and instead reinvented porcelain in the West. Augustus famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of porcelain vases, a well-known early narrative of a kind of Chinamania.

Bento: How do your 3D printouts play into the installation?

WM: The connection between the stupas, the Kangxi porcelains, and the 3D prototypes is an interesting one. I was entertaining a number of things that I could do with your collection, yet I was somewhat stymied by prohibitions on actually handling the originals. I’d been doing some scanning and prototyping in another body of work, so I proposed to scan and prototype the blue-and-white collection. Now I can touch them; I can possess a complete set of these extraordinarily detailed facsimiles (but of course, not the originals). The digital clones are democratic, more accessible. That was the motivation, to bring about a question of how objects circulate like this in culture high and low.

I imagined the original Chinese porcelains displayed in a glowing case inset in a dark wall, floating as if an apparition, less tangible than their miniature clones. Those are now in the room at 40 percent of the original size, set in their souvenir boxed set, replicating with some precision the objects at a distance on the wall. So now the boxed set almost seems more accessible than the things that are illuminated in the case. You have more access to it. I was hoping to affect an oscillation between those states.

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722)

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722), and their miniature, 3D-printed counterparts.

Bento: What do you hope visitors take away from your installation?

WM: I think the “Stupas” have a lot of different entry points. You walk around them, you find something that catches your eye, evokes a memory, creates an entertaining, improbable narrative, provoking your delight or disdain. They do seem to compel circumambulation by the audience—again, an analogy to the Buddhist model. That kind of active engagement with memory, I suppose, becomes part of what they are.

I think you have to be astonished by their scale, the sheen, the meticulous stacking and improbable structure. Otherwise, they don’t work. The objects are perhaps overly familiar; you can find these things anywhere, an apartment window, your neighbor’s lawn. It’s aesthetic astonishment with the cumulative effect that rouses empathy for the collective consciousness on display here. I hope the work is capable of that.