Category Archives: Events

Wu Man Comes to Washington

Twice nominated for a Grammy Award, pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man comes to DC next Tuesday to perform with the renowned Shanghai Quartet. Along with pieces by other composers, the concert, held in the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, will include Wu’s own “Kui: Song of Kazakhstan.” In this video from Smithsonian Folkways, she plays the song and talks about why she wrote it.

Reserve your tickets now for next Tuesday night!

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Saeeda

A look at Saeeda Etebari's jewelry designs.

A look at Saeeda Etebari’s jewelry designs.

Throughout the run of Turquoise Mountain, artisans will visit us from Afghanistan to demonstrate the materials and techniques of their crafts. Meet the artisan who is currently in DC by visiting the exhibition this Thursday and over the weekend.

Saeeda Etebari was born into the miserable conditions of a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1984. She became seriously ill during the first week of her life and was diagnosed with cerebral meningitis. Due to the illness, she did not walk for three years, and she lost her hearing. Her parents tried to find a cure for her loss of hearing, but nothing worked.

After the fall of the Taliban, Saeeda’s family returned to Kabul. She finished high school and even taught at the same school, but she did not find teaching as rewarding as she had hoped. When her brother suggested she study a craft instead, Saeeda enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

“I chose jewelry because I love the focus and skill that making jewelry requires,” she says. “You need to be really precise and really patient. I can lose myself for hours when I’m working on a delicate piece. The more intricate the work, the more I enjoy it.” When asked how it feels to sell her works to others, she replies, “Designing a piece that somebody will buy and wear is a special experience for me. I love making a connection with someone through a shared sense of beauty.”

 

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

From music to drama, cuisine to garden design, members of the Wu School excelled in all forms of creative expression. Centered on the affluent city of Suzhou and nearby towns, this driving force of Chinese culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) took its name from a kingdom that once ruled the region. Of all their talents, Suzhou’s artists were most admired by contemporaries and later generations for their poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the Three Perfections, were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression.

Opening Saturday, Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty celebrates Wu School works, examining the relationships among their imagery, brushstrokes, and, especially, words. Selections are drawn from the Freer|Sackler—home to one of the best Wu School collections in the country—as well as other museums and collections.

You’ll encounter works by some two dozen Wu School painters and calligraphers in the exhibition, including the “Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty”: Shen Zhou (1427–1509; see his work above), Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). This foursome exemplifies the two main groups of Wu School artists. Tang and Qiu were professional artists who accepted commissions from a range of clients and relied on their work to make a living. Shen and Wen were literati, or gentleman artists, who embraced the Three Perfections as both a personal pastime and a medium of social currency.

At the time, most of China’s professional artists worked in highly polished styles and favored traditional literary and historical subjects, which had wide public recognition and popular appeal. Gentleman artists, on the other hand, largely created works for each other, and their brushwork and themes tended to be more nuanced and personal in nature. Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange for most literati artists, as well as their preferred form of self-expression. Poems are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, alternately inspiring, accompanying, and responding to the paintings and calligraphy.

Upcoming Films: Receptions and Special Guests

Film still from "Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery," screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

Film still from “Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery,” screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

I hate to lead with bad news, but I am sorry to say that Siddiq Barmak, the Afghan filmmaker who was scheduled to present his films and speak in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition, has had to cancel his trip to Washington due to unforeseen circumstances. We hope to reschedule his appearances later this year. The director and star of Ivy, screening on April 11, also will not be able to attend as planned.

The good news is that we have no shortage of guests coming up in April. Film scholar Suranjan Ganguly joins us at American University on April 8 to introduce the documentary Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery. The acclaimed Indian filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli directed this portrait of his friend Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a great Indian director (and the subject of a 2003 Freer|Sackler retrospective). The film is preceded by a reception featuring food from Gopalakrishnan’s native Kerala, during which Ganguly will sign his book The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema of Emancipation. The author also will be on hand to introduce a screening of Gopalakrishnan’s A Climate for Crime on April 13 at AU.

Ivy, a brilliant film that evokes Melville, Conrad, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” aboard a Turkish freighter, also will be preceded by a free public reception at 6 pm. You may not want to eat before seeing Baskin the following night, though. This gore-sterpiece is one of the most viscerally and cerebrally terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years. Director Can Evrenol will be there so you can find out just how twisted he is in person.

Looking for something more family friendly? Our National Cherry Blossom celebrations continue on April 16 as we copresent three recent, fun anime films at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

A Man and His Dog . . . and His Boar

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.5.3.65c

What would you name your pet boar? German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) went for a not-so-obvious choice, dubbing his trusty hog Bulbul, Persian for “nightingale.”

Herzfeld, known for his revelatory excavations in Pasargadae and Persepolis, among other ancient sites, was a rather serious scholar; some described him as exacting and reserved. Animals seemed to bring out another side of him. He even brought Bulbul along on his digs. Above, he’s feeding the boar in Persepolis, which the Iranian government asked him to document in 1924.

Ernst Herzfeld

Ernst Herzfeld

While in Iran, Herzfeld also kept a pet dog, a Welsh terrier named Romeo. The pup must have known how to win hearts. When he trod over an intricate drawing of a Persepolis structure by Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner, leaving inky paw prints behind, no one seemed too upset. Bergner noted in German at the bottom of this 1935 work: “Romeo bumped into an inkpot and walked upon the drawing! The new drawing is already finished. Be(rgner).”

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935 [drawing].

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935

Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.

Ahmed Mater: A to Y

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Antenna; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2010; cold cathode lighting; Courtesy of the artist and Athr

Get to know Ahmed Mater, whose work goes on view in Symbolic Cities tomorrow, through a glossary of key terms related to this singular Saudi artist.

  • Antenna (above): Mater, pictured with his glowing sculpture Antenna, was born in 1979 in the rugged Aseer region of southwestern Saudi Arabia.
  • British Museum: The London institution has acquired and exhibited Mater’s work.
  • clock tower: With the growing religious tourism industry, hotel rooms in the new Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex have come to dominate the skyline above the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary.
  • Desert of Pharan: In 2011, Mater began photographing Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, for a series titled Desert of Pharan, referring to the ancient name for the area around the holy city.
  • The Empty Land: Mater’s first major photographic series, the Empty Land is inspired by nineteenth-century descriptions of the American West.
From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

From the Real to the Symbolic City, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2012; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.5

  • From the Real to the Symbolic City: This expansive view captures the extraordinarily dense population and traditional architecture that have characterized Mecca for centuries. Pushed to the outskirts, the old quarter disappears into a horizon obscured by heavy, gray haze, where the iconic clock tower looms like a beacon over the city under construction.
  • Golden Hour: A vast field of cranes stands in the perpetual glow of construction lights as the massive expansion of the Great Mosque takes shape and much of Mecca’s history is erased.
  • hajj: For more than a millennium, Mecca has hosted Muslims performing the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage centered on the Kaaba, a cube-like building in the middle of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque).
  • jamarat: Moving east to west, pilgrims reenact Abraham’s hajj by throwing seven pebbles against each of three pillars, known collectively as jamarat. In Mater’s photograph Human Highway, we can sense both the significance of this rite and the considerable risk posed by the overwhelming mass of people funneling in.
  • Kaaba: The structure at the center of the hajj and its pilgrims are represented in Mater’s Magnetism.
  • Leaves Fall in All Seasons: In this video—Mater’s vision of Mecca through the eyes of immigrant construction workers—a lone figure perches on the golden crescent that will crown the clock tower. The worker’s mundane task becomes spectacular, as he glides through the air “like an angel bringing a warning.”
  • Makkah/Mecca: Today, as Mater’s images show, Mecca is witnessing the largest transformation in its history. “Like few cities on earth, Makkah (Mecca) seems to buckle under the weight of its own symbolism,” he says. “It is a hallowed site revered by millions and a point of perpetual immigration. In recent years, it has begun to be recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured.”
Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

Nature Morte, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2013; color photograph; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries S2014.6

  • Nature Morte: Inside the quiet luxury of a private hotel room overlooking the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary, Mater’s framing becomes a subtle commentary on how political and spatial changes are reinventing the center of the Islamic world.
  • Pelt Him!: The murmur of crowds and the continuous rhythm of pebbles striking a wall gently draw us into Mecca, one of the most restricted yet highly visited cities in the world. At several different points during the hajj, pilgrims perform this stone-throwing ritual, symbolizing stoning the devil or casting away temptations.
Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/ Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

Crisis, from the series Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years; Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); 2015; wood slide viewer with glass slide; courtesy of the artist and Athr

  • Riyadh: Mater’s exploration of Saudi Arabia has led him toward Riyadh, the country’s administrative capital and largest city, and the roots of the social transformation that he is witnessing today. In his latest project, Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, Mater reimagines life in and around Riyadh and the Saudi Aramco compounds further east.
  • Symbolic Cities: This exhibition, the first in the United States solely dedicated to Mater, presents his visual and aural journeys observing economic and urban change in Saudi Arabia. In Mater’s words, the “real city” of Mecca is being replaced by a new “symbolic city.”
  • transformation: Now based in Jeddah, Mater experiments with a range of mediums in his search to understand the country’s rapid transition from an agrarian way of life to a powerful oil-based economy.
Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

Between Dream and Reality, from the series Desert of Pharan (2011–13); Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979); color photograph; courtesy of the artist

  • utopia: Observing one of the many billboards of the older city that mask construction sites, Mater considers Mecca as a living city that is constantly re-envisioned: “Dreams surround it . . . in the belief that Utopia can be created here. Yet time and again, as with every age of renovation, we live within a reality of drills, demolition, and destruction.”
  • workers: Along with Mecca’s evolving urban plan and its inhabitants, Mater observed the conditions of the many immigrant workers. His photograph Artificial Light Construction is an interior view of a new sanctuary space, framed by an endless expanse of scaffolding, that reinforces the extraordinary scale—and uniformity—of the changes taking place from the perspective of the workers rebuilding the city.
  • x-rays: Mater’s first experience with photography was shooting x-rays while working in a hospital. Compare those images to the ones in his Disarm series, in which Mater photographed Mecca through the cold light of a military helicopter’s night surveillance camera.
  • Yemeni border: As Mater explains of Antenna: “Standing on the dusty rooftop of my family’s traditional house in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia, I would lift a battered TV antenna as far as I could toward the evening sky. Moving it slowly across the mountainous horizon, I searched for a signal from beyond the Yemeni border or across the Red Sea toward Sudan. . . . Like many of my generation in Saudi Arabia, I was seeking ideas, music, poetry—a glimpse of a different kind of life. This spirit of creative exploration, curiosity, and reaching out to communicate across the borders surrounding me have defined my journey as an artist.”

Turquoise Mountain: Jali Woodwork

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Jali is the term for a latticed screen, which can be made of wood or stone. This screen usually has an ornamental pattern based on geometric designs. It is a style of work found across the Islamic world. In Morocco and much of the Middle East, this style of work is known as mashrabiyya, while in Afghanistan and South Asia it is known as jali.

Jali screens were used in many elements of traditional domestic and public architecture in Kabul. Areas such as Murad Khani and Asheqan-o-Arefan (restored by the Afgha Khan Trust for Culture) have excellent surviving examples of this work.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

To make jali, a woodworker traces a geometric design onto paper, then cuts thin slivers of walnut or cedar wood with a fine saw. These pieces are matched to the tracing paper to ensure exact sizing before being fixed together with wood glue. The whole piece is then clamped to ensure a strong fit.

Turquoise Mountain has created large-scale jali works for international commissions, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Connaught Hotel in London, and a private house in upstate New York. In Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, master woodworker Nasser Mansouri has his own pieces on display. He explains in the exhibition text, “I started working on the restoration of historic buildings in Murad Khani in 2006. I learned so much by studying those buildings: the beautiful cedar wood carving on window frames; the latticework known as jali above doorways; the subtle method by which joints were put together without a nail in sight. The buildings became my teachers.”

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

Environmental Film Festival: From the Tundra to the Future

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

It’s a pleasure every year to participate in the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, the largest and longest-running festival of its kind in the United States. With dozens of screenings all over the DMV area, it is a kaleidoscopic survey of filmmakers addressing some of the most important issues facing the world today.

This year, our contribution is a double feature presented on March 20 in the National Museum of American History’s state-of-the-art Warner Brothers Theater. First up is Taïga, Hamid Sardar’s intimate, beautiful documentary about nomadic Mongolian sheepherders and the fragile ecosystem they inhabit. The screening is followed by a discussion with two Smithsonian experts on Mongolia: William Fitzhugh of the Arctic Studies Center and Paula T. DePriest of the Museum Conservation Institute. I hope you can join us for what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

After that comes something completely different. Sion Sono is famous as one of the bad boys of Japanese cinema, whose movies usually serve up heaping helpings of violence and sexual perversity. But The Whispering Star is something else entirely. Inspired by the devastation wrought by the Fukushima nuclear disaster (and partly filmed on location there), the film imagines a ruined future Earth, where the few remaining residents are so traumatized that a visiting robot must speak in a whisper lest she scare them away. Far from a glum dystopian fantasy, Sono’s film is an imaginative, often amusing, and, dare I say, even cute sci-fi parable. Shhhh!

#5WomenArtists: Lara Baladi

Oum el Dounia; Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut, Lebanon); 2000–2007; wool and cotton; courtesy the artist

Oum el Dounia; Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut, Lebanon); 2000–2007; wool and cotton; courtesy the artist

Throughout Women’s History Month, we’re joining the National Museum of Women in the Arts in highlighting and celebrating women who are artists. We’ll introduce female artists throughout Asian art history, as well as those who currently grace our galleries with contemporary works. Use the hashtag #5womenartists to join in.

Overwhelming and vibrant, peppered with fairytale characters and archival images, artist Lara Baladi‘s contemporary vision of Egypt currently greets visitors to the Freer|Sackler. Born in 1969 in Beirut, Baladi is an Egyptian-Lebanese photographer and multimedia artist. Now based in Cairo, she created this digital tapestry—titled Oum el Dounia, Arabic for Mother of the World, a common nickname for Egypt—as part of her interest in the global perception of the country, as well as in the way technology affects visual narratives. The monumental piece, which stands nearly 10 feet tall and more than 29 feet wide, also reflects time she spent near the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt’s western desert: “traveling by jeep with friends, picnicking, and camping beneath the stars.”

“In thinking about how to represent my experience of the desert, I looked to fairytales such as Alice in Wonderland and The Little Mermaid, old picture postcards and my own archive,” Baladi recalled. “The resulting collage is a dreamlike journey, turning the stereotypical image of the desert upside down.”

Lara Baladi. Photo courtesy of Arts at MIT

Lara Baladi. Photo courtesy of Arts at MIT

Baladi’s firsthand experience of the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 marked a significant shift in her artistic practice. During the demonstrations, she began amassing a digital archive of videos, photographs, and articles related to the events in Egypt as well as other major occurrences around the world. This effort became an ongoing art and research project titled Vox Populi, through which she explores how technology can enhance access to materials that document revolution and the stories they tell.

Explore Vox Populi and Oum el Dounia online, and visit us to see Baladi’s work in person.