Category Archives: South Asian and Himalayan Art

Seventeen Angry Heads

Seventeen Angry Heads; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Seventeen Angry Heads; Saptadashashirshi Shri Devi; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Howling in anger and wearing skulls as ornaments, this goddess is a fierce form of the compassionate and beautiful Tara. Buddhist deities are peaceful, enlightened beings, but sometimes their passion turns to rage—particularly when they are protecting devotees and sacred teachings. A master craftsman sculpted her seventeen human and animal heads.

The sculpture was once part of a frieze (a horizontal band of painted or carved images) on a shrine at Densatil, a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The monastery burned down in the 1960s, and fragments from the frieze were acquired by American and European collections. Experience these seventeen heads of ferocity in our galleries of South Asian and Himalayan art.

Shadows and Light (Sabers): Star Wars Puppetry

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

While Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaks box office records around the world, in Malaysia, the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company is being used to reinvigorate the traditional art of shadow puppetry. A recent shadow puppet performance has been technologically updated to tell the story of Star Wars. The hope is to gather new audiences and a new appreciation for an old-fashioned method of storytelling.

In Southeast Asia, shadow puppets have been used for centuries to convey stories that can be educational, spiritual, or just entertaining. The puppets are intricately carved and animated by flickering candlelight. In the collections of the Freer|Sackler, we have two shadow puppets from Cambodia and depictions of puppets in artworks from other parts of Asia.

One of the quotes I’ve heard from The Force Awakens is, “The Light—It’s always been there. It will guide you.” The same goes for storytelling. Whether that light is from a computer screen, a candle, or a movie projector, the stories we tell all around the world link us and, hopefully, guide us as well.

The Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, so we can better present our art and serve our visitors. The Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Fish-Teeth and Friendship

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

A leading gem connoisseur and collector from a long history of jewelers, Benjamin Zucker joins us Sunday to recall his worldwide travels to acquire precious stones. Hear about the Taj Mahal emerald that inspired his novel Green and the fourth-century Roman diamond in Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

And then there’s the walrus ivory archer’s ring, on view December 11–18. It was made four hundred years ago, when Jahangir ruled India’s vast and wealthy Mughal empire. He was introduced to walrus ivory, called “fish-teeth” in Persian, by his ally Shah Abbas, ruler of Persia (present-day Iran). Delighted by the material, he sent agents to Persia to acquire more “fish-teeth … from wherever and whomever at any price.”

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Look closely at this painting, a vision from one of Jahangir’s dreams (click through to zoom in). He and Shah Abbas both wear rings designed to protect their thumbs during archery. (Jahangir’s ring also symbolizes friendship and brotherly affection.) The shah’s translucent ring is probably made of white jade; Jahangir’s is probably walrus ivory. Its brownish color makes it unlike any other archer’s ring we know today. We’re not sure whether the ring on display was made for Jahangir—but scientific tests have determined that it, too, was carved from walrus tusk.

See the ring and painting while they’re on view through December 18, and don’t miss Zucker’s talk on Sunday at 2 pm.

 

A Note on Walrus Ivory
Emperor Jahangir particularly desired “striated and mottled fish-teeth” from Siberia, which he described as beautiful. In the 1600s, people thought walrus tusks would reduce swelling and serve as an antidote to poison. Today, we focus on the long-term survival of the marine mammal. The US Fish and Wildlife Service may put the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, and several states are considering banning the trade of walrus ivory.

Ars Orientalis 45: Knowledge Triumphs Over Time and Space

The image sequence begins with The white marble Śvetāmbara Jaina Temple in Antwerp, Belgium, has three śikharas, a pronounced terrace and mirrors the essential Māru-Gurjara features, photo courtesy of Verena Bodenstein; “Shore” temple at Mamallapuram with proto-gopura within east wall; Nahalvār temple group, Kadwāhā, from the east, circa 10th century (from left: Viṣnu temple, Śiva temple); Parasurameśvara temple, Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa. Photo courtesy of the American Council of Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) Collection, University of Michigan, History of Art Department, Visual Resource Collections

Images: the white marble Śvetāmbara Jaina Temple in Antwerp, Belgium, with three śikharas and a pronounced terrace that mirrors the essential Māru-Gurjara features, photo courtesy of Verena Bodenstein; “Shore” temple at Mamallapuram with proto-gopura within east wall; Nahalvār temple group, Kadwāhā, from the east, circa 10th century (from left: Viṣnu temple, Śiva temple); Parasurameśvara temple, Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa, photo courtesy of the American Council of Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) Collection, University of Michigan, History of Art Department, Visual Resource Collections

Each fall, the Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan copublish Ars Orientalis, a journal of the latest research in art of the Middle East and Asia. A collection of scholarship that crosses academic disciplines, the publication aims to connect researchers, institutions, and ideas using one central theme per volume. This month marks the release of the 45th volume of Ars Orientalis—and of our second digital volume.

The current issue takes a close look at temple architecture of South Asia, but the essays move beyond recording architectural features. Each year Ars Orientalis seeks content that approaches the study of art history in innovative ways, combining a range of scholarly perspectives and subject matter. The essays within this year’s volume not only explore temple building techniques, but the methods of communication that allowed this knowledge to travel over widespread geography and generations of architects. Ultimately, AO 45 aims to trace the triumph of architectural knowledge over boundaries of space and time. The essays ask and answer questions about the mysteries behind medieval architectural achievements: Who were the temple builders, for example, and how did they pass on their knowledge? In doing so, the volume relates to larger questions about the formation of artistic traditions and consistent visual cultures.

The issue is organized in a special format in an effort to encourage dialogue among readers. Four initial essays are followed by two sets of responses that together form a conversation over the course of the journal’s pages. We hope the response-based format, in combination with the special features in the digital edition, spark new conversations and ideas at the intersection of art, history, and innovation.

Both formats of AO 45 are now ready and waiting to be explored. Take a look at the digital edition, and order a print copy for your bookshelf.

Tibetan Healing Mandala

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2012.

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2002.

In January 2002, four months after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, twenty Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet came to the Sackler to construct a healing sand mandala (sacred painting). Many of us working at the museums at the time scrambled to make sure we could record the activities of the monks during their three weeks here. In addition to a time-lapse video recording the creation of the sand mandala, we placed notebooks in the gallery so visitors could share their thoughts. Those who wished to draw added sketches, most often of the monks at work. These words and pictures became some of my favorite museum memories. One person wrote:

In four months I’ve come to different levels of understanding, grief, and horror. I’ve wept and screamed. I’ve written and wondered. Simply standing here today brings me to another level. One day I’ll have a word for it. For now, I thank you.

When the mandala was completed, it was subsequently destroyed. The act of destroying a mandala symbolizes the impermanence of existence. At a closing ceremony, the monks distributed some of the sand to visitors in small plastic bags. The rest they poured into the Potomac River, sending the mandala’s healing energy out into the world.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

So many years later, I still remember the monks, the mandala, and the crowds looking on patiently. I recall the stories and pictures people left behind in our notebooks. Last year, the post we put together on the Tibetan sand mandala became the most shared of any the Freer|Sackler has done on Tumblr. A dozen years after its creation, the mandala’s message was distributed once again.

Friday Fave: Shrine of a Perfected Being

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Commissioned in 1333 by a member of the renowned Gurjara family, this small bronze altarpiece—Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being)—intrigued me from the minute I first saw it in the galleries. What fascinates me most is that it depicts the body as a negative space. The absence of the body draws me in. Carved from a single sheet of copper, the figure is full of light as it floats above a flower. When I look at it, I imagine energy emanates from the shapes. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer|Sackler, describes the altarpiece as “brilliantly evoking the enlightened soul as liberated from the earthly body.”

This object triggered my interest in the Jain tradition. I found out that Jains are depicted in meditation, a state in which no harm can be committed. Jainism, one of the oldest Indian religions, prescribes a path of nonviolence toward all living beings. Practitioners believe nonviolence and self-control are the means to liberation. Siddhas are the liberated souls who have destroyed all karmas and have obtained perfection or enlightenment. Siddhas do not have a body; they are soul in its purest form.

As a graphic designer at Freer|Sackler, I find the strong shapes of the silhouettes simple, powerful, and most of all, inspiring.

The shrine will be on view in the Freer until January 3, 2016, when the museum closes to the public through summer 2017 for renovation. It is always available at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

When I was very young, I once looked up to my father during a Fourth of July fireworks show and demanded to know more about the exploding stars in the sky. What were they? Years later, when I first encountered Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks in the collections of Freer|Sackler, I was again curious about fireworks and set out to learn more about their history in South Asia.

Fireworks had been introduced in Delhi several hundred years before this painting was created. One of the earliest recorded uses of pyrotechnics in South Asia was during the fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, fireworks were regularly displayed during festive occasions, from weddings to royal parties. There were even Indian medieval manuals containing special firework recipes, which called for fascinating ingredients like iron powder, pastes made from different kinds of foods, and cow urine. Today, the subcontinent’s love of fireworks can be seen in the colorful celebrations of Hindu holidays such as Diwali.

In this painting, women from the imperial Mughal court seem to have stolen away from a party and gathered under the night sky in order to have a bit of their own fun. I love how the artist depicted them in delicately embroidered outfits that match the golden starbursts showering from the lit end of their friend’s sparkler. The nursemaid—the woman on the right wrapped in a white shawl—holds in her outstretched hand a small, velvety apricot, while a rambunctious youngster reaches for his snack. Meanwhile, the sparkler’s flames softly light the women’s faces and the foliage behind them.

Happy Fourth of July, Washington, DC! Here’s hoping your celebrations are as graceful and elegant as the one painted here.

Friday Fave: Pen Box

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

My favorite object in the Freer|Sackler’s collection is one I saw on my first visit to the museums with family several years ago. I’ve been with Freer|Sackler since 2013 and have seen many spectacular works of art from Asia. However, the pen box in the South and Southeast Asian galleries in the Freer is still the object that captivates me the most. From the moment I saw the pen box, I was in awe. This elegant 16th-century object is perched high in a case with other objects made in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its shiny lacquer surface and glimmering figures feature graceful nasta’liq script inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These elegant details make it one of the most beautiful artworks in the collection. Whenever I bring a friend or family member to the Freer, the pen box is always our first stop.

As someone who has a great love of literature and a passion for art and art history, I suppose it’s not surprising that I would be drawn to this object over so many others. The translation of the inlaid script on the box reads, “When I tested the ink, I remembered your black tresses.” Such a poetic phrase matches the physical beauty of the box. Its owner must have had a love of literature and poetry, just as I do. I think this is the reason why I continue to return to it and share it with everyone I know. The pen box reminds me of a time when writing was an important act that took care and effort. Today, we often use iPads and computers to do our writing as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

I hope everyone who visits the Freer and Sackler Galleries can connect with one (or more) of the hundreds of works of art that are on view. If you can’t visit, more than 40,000 objects in our collections have been digitized and are available in super hi-rez at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Tibetan Shrine

The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice Kandell Collection

2010 Installation of the Tibetan Shrine, The Alice S. Kandell Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Years ago, long before I considered becoming a designer in a museum, I made a fateful visit to the Freer|Sackler. In 1990, during my sophomore year at the University of Montana, I traveled with my dorm roommate George to DC for spring break. He was studying to be a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and made a special point of visiting the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which were his favorite museums on the Mall. As a Montana native, I didn’t have much firsthand exposure to Asian art or any non-Western art, for that matter. For me, it was an eye-opening experience.

That spring, there was an amazing exhibition on view at the Sackler, The Noble Path: Buddhist Art of South Asia and Tibet, that sparked my appreciation for Asian art. The works, on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featured rich oxblood-red and gold Tibetan thangkas and mandalas. The imagery was expressive, hyper-detailed, and exuberant. You could almost smell the yak-butter lamps burning nearby and imagine the sound of Tibetan monks chanting. The experience was transformative, and I was hooked.

Some fifteen years later, I was offered a rare opportunity to work as a graphic designer at the Freer|Sackler. I carried with me my love for Asian art born that afternoon on spring break. In 2010, I was reminded of that moment when we installed “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection” as part of the exhibition In the Realm of the Buddha. Every time I walked by that gallery, I’d stop and spend a few contemplative moments drinking in the atmosphere of the room, which contained hundreds of works of Buddhist art including sculptures, scrolls, and textiles. I’m looking forward to the reinstallation of the shrine in the Sackler in the coming years.

Mats Matter

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Islamic and Indian paintings at the Freer|Sackler are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that the pressure is off! Over the last few months, the paper lab of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has rehoused more than one thousand individual folios into new window mats. The window mats relieve the paintings’ fragile surfaces from any pressure when stacked in storage boxes—critical for their long-term preservation. Plus, the paintings just look better that way.

Every painting had to be individually measured and the measurements entered into a spreadsheet. The data was sent in batches to an outside contractor. In return, every couple of weeks we would receive 200–250 newly cut mats. We then had to remove the paintings from their old folders, add new hinges, and attach them into the new mats. We make our hinges in-house from Japanese paper, and each hinge is cut to size to fit the particular folio. Since at least two hinges are used to hold each painting in the window mat, we went through more than 2,024 individual hinges! Although one thousand new mats were cut, 1,012 individual folios were rehoused, since some are presented in double window mats (a single mat with two window openings).

Old, insubstantial folders at left, and new, clean and sturdy mats on the right.

Old, fragile mats on the left; new, clean, and sturdy mats on the right.

One hundred sixty-eight folios had already been placed in mats in-house for various rotations, exhibitions, and loans, bringing the grand total of matted folios to 1,180. But that’s not everything. We still have approximately one hundred Islamic and Indian paintings left to move into mats in the future. Then, on to other collections!

The project was funded by a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund grant. It could not have happened without the untiring work of Amanda Malkin (Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in Islamic painting conservation and hinger extraordinaire), Stacy Bowe (mat-measuring maniac and intern), and Emily Cummins (pre-program intern).