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.

The Big Sneeze

Jade nose plug, China

Jade nose plug, China

As the pollen count rises, we in tree-lined Washington, DC, also witness an increase in sniffles, sneezes, and, in response, “bless you”s. Many of us in the States are also familiar with “gesundheit”s or “You’re sooooo good-looking“s.

But what about our fellow allergy sufferers around the globe? In some Arabic-speaking countries, people answer a sneeze with “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “praise be to God.” In Turkey, a sneeze elicits “Çok yaşa“; in Persian, it’s “عافیت باشه” (Afiat basheh).

Sneezes generally aren’t acknowledged in China; neither are they in Japan. However, there is a Japanese saying about sneezing:


If you sneeze once, someone is talking or spreading bad things about you.

If you sneeze twice, someone is making fun of you.

If you sneeze three times, someone loves you.

If you sneeze four times, you’ve got a cold.

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:


How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly


The universe [resides] in its stomach;


With every single breath [it takes]


All living beings respire.

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.

Ancestors Day

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

China celebrates the Qingming Festival today. Also known as Grave Sweeping Day or Ancestors Day, it’s a time for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, making offerings to honor those who came before.

The image above, a hanging scroll known as Portrait of a woman in green, is an ancestor portrait, a type of painting used in rituals and family settings to commemorate deceased relatives. The woman’s strict, frontal pose, covered hands, and almost life-size depiction are all qualities typical of these works.

We don’t know who this woman was, but the items on the red lacquer table behind her give a sense of her personality. Writing brushes and books refer to her education. An incense burner and a small box to hold the incense suggest the fragrance of her study, while a sprig of bamboo and the cloudlike swirl of an auspicious fungus convey a wish for the immortality of her spirit.


Portraits of this kind were not regarded as art but as ritual objects, and the artists were expected to efface themselves entirely from the image. Though the names of the painters of ancestor portraits were almost never recorded, they fulfilled a necessary role in Chinese society and existed in every community.

Several years ago, a group of teens studied how the tradition of ancestor worship continues today in some Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Through interviews, family stories, old photo albums, and video footage, they pieced together a look at present-day practices, including those for Qingming jie. 

One of the stories the teens captured was from a husband and wife who had a remarkable ancestral experience early in their relationship:

This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn’t understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors’ names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper “spirit” money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors.

The next morning, Carol’s mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her.

She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol’s grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol’s mother had this dream.

Carol still hadn’t spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol’s mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper “spirit” money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.

Arwa and Ahmed: An Interview with Two Saudi Art Stars

CNN included Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami in its list of Saudi Arabia’s rising art stars a few years ago. Active artists when they met—and now husband and wife—Mater and Al Neami have continued to ascend. Al Neami became the first woman to photograph the Prophet’s Mosque, considered the Islamic world’s second-holiest site, in 2014. She also made international waves with her Never Never Land series, a moving look at how Saudi women manage to enjoy amusement parks despite the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.

Mater, considered among the most influential Saudi artists, attracted his own global attention with his piece Magnetism, an abstract interpretation of the hajj that was exhibited at the British Museum. And this year, Mater debuted Symbolic Cities in our galleries, the first US museum exhibition dedicated solely to his work. To mark the occasion, both artists visited Washington, DC, and sat down with me to chat about their work and their lives together.

Does your background as a medical doctor continue to influence your work?

Ahmed Mater: Yes, of course, because it’s about my life and journey. I think medicine falls between subjectivity and objectivity. Art does the same in my life. In my latest project, I try to explore the “intervention” with the cities, and I also call it the “prognosis” of the cities. I treat all of my projects and artwork maybe subconsciously from a medical approach. It’s a holistic approach.

Why do you think you were drawn to both art and medicine?

AM: I think it’s part of my journey. Maybe I chose it, or maybe it’s like destiny. But I manage both of them within one mission.

Why is it important for the public to see your images—particularly an American audience?

AM: I really believe in the common cultural product. When you go to Saudi Arabia, you see a lot of American life there, which is imported through the media, through commercials . . . It’s a common concern, the materialistic new life we are living now. We share that concern.

What is your favorite piece of the ones you’ve created recently?

AM: Maybe Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a film that was in the Berlin Film Festival and got a lot of attention from the critics and audiences. There is an experimental part where the film is taken by the workers themselves. I collected all of the clips from their mobile phones. [The film] has a new perspective from the people inside the construction in Mecca.

What kind of reaction did audiences have to the Never Never Land series? 

Arwa Al Neami: The first time they saw the video and the images, they loved it and were surprised. When they looked a second time, they felt sad. It’s sad because of all the rules [imposed on the women] . . . Many ladies have said to me, “Keep going, we are with you.” It changed my life because it made me think deeply about their emotion—how the rules are [increasing] and how the ladies still try to find a way to have fun. All of my artwork now is about the feelings of [women in Saudi Arabia]—how to be sexy and beautiful, how they have power even when they are covered.

Where is your art taking you now?

AAN: I have a new video called Red Lipstick. If you cover something, it becomes more sexy. If you cover just one finger and show the rest of the body naked, you want to try to see what’s on that one finger. I covered the face of my friend—she’s a Christian; it was her first time wearing the niqab . . . I put red lipstick on her, then covered her face. A fan blows up [the niqab], and you see the red lipstick becoming more and more sexy.

The other project is [based on] a fictional story. I wake up and I smell cardamom, like how my grandmother would crush it and put it in coffee in the morning. And there’s the sound of the crushing of the beans—the sound is really strong and beautiful. When you enter [the installation], you cannot see anything; you can just smell the cardamom and hear [women’s] voices. Many ladies enter and come out crying. They remember their grandmothers. The smell has a lot of memories for the Saudis.

What is daily life like in a home with two active artists?

AM: We share a studio, and we help other artists together. We started in the studio, Arwa and me, we started with this idea . . . Why don’t we find an old villa from the 1970s and renovate it and make it a hub for artists, for ladies and men together? . . . There’s a kitchen on the second floor, we make coffee, tea; sometimes we all make dinner together.

AAN: We spend all day in the studio. I have a couch, and people stay and sleep . . . We have between fifteen and twenty people every day, from local people to ambassadors.

AM: We have a small warehouse where people can debate, do standup comedy—they can test their work. . . . We call it Disney for artists.

What is the relationship between your work?

AM: It’s complementary. She talks about the issues that she feels [strongly about] and I try to cover those issues.

AAN: We try to find different approaches, which makes it more rich. . . .  It’s very important because some artists, when they work together for a long time, they clash.

AM: We try to make ourselves open to new approaches and exploration.

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.

Unraveling Our Objects’ Histories


Some of our objects carry thousands of years of history—yet their past seventy-five years or so may be the most difficult to unravel. During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned after the war, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to establish provenance (a fancy word for origins and ownership history) across its collections, for years we have been working on a comprehensive research project focused on our Asian artworks. Our latest development is an updated provenance page on which you can learn about our efforts—and about the major Asian art dealers, collectors, and galleries involved in many of our objects’ histories.

This marks a new innovation in World War II provenance research, in that it focuses not on the artworks themselves but on the way they moved through a network of individuals, businesses, and museums. Some fifty biographies are now available to the public. For example, you can learn about C. T. Loo (1880–1957), a Chinese art dealer from whom the museum acquired nearly four hundred works, including this Tang dynasty mirror in 1935. 


The biographies are linked to their relevant objects with provenance records and related images. You’ll also find articles detailing auctions that were held in the critical years leading up to and during the World War II era. Together, this information reveals patterns of movement of Asian art that were previously hidden from researchers. And there’s more to come: we are planning to develop a tool that will incorporate the provenance data of partner institutions, helping us paint an even more complete picture of our collections’ past.