Discovering Georgian Cinema

Film still from "Eliso" (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

Film still from “Eliso” (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

The cinema of the Republic of Georgia is as varied as its landscape and the many cultures that have inhabited it over the centuries. This month, the Freer|Sackler teams up with the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of France, the AFI Silver Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut Washington to present a landmark survey of Georgian cinema—from the silent era through last year’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines. Cocurated by Susan Oxtoby of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Jytte Jensen of the Museum of Modern Art, this is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever presented in the United States, and it includes rare 35mm prints from archives all over the world.

“This retrospective concentrates on three main periods of production,” Oxtoby wrote in the retrospective booklet. “The wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties … and is well represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s and 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.”

We open the retrospective in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, February 13, with a screening of the silent classic Eliso, with live accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia and members of the Supruli Choir, performing a score by Carl Linich commissioned for the event. The composition is adapted from Georgia’s unique polyphonic folk singing tradition, a style admired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Billy Joel, and the Coen brothers (who used it in The Big Lebowski, believe it or not). If that’s not enough to tempt you, the screening will be followed by a reception featuring Georgian wine, which has developed a devoted following of its own in recent years.

There are other special events planned as well. The silent double feature of Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot on February 15 will be introduced by Georgia expert Peter Rollberg of George Washington University and accompanied by keyboardist Burnett Thompson. On February 22, Dr. Julie Christenson, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema at George Mason University, will introduce Tengiz Abuladze’s once-banned Repentance, one of the first films to address the terrors of the Stalin era. It remains a fine example of Georgian filmmakers’ subtle rebellious character during the Soviet era, which some have compared to the similarly poetic strategies of Iranian filmmakers from the 1990s through today.

I’m grateful to my colleague Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art for offering us this rare opportunity to explore the cinema of this unique region. You can find the full schedule on the NGA’s website.

Friday Fave: Wine Horn

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Spouted vessel with gazelle protome; Iran or Afghanistan, Sasanian period, 4th century; silver and gilt; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I look at it, and I wonder. How? How did he—one assumes the silversmith was male—make this silver-and-gilt wine horn shaped like a gazelle?

Here’s what scholars know: It was made in the fourth century, long before the technology that would have made the job an easy one. Its maker worked in what we now call Iran, or perhaps Afghanistan, probably for a royal workshop established by the Sasanian dynasty (reign 224–651 CE). Finely crafted drinking horns were a long-practiced Sasanian tradition, and similar examples have been found in China, evidence that people have always sought inspiration from far-off places. In addition to the gazelle ornamentation on the front—known as a protome—a bull, two antelopes, and a lion are carved on the sides. No one is sure what the animals mean, but perhaps they refer to a royal hunt.

Today, we display the drinking horn beneath a glass case, but it was made to be used—somebody probably drank from it. I wonder if our silversmith stopped to admire his work once the final gilding was completed, or if he immediately moved on to his next assignment. I wonder if he’d be pleased to see it on a pedestal or would prefer to see wine flowing from the gazelle’s mouth into someone’s lips.

Here’s what I know: It is exquisite, perfectly executed, a treasure of the Sackler’s collection. I stop to admire it every time I walk through the Feast Your Eyes exhibition, where it is on view. Look for it in the museum or on Open F|S. Perhaps you’ll wonder about that silversmith too.

Friday Fave: “The Lute” by Thomas Dewing

"The Lute" by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

“The Lute” by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a


Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I recently had the opportunity to view Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s enigmatic painting The Lute up close. I was first drawn to the subtle tones of the painting, characteristic of the works he created at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. Then, I started wondering about the story. The Lute features four idealized female figures in an atmospheric landscape, subtly charming with its delicate surface texture.

The figures’ dreamlike quality—suspended in a verdurous gossamer backdrop—gives the interaction between the women a certain ethereality. The clear focal point of the four actors drew me closer to examine their relationship.

In my interpretation, the woman on the right plays the lute with an air of contentment, seemingly unaware of the three women watching in judgment, sinistrally. The observer closest to the performer seems to be looking on with contempt, chin raised in superiority; the next stands enviously, arms akimbo with a brick-wall resolution; and the final figure maintains lowered eyes, aloof from the scene, listening on wistfully, sadly.

I love that so many works in Freer’s collection represent points of contact and influence between cultures. The Lute is a lovely representation of that cross-cultural aesthetic interchange, clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e painting and prints of “the floating world,” which were familiar to artists in both the United States and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The delicate craftsmanship, leisurely models, and poetic interactions are stunning.

Most interesting to me, though, is the poignant reflection on human nature that Dewing explores. Without any associated writing on the painting, the onus to decipher the narrative is placed on the viewer. Who is this lute player? How are her actions affecting the listeners? Would another person perceive their reactions differently than I do?

To me, as I view what I perceive as troubled responses to the performer, I am cautioned that human nature has a multiplicity of beautiful and vexing facets. I am reminded to listen to the lute with gratitude.

Unfortunately, The Lute is not currently on view. You can still view this American masterwork in stunning detail anytime you like on Open F|S, and you can explore related works in the Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan online exhibition feature.

Arab Jazz: An Interview with Tarek Yamani

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani is a New York-based composer and a self-taught jazz pianist. Born and raised in Beirut, Yamani was first exposed to jazz as a teenager. Since the release of his debut album, Ashur, in 2012, he has explored relationships between African American jazz and the rhythms and melodic modes (maqam) of Arab music. In 2013, Yamani produced Beirut Speaks Jazz, a unique initiative aimed at promoting jazz in Lebanon. With his Trio, Tarek Yamani performed last month in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, in conjunction with the exhibition Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.

Bento: What were your early experiences of playing and learning music?

Tarek Yamani: My father has an incredible sensitivity to music and he loved good music regardless of its genre. He had a black Samsonite case full of tapes of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, ABBA, Bob Marley, Ravi Shankar, Umm Kulthum, the Beatles, and everything in between. I loved this case and I was always excited to pick something out of it and listen. My parents loved music but were not musicians. My great-grandfather, however, was a well-known singer during Ottoman rule and he was one of the first to record discs for Baidaphon and Polyphon in the early 1900s. His name was Ahmad Afandi Al Mir, and we managed to find in his grandson’s attic four severely damaged LPs with his picture on it.

I was born in the middle of the fifteen-year civil war, and during most of my childhood my family and I were running away. The Lebanese War was atrocious, and as in any militia-based wars, there were no rules or safe areas: one day our street would be safe, the next, a war zone. Cultural activity during those years was non-existent, and therefore the first time I saw a concert was when I played one in my school in 1996. I was sixteen, and I had been teaching myself guitar and got into heavy metal. I even formed a band with my friends, but it didn’t last for long.

My parents got me a piano when things cooled down and I was showing real interest in music. I think I was eleven or twelve when that happened. I started going to the Lebanese National Conservatory, but it was in such a mess that I soon dropped out and picked up the guitar instead. Around the age of 19, my interest in jazz brought me back to the piano.

Bento: What were your early musical influences? What artists, styles, or composers grabbed your attention and helped motivate you?

Tarek Yamani: I listened to everything that sounded like music and I loved it all, from classical to rock to hip-hop. I had a strange attraction to Pink Floyd that was more like an addiction until it slowly faded away when I became interested in heavy metal. After that also faded away, it was jazz that came into my life and changed it forever.

Nobody influenced me in jazz as much as Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane did. However, I was listening to countless jazz records from Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter, to name a few, and all were a major influence on my jazz formation.

Bento: What have you been listening to recently (live or recordings)?

Tarek Yamani: I haven’t been listening to anybody in particular recently, but I’m very much into checking out what’s going on in the Arab world. There’s a big movement in independent music, especially in Egypt when it comes to Arabic rock, and all around the Arab world when it comes to hip-hop. Electronic music is pretty much picking up, too, but jazz is not really happening yet and there are no real jazz scenes. There are mostly individual attempts and a few collective attempts that, if done correctly, will eventually create the necessary platform for a real movement.

Bento: When is the next Beirut Speaks Jazz? Are there any other upcoming performances or projects you’d like to mention?

Tarek Yamani: Beirut Speaks Jazz occurs on April 30 and coincides with International Jazz Day. I’m very much looking forward to the 2015 edition. Some of my other projects include scoring the music for my wife Darine Hotait’s short film Orb, which is going to be the first Arab sci-fi film. I’m also preparing my third album, in which I continue to explore relationships between jazz and Arab music.

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If you like Arab music, check our recent podcasts of concerts recorded in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Friday Fave: Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, by Sesson (1504–1589); Japan, Momoyama period, 1568–1615; ink on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.218–19

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.

Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.

When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.

A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, left-hand screen

Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.

The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.

Friday Fave: Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami; Kitagawa Utamaro; Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Japan, Edo period, late 18th–early 19th century
Ink and color on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art in Open F|S, our newly digitized collection.

My favorite object in the collection? That’s a tough one. Truth is, I have lots of favorites.

There is one painting, however, that I grew to admire the more time I spent photographing it. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami is an amazingly detailed panel painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806), filled with scenes of an elite pleasure establishment that form a visually compelling narrative. For a special educational project by the Kyoto Cultural Association, I spent two full days photographing the painting’s every detail. At the Freer|Sackler, we often photograph art with an eye on the technical challenges each object presents or with a deadline in mind. In the case of Moonlight Revelry, we were asked to photograph this masterpiece in eighteen precisely overlapping sections in order for it to be recreated back in Japan as closely to the original as possible.

I love that the painting has so much to offer. In fact, the more you look, the more you discover: from the intriguing center salon to the ships sailing in the distant background and all the sundry activities near and far. Moonlight Revelry has an amazing perspective that draws you in. It invites you to imagine being in that salon and life in that period with a quality and technique that, as I came to learn later, influenced future generations of artists, including American artist James McNeill Whistler.

Friday Fave: Director’s Choice

Cameras new and old

Cameras, new and old

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art. This entry is by Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

When he first arrived at the Freer|Sackler nearly thirty years ago, John Tsantes, head of photography, used the “Agfa 8×10″ view camera on the right to photograph the collections. The camera on the left, “Phase One,” is the latest digital camera, and is now the museums’ standard equipment. John pioneered digital photography at the Freer|Sackler, and by the end of 2014 he and his team had completely digitized our collections of more than 40,000 objects. On January 1, 2015, in a blaze of publicity, we announced that we’ve made high-resolution images of our entire collection available on Open F|S, free for non-commercial projects and purposes. You can learn about and look deeply at works of art like never before, but also roll up your digital sleeves and have fun: search, download, and create. To that, we can also add “share,” and we look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Canteen; Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);  brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

Syria or Northern Iraq; Ayyubid period (1171–1250);
Brass, silver inlay; Purchase, F1941.10

With so much to choose from, picking a favorite isn’t easy. The object I find most poignant at the moment is the famous “Freer canteen.” It was produced just under nine hundred years ago in Mosul for the Syriac community. Created by craftsmen who made objects for Muslim leaders, its principal scenes are drawn from the life of Christ: the Nativity, so apt for this time of year; the Presentation at the Temple; and the Entry into Jerusalem. In addition, it features geometric motifs, lively animal scrolls, and elegant inscriptions. The back includes depictions of saints and knights. Today, the vessel reminds us of how many of this region’s ancient communities are fast disappearing, and how centuries-old objects remain vital conduits to the past.

Friday Fave: Tigers!

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

Chinese bronze tiger fittings from 900 BCE; F1935.21 and F1935.22

This post inaugurates our Friday Fave blog series, featuring museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

What is my favorite object in the Freer? That often depends on my mood. I have favorites within categories: favorite painting, favorite sculpture, favorite monster or god … I could go on.

So, though I have been asked to talk about my favorite object, I am going to talk about the object I most want to touch, regardless of mood. In the back of the Freer’s gallery 18, there are two tigers made of bronze that peek out of their case, ready to be loved.

Anthropomorphization? Absolutely. Every single time I see them.

These two 3,000-year-old kitties call out to me whenever they catch my eye. Their fierce teeth, held up in a friendly, reserved expression, assure me that they would enjoy a bit of a scratch behind the ear or under the chin. I love these tigers because of the emotional tug they have on me. I am in awe that, thousands of years ago, an artist created these bronzes with such attention to detail, understanding of human and animal emotions, and love, that they continue to find admirers from near and far.

Learn more about ancient Chinese bronzes in the Freer|Sackler collections.


Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

Digitally altered detail, tomb guardian creature; China, Tang dynasty, ca. 700–740; lead-glazed earthenware; Gift of the Else Sackler Foundation, S1997.24

With a new year, the Freer|Sackler launches a new initiative: Open F|S. We’ve digitized our entire collection and today, we’re making it available to the public. That’s thousands of works now ready for you to download, modify, and share for noncommercial purposes. As Freer|Sackler Director Julian Raby said, “We strive to promote the love and study of Asian art, and the best way we can do so is to free our unmatched resources for inspiration, appreciation, academic study, and artistic creation.” More facts and figures about the project can be found in the infographic below.

Tomorrow, we’ll also introduce the Friday Fave, a weekly blog series in which Freer|Sackler insiders will describe their favorite objects in the newly digitized collections. It’s a chance for us to share with you what inspires us, in the hopes that in the coming months, you’ll tell us your own stories about cherished F|S objects. To participate further, sign up to be a beta tester and help us ensure the ongoing success of Open F|S as it expands and evolves.

Happy New Year, and Happy Open F|S!

Freer|Sackler digitization infographic.

Open F|S: Digital Zero

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Courtney O’Callaghan is chief digital officer at the Freer|Sackler.

We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer|Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museums to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.

What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system—more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.

On January 1, 2015, we will finally share all of our objects and accompanying data with the public. We will make available 40,000+ works as high-resolution images with (often) detailed metadata, available for non-commercial use by anyone.

Digital Zero gives us the freedom to begin the rapid prototyping of digital offerings. It allows us to focus on how our visitors want to interact with our collection. And it enables our creative allies to peruse our objects and form their own endlessly variable takes on the Freer|Sackler legacy.

But this is simply the base from which we begin our digital journey. As our curators and their collaborators discover new insights, new connections, and new interpretations of our storied holdings, we must acknowledge the fact that our work is on shifting sands. Our understanding of our own collection continually evolves and changes.

We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects. As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is only the first phase. If you are interested in being part of our adventure, email us at and we will include you in our plans.