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.
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).”Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.
It’s officially spring. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday—a day to spend time with family and appreciate nature.
The annual cycle of the seasons has been integral to the lives and art of Japanese people since the earliest historical times. Naturally, seasonal associations permeate Japanese literature, art, and customs. The hazy moon of spring, for example, is called oborozuki, while the bright harvest moon of autumn is called meigetsu.
Intimate views of nature came to dominate representations of the seasons in Japanese art, with specific images associated with each. Early spring is evoked by blossoming plum and the first cry of the warbler; the brief, lush glory of cherry blossoms comes later that same season. Summer equates with abundant flowers and the call of the cuckoo; autumn with red maples, chrysanthemums, and geese in flight; and winter with frozen waters and falling snow.
Visit Open F|S to see spring represented throughout our collections of Asian and American art.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.”
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.
Photographer Steve McCurry shared the beauty of Afghanistan with the world more than thirty years ago, when his captivating photo Afghan Girl stared out from the cover of National Geographic magazine. A few weeks ago on Instagram, he asked the public to post their own interpretations of Afghanistan’s beauty for the opening of our exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. We’ve been following the responses using the #turquoisemountain hashtag, which are also featured in the exhibition itself. Below are a few of our favorite shots that you’ve posted of Afghanistan and of your experiences in the Turquoise Mountain galleries.
Imagine Washington, DC, abandoned and half-submerged into the Atlantic. The rounded dome of the Jefferson Memorial is visible like a little white island, but no one remembers the structure or its origins. Imagine New York covered with layers and layers of sands, the Chrysler Building in ruins, and the identity of the Statue of Liberty forgotten.
A doomsday scenario? The plot for a science fiction movie? A little far fetched? Maybe, but not when compared to the fate of Pasargadae, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE), the first empire of the ancient world. It was built by the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 BCE), who conquered much of the Near East within a twenty-year period. He was known for his military skills as well as his tolerance: in 539, when he conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews and other prisoners to return to their homeland.
Pasargadae was located in southwestern Iran, in the so-called “plain of the water bird.” Introducing a new architectural plan that would be widely emulated, the palace complex was centered on a large garden and included striking columnar palaces and pavilions, as well as Cyrus’s tomb. It was a pivotal site of the ancient world. Even when the Greeks conquered the Achaemenids in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae and paid his respects to Cyrus.
Over the years, however, Pasargadae gradually fell into neglect and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the thirteenth century, a local ruler transformed Cyrus’s tomb into a mosque using stones and columns from the nearby palace. According to fifteenth-century Western travelers to the area, very little of the capital and the palace grounds remained, and the tomb was believed to be a woman’s resting-place. Although some scholars had speculated that the site was that of ancient Pasargadae, it was only in 1908 that the celebrated German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld identified it beyond any reasonable doubt as the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
Even if not much of the once-magnificent capital still stands, thanks to Herzfeld’s efforts, Pasargadae and the tomb are once again linked to Cyrus the Great. The story is a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the power of our collective memory. Experience it in person in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, on view through July 31.
Nowruz, the Persian word for “new day,” coincides with the vernal equinox and the first day of spring. Rooted in Zoroastrianism, the religion of Iran before the founding of Islam, Nowruz was celebrated in much of the ancient Near East as early as 3000 BCE. Today, people in many countries—from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to India and Pakistan—participate in the thirteen days of Nowruz festivities with their own local variations.
The centerpiece of the Nowruz celebration is the Haft sin table. It includes at least seven (haft) items that refer to new life and renewal. Although the custom has regional variations, in Iran each of the seven items begins with the letter s (pronounced seen in Persian).
Other symbols of good luck can also be placed on the table, such as:
Join us Saturday for a scaled-down version of our annual Nowruz celebration!