Word Play

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.

Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.

Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.

“Xu Bing: The Living Word” at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”

When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.


World Photography Day

Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print, 61 × 76.2 cm; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2014.16

Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print, 61 × 76.2 cm; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2014.16

Today is the sixth annual World Photography Day, an international event spotlighting people’s passion for the camera. In less than a month, we’ll do the same with artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been capturing images of marginalized communities in the desert region of Rajasthan, India. Titled Notes from the Desert, the exhibition will feature nearly sixty of her prints when it opens September 17. Portraits, photographs, and letters offer glimpses of the girls and women of Rajasthan, as well as of Gill’s complex relationships with her subjects.

Staring down from the tree above is Izmat, a single mother whom Gill met during her travels. The two have been friends for nearly two decades, and Izmat and her daughters have become integral to the artist’s work.

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Afghan Arts and PechaKucha

Our speakers at tomorrow's open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Our speakers at tomorrow’s open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Tomorrow afternoon, we celebrate Afghan Independence Day and Afghan arts at our third and final open house of the summer season. This six-hour event is an opportunity for making art, tasting Afghan food, hearing from artisans, watching musical performances, listening to traditional stories read by ARCH International, and exploring the arts of Afghanistan, as seen in our Turquoise Mountain exhibition.

The day concludes with PechaKucha-style presentations—a talk given alongside twenty images, each shown for twenty seconds—by social entrepreneurs working with artisans in Asia and beyond, who will share how they got involved and the lives they’ve seen changed. Read their stories below, and meet them tomorrow at 5 pm.


Dawa Drolma was born and raised in Kham Dege, Tibet. Fluent in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, she is passionate about Tibetan culture and traditions and has focused on cultural preservation and folklore studies since 2009. Her documentary films and photos about Tibetan culture have won several international awards, and her first book about Tibetan folksongs, Silence in the Valley of Song, was published in 2012. Drolma also is the brand director of Khyenle, a Tibetan bronze artwork business.

Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo is a Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, technologist, and educator. Her artwork, centered around themes of time and transience, has been internationally exhibited and performed, including at the Kitchen (NYC), UCLA Hammer Museum (LA), Point Éphémère (Paris), and the Museums of Modern Art in Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia). Since 2003, Jaramillo has worked at the New School in New York City, where she is currently associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design and interim vice president for distributed and global education. Her published research is in the area of community-engaged and socially responsible design education. In 2013, Jaramillo was honored with a Fulbright Scholarship for the inaugural Higher Education Administrator’s Program in France.

Brendan Groves is a national security lawyer, a military veteran, and an experienced social entrepreneur. He has received the Bronze Star Medal, the NSA Director’s Award, and two awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other honors. Apart from his government service, Groves is the cofounder of Flying Scarfs, a veteran-run enterprise that empowers marginalized widows in Afghanistan and Kenya by selling handmade artisan items. He also founded the Wishing Well, a nonprofit that has funded more than one hundred water projects in the developing world.

Peggy Clark is vice president of policy programs and executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, as well as director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. She has had a thirty-year career working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. Serving in founding and leadership roles at the Ford Foundation, Save the Children, and Realizing Rights, among others, Clark has been a leading figure in identifying and building industries, movements, and creative advocacy on key issues. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise from President Bill Clinton, and she was instrumental in passing the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Ethical Recruitment of Health Workers.

Annie O. Waterman has more than a decade of experience within the global artisan sector. She is the founder of AOW Handmade, which works with wholesalers, designers, and retailers to create unique, high-quality artisan collections while sustaining craft traditions and creating market exposure for artisans worldwide. Waterman recently worked as a project manager for ByHand Consulting, for which she traveled extensively, identifying new artisan companies that qualified for exhibiting in the artisan resource market at NY NOW. She also was a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication dedicated to global creativity and sustainable design.

Happy Birthday, Smithsonian!

Aerial view of the Freer Gallery, ca. 1923

Aerial view of the Freer Gallery, ca. 1923

Today marks a full 170 years for the Smithsonian. When the Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923, it became the first art museum on the Smithsonian campus. The Freer story, however, began in 1906, when Charles Lang Freer gave his collection of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt a year before. By exploring the differences in arts from around the world, the Freer Gallery of Art would unite, in Freer’s own words, “modern work with masterpieces of certain periods of high civilization harmonious in spiritual suggestion.”

In this photo, dated to around the time of the Freer’s opening, you can spot the Department of Agriculture at the corner of Independence Avenue and 12th Street and the Potomac River in the distance. While the Freer building is closed for renovation at the moment (a 94-year-old museum was in need of a few upgrades!), the Sackler is upholding our role as the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art.

Old-School Kung Fu

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Some of you (and you know who you are) have been coming to our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival since it started way back in the 1990s. Others of you may have gotten hooked on Hong Kong movies by watching kung fu flicks on TV as a kid. Well, I have good news for all of you: the final weekend of this year’s festival is a celebration of old-school kung fu.

Celluloid fetishists also will want to know that the two films we’re showing tomorrow, The Blade and A Terra-Cotta Warrior, are being shown in rare 35mm prints. This one-two punch harkens back to the glory days of Hong Kong martial arts movies and will remind you why Hong Kong’s film industry took the world by storm.

The festival concludes Sunday with an appearance by Bobby Samuels, who joined our panel of African American martial artists last year. A martial arts champion before he began working in movies, Samuels was the first African American to be inducted into the Hong Kong Stuntman’s Association. He will discuss his experiences in the Hong Kong movie industry and present one of his films: The Red Wolf, a hijacking drama that has rightly been referred to “Die Hard on a cruise ship.”

Memories of Mecca and Medina

A view of Mecca. All photos by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

A view of Mecca. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by Sana Mirza, January 2016.

There are some cities you would expect to be frozen in time, perpetual testaments to past eras, like Pompeii or Petra. Mecca is not that city. Instead, the city is more modern than Times Square—and twice as crowded. At its axis is the holiest shrine in Islam, the Kaaba, believed to be built by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Isma’il). The Kaaba sits at the center of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque), itself encircled by hotels, restaurants, and many, many shops, all catering to the hordes of pilgrims who visit the site daily. This January, I was part of that horde.

The view from the hotel-mall-clocktower complexes: Ahmed Mater’s Nature Morte (S2014.6) and my parents at a window in our hotel overlooking the Kaaba.

Performing a “small pilgrimage” (umra), I was able to witness the extraordinary—and ongoing—transformation of the city, as captured by the photographs of Ahmed Mater. Our first stop was the hotel: a new skyscraper located just behind the enormous clocktower-mall-hotel complex that has dominated the Mecca skyline since 2012. From there, we were within walking distance to the Masjid al-Haram.

The outer mosque is a construction zone. Cranes intermix with minarets in the horizon. Navigating through the labyrinthine mosque was complicated, as sections were blocked off for renovation and temporary structures had been created to redirect pilgrims. And it was loud. The chanting of pilgrims both near and far intermingled with individuals on cell phones and posing for selfies. Yet all of it seemed to fade at that first glimpse of the Kaaba, when we merged into the circumambulating crowd. Stunned to be in front of the structure we turned toward in prayer five times a day, we were oblivious to our surroundings.

  • View of the Kaaba in Mecca.

My parents’ memory of Mecca and Medina paints a picture that is almost incompatible with the cities today. When they made the obligatory pilgrimage (hajj) as newlyweds in 1977, the crowds were smaller—as were the mosques. Instead of skyscrapers and malls surrounding the Masjid al-Haram, there were small houses and traditional bazaars.

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

View of the area surrounding the mosque in Mecca

My mother recalls praying on sand outside the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina. Now the plaza is entirely paved in marble. The small historic mosques in Medina, each tied to a critical moment in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, were then barely able to hold fifty people. They since have been rebuilt in the distinctive contemporary style of the Arabian Peninsula and accommodate hundreds. The huge increase of annual hajj pilgrims, from less than a million in the ’70s to more than two million in 2015, has pushed the mega-mosques beyond capacity, partially fueling these programs of expansion and renovation. The two holiest cities of Islam no longer feel historic as practical demands and ideologies supersede preservation. My parents’ nostalgia for the older cities was palpable as we visited each mosque.

In Medina, the juxtaposition of historic and modern was more apparent. Walking through the mosque to the Tomb of the Prophet, we could see subtle shifts in architectural style, from the very recent courtyard (left) and extension of the prayer hall (center), to early twentieth-century additions, and finally, the late Ottoman-period prayer hall that contains the tomb (F1907.222).

Running late for prayer one evening, my sister and I were still making our way through the mall within the gigantic clocktower complex when the call to prayer sounded. At that signal, every shop closed, and what had seemed like decorative floor tiles turned into guidelines for prayer lines. At that moment, we felt the same sense of community my parents had described, a feeling that permeated each aspect of our own pilgrimage. Mecca may have gotten a twenty-first-century facelift, but the Kaaba is still at its heart. Gazing at Ahmed Mater’s work in Symbolic Cities, I am transported back to those moments—when the disjunction between architecture and place was superseded by pure awe.

Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater is on view through September 18, 2016.

International Tiger Day

Tiger with cubs and magpies; China, possibly Zhejiang province, Ming dynasty, 15th century; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1911.252

Tiger with cubs and magpies; China, possibly Zhejiang province, Ming dynasty, 15th century; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1911.252

A tiger standing protectively over her cubs seems to ignore two magpies scolding from the branches of a pine tree. When combined as the subject of paintings, tigers are messengers of the mountain spirit and magpies are envoys of the shrine deities that protect household and community. Paintings with this motif were displayed in doorways of Korean homes at the New Year to ward off evil. Court artists painted the theme on silk, as in this example, while painters serving village households used mulberry paper.

Teen Council: A Conversation about Art in Afghanistan



One of our jobs as members of the 2016 Freer|Sackler Teen Council is to figure out the significance that art and museums hold for our generation. For exhibitions such as Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, all twelve of us had to consider a question: Why should we be paying attention to this? First, we had to understand the context of Turquoise Mountain, an organization dedicated to reviving Afghanistan’s cultural legacy. My experience in the exhibition raised another question: Do we know what’s going on in the world?

When the Teen Council brainstormed about what we learned from the exhibition, I wrote down cultural significance. I realized that it’s difficult for Americans, and young people specifically, to understand how vulnerable a culture can be. In moments, chaos can destroy culture, even if it has a lengthy and colorful history. Culture seems like an abstract thing to us, but what Turquoise Mountain made me see is how dependent culture is on individuals and everyday people.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

After we inspected the different Afghan crafts on display, we were left considering what we and other young people should do with this new information. We learned that we would make a video about Turquoise Mountain. It soon became clear that it would be important to emphasize our own perspective. Anyone could have made an informative video on the project and the exhibition, but it was our identities as filmmakers that made it different.

To produce the video, we collaborated with the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+ production team, made up of fellow high school students. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a ceramicist who specializes in the style of pottery made in the village of Istalif, became the representative of Turquoise Mountain’s cultural revival for our video. Bilal, an Afghan American program manager at the Freer|Sackler, translated our conversations, enabling us to better understand Afghan culture on multiple levels.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

We learned that Matin’s work is characteristic of ceramics from Istalif, a village near Kabul, which are distinguished by natural potash glazes of green and turquoise. An ancient proverb says, “He who has not seen Istalif has seen nothing.” As we learned about Istalif and its distinguished history, I was struck by how long the village has been known for its pottery, and how quickly the area suffered mass destruction due to its close proximity to Kabul. This made it all the more clear why Turquoise Mountain’s work matters. After spending time with Matin, I can better appreciate how and why he is returning an age-old craft to our modern and ever-changing world.


The Freer|Sackler Teen Council is a group of twelve creative and dedicated high school students who help make the museum more welcoming and engaging for young people. The Teen Council plans and hosts events that bring DC-area teens to the museum to hang out, make and design art, and have unique and exciting experiences. Plus, we have a lot of fun and build an incredible community together.

Take a look at some of our upcoming summer events, including our Teen Takeover on Thursday, August 4, 6–9 pm.

Sky Blue

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Shades of turquoise and deep blue sing out on ceramics made in the Islamic world. Generations of potters throughout the region have shared the distinctive mineral colors of cobalt blue and copper green, using them as pigments to write and paint on clay or as colorants to saturate glazes. The vessels on view in Sky Blue: Color in Ceramics of the Islamic World, opening tomorrow, were created in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Uzbekistan, and span the ninth through the nineteenth century.

Over the centuries, potters have perfected a complex process to incorporate these colorants into their glazes. In Iran, for example, potters ground quartz pebbles into a fine powder to provide the silica (the “glass”) needed in traditional glaze-making practices. The ash of burned plants was a source of alkali fluxes that helped the silica melt. Silica and ash were usually combined and heated to produce a glass that was then shattered and ground into frit. This was mixed with water and other ingredients to make a glaze. Cobalt or copper oxide was added for color.

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Typically ceramic vessels were first fired without glaze to harden the body. They were then coated with glaze and fired again at a temperature high enough to melt the frit mixture into a smooth, translucent surface. Lead and tin oxides were added if an opaque glaze was desired. Sometimes vessels were fired several times, depending on the complexity of the decoration.

The cheerful, eye-catching shades of blue and green belie the effort required to bring them forth. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a potter from Afghanistan whose work is on view in the exhibition Turquoise Mountain, describes the blue-green glaze of his bowls as “the color of peace, the color of competence.”

See more of these blue-green bowls in "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan."

See more of these blue-green bowls in “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”