Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters


Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.


On Sunday, February 5, Beijing folk artist Lin Bai will visit the Freer|Sackler as part of our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. From 12–5 pm, you can watch him demonstrate how to make traditional bristle dolls.

This handicraft originated in Beijing more than a century ago, at the end of Qing Dynasty. In the video, you can see how Bai uses traditional materials to connect to the origins of this art form. He constructs the doll’s head and base from plaster, and he uses straw to shape the character’s bodies. The figures are then dressed in colored paper or silk and lined with cotton padding.

Bai makes characters inspired by popular operatic plays, including Uproar in Heaven and Four Pairs of Mallets. Each character is secured onto a base with a circle of sticks (or bristles), thus giving the dolls their beloved namesake. Once a collection of dolls is finished, the troupe can be placed onto a copper plate. When hit by a mallet, the figures appear to dance due to the sticks’ flexibility.

After watching Bai’s demonstration, you may be inspired to see the dolls come to life in opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

Goryeo Buddhist Painting: A Closer Look

Detail, Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jijang bosal); Korean, late 13th or early 14th century; hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk; anonymous gift, S1992.11

Detail, Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jijang bosal); Korean, late 13th or early 14th century; hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk; anonymous gift, S1992.11

Painted in rich reds, greens, and blues patterned with gold, exquisite Goryeo Buddhist paintings survive in very small numbers. Scholars have identified fewer than 160 examples worldwide. Still shrouded in mystery, this genre of Korean religious icon seems to date almost exclusively to around the fourteenth century.

The Goryeo dynasty (pronounced Ko-ree-o, the root of Korea’s modern moniker) lasted from 918 to 1392 and is considered a golden age of artistic and cultural development. The Buddhist images created at the time reflect the strength of the Pure Land tradition, which promises believers rebirth in paradise. The works feature specific buddhas and bodhisattvas who help followers achieve this goal. Through centuries of warfare and loss, most of the paintings left the Korean Peninsula. They now survive in large part in Japanese temple collections.

The tradition has only re-emerged from obscurity in the past few decades as researchers have begun to identify specific visual characteristics that unite the works. These features include delicately painted garments, saturated mineral pigments accented with gold, and illusionary effects such as transparency. Although these similarities are now well-documented, there is still much to discover about the paintings’ artistic methods and cultural context.

Detail, Water-Moon Avalokitesvara (Suwol Gwaneum bosal); Korea, mid-14th century; hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.13

Detail, Water-Moon Avalokitesvara (Suwol Gwaneum bosal); Korea, mid-14th century; hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.13

Scholars and specialists who work to unravel the mysteries of these paintings will visit the Freer|Sackler in March for our symposium Goryeo Buddhist Painting: A Closer Look. Celebrating a new digital catalogue that features sixteen Goryeo Buddhist paintings in US museums, the event will introduce new research into the works’ historical, religious, and geographic contexts. English-language versions of all papers will be provided at the symposium, as presentations will be given in Japanese, Korean, or English.

Discover more art objects from the Goryeo dynasty in our collection, and zoom in to see the delicate details of Goryeo Buddhist paintings.

Meet Our Volunteer: Patrick Hamilton

Machig Labdron as Vajradakini

Machig Labdron as Vajradakini

Patrick Hamilton has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2009 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to volunteer the Freer|Sackler?

I worked across the street at the Department of Energy from 1994 until 2008. In those days, I visited the Freer|Sackler at least once a week, fantasizing what it would be like to work with all the beautiful things on display—and here I am!

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

I most enjoy working with newcomers to our collection. I feel most useful when I’m able to direct guests to something specific that I know they will enjoy and will become a treasured memory of their visit to the Smithsonian.

Can you share a memorable interaction you have had?

I most recall the delight I felt meeting the Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery when they came to the Sackler to build a traditional sand mandala in the foyer.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

Among the current items on view in the Sackler, I would choose the gilt metal statue of Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Machig Labdron. She is doubly important to me since she is also the patron of an education project I work with in Tibet.

Photo Story: Freer Renovation

Freer Gallery of Art corridor under renovation 2017.

Photograph by Robb Harrell

A shot of an empty corridor in the Freer Gallery, which reopens this fall. Learn more about the renovation project that’s now underway.

Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?



Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.


Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.


Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.


Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

Art Must Bring Change: A Turquoise Mountain-Inspired Project

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibit "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan"

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibition “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan”

Located in Arlington, Virginia, Studio PAUSE is a space where artist Sushmita Mazumdar writes, teaches, and creates Handmade Storybooks and other mixed-media work. It is also where she invites people to explore creativity and celebrate community. Sushmita’s current project, Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity, was inspired by Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy and her work in the Freer|Sackler exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. Below, Sushmita talks about the project and how everything around us can connect to tell one story.

“The Body Needs Food but the Soul Needs Art”

I was captivated by this quote splashed across a wall in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition. They are the words of Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy, a graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she studied miniature painting, illumination, and calligraphy. As I read a text panel that tells her story, I found yet more inspirational words, phrases, and ideas.

When I met Sughra in March 2016—and saw her demonstrate manuscript painting and illumination in the exhibition—it struck me that in sixteen years of being a docent at this museum, I had seen only rare and centuries-old examples of this beautiful art, preserved behind protective cases. To see Sughra making this art right in front of my eyes was unbelievable. And then to have her tell me to sit down and try it myself was a whole other experience.

“It’s tracing paper and a mechanical pencil,” she said, offering the tools to me and a nine-year-old boy as we watched her work. “Sit. Try it.” As my fingers traced her designs and she showed us how she made gold paint in an oyster shell, we talked. I told her I was an artist, and I invited her to visit my studio. She agreed happily.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., visits Sughra in the "Turquoise Mountain" exhibition with her son Aidan in October 2016.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., and her son Aidan visit Sughra in the “Turquoise Mountain” exhibition.

On her visit to Studio PAUSE, about eight miles from the museum, Sughra created a quick and beautiful sample of her work for studio members to see. She also joined me at a workshop I was doing with teenagers called Exploring Identity Through Book Arts. The teens were there as part of an after-school program run by AHC Inc., a local organization that creates affordable housing and runs on-site educational programs for residents. I introduced Sughra to the teens, most of them immigrants, as an outstanding Afghan artist whose work was on view in a Smithsonian museum and who had come from Kabul to show museum visitors how she does her art.

That day’s workshop topic was stereotypes. Students were learning to make a book to help them explore how we see others and how others see us. We each shared our personal experiences, and Sughra shared hers, too—about how people in the United States reacted when she told them she was from Afghanistan. “Their eyes grow big,” she said, “as if I was going to explode.” We were all surprised, but we knew people make a lot of assumptions based on how we appear to them.

 “Making art is a link for me with my past—with my family and with those who went before me.” —Sughra Hussainy

When I started my art-making years ago, I wrote down stories from my childhood in India and of family members I left behind when I moved to the United States, and incorporated them into unique handmade storybooks for my children. Since then, my work has been to encourage people to share their stories and teach them how to preserve these stories in creative, handmade books. When you know how to make a book, I often say, you always have a place for your stories to live.

Sughra’s art links to her past as she continues the ancient tradition of miniature painting and illumination. I find her story so powerful. The art that I had always thought of as something made in the past and found in museums is here right now, thriving and bringing beauty to the world. I wondered if we could take it into the future in new ways.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

So I asked members of the Studio PAUSE community—everyday people who come to my studio to pause, making time to explore creativity and celebrate community—for their thoughts on an idea: What if we wrote poems about identity and asked Sughra to decorate them with a bit of her gorgeous miniature painting in traditional Afghan style? I could then design a book of poetry unlike most we might come across, print the pages in my studio, and bind them into copies by hand. It would be a book that held something about each of us that is more than what we look like, letting us express ourselves through art and show our individuality. We would be like a big, diverse family making something beautiful.

In October 2016, Sughra and Bilal Askaryar, program manager for Turquoise Mountain, visited the studio to discuss the project. “The book will be called Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity,” I told them. When Bilal explained the archaic grammar of the phrase “thou art” to Sughra, her eyes twinkled. “It has two meanings! I like it,” she smiled.

I created a mock-up of the book to show them. Sughra preferred the Japanese binding style, so the cover will comprise two pieces—the longer back cover tucking into the front cover. Each will be on a different paper, symbolizing the coming together of two forms of expression (writing and art), the people of two countries (United States and Afghanistan), and the two ideas of understanding and celebrating our community.

Studio Pause writers meet Sughra, see her art, and compose poems about identity.

Studio PAUSE members met Sughra, saw her art, and composed poems about identity.

The next week, some studio members met for our weekly Writing PAUSE session. There were poets and activists, a lawyer and social scientist, an artist and entrepreneur, a dancer and politician, and an educator. They met Sughra and saw her work. We wrote, exploring the project and sharing our ideas on identity. Today, I continue to invite people to join the project.

We plan to launch the book Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity in April 2017, in celebration of National Poetry Month. The handmade books will be available online—each sale including two copies, one for the buyer to keep, and one to give away. We’ll mark the occasion with an event at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, where contributors will read their poems aloud. The celebration also will kick off a new school-wide project for 2017, in which families will be invited to share their poetry with students and to form their own community poetry book.

This idea came from Oakridge teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala, who is part of the school’s Mosaic Project. She had been thinking of doing a poetry book project for a while. I took Sughra to meet her at Oakridge (which both my children have attended), and then Dawn came to the Freer|Sackler to see Turquoise Mountain and watch Sughra work.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Once the Oakbridge community poetry book is created, Dawn plans to have her fellow teachers use it in their K–5 classes. The text will support the school’s Mosaic objectives—to help students become better writers and to practice global stewardship. “Global stewardship includes the idea that we all have our own stories that are worth telling and worth listening to. Our individual stories connect us as a community,” Dawn explained.

After that, the students will also make a poetry book. Through this extension of our current project, we could link our lives, our arts, and our stories with more than eight hundred young Americans and their families, who come from every corner of the country and all over the world.

It’s hard to believe this is all really happening, but just writing this post makes it feel so real. I am eager to see how many people will be part of this project and what they think. In a world where we work so hard to get food for our body, here is a chance for us to create art by and for our souls.

Crash Course in Contemporary Chinese Film

The DC premiere of "The Road" screens November 16 as part of the Third China Onscreen Biennial.

The DC premiere of “The Road” screens November 16 as part of the third China Onscreen Biennial.

Better late than never, the full lineup for the third China Onscreen Biennial is now online. Playing November 15–17 free of charge at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, these films were selected by a curatorial committee that included myself and film programmers and scholars in Los Angeles and New York. We met via Skype to winnow down our selections from more than forty new features and documentaries. So you can be assured that these are the cream of the crop.

In addition to their quality, the films were selected to present the broadest possible perspective on filmmaking in China today. On November 15, for instance, you can see Tharlo, the latest film from acclaimed Tibetan director Pema Tseden. It’s followed by Ta’ang, a documentary on the very timely topic of refugees displaced by war, by the pioneering Wang Bing, whose achievements recently merited him inclusion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

On November 16, director Yang Chao appears in person with Crosscurrent, an utterly unique, exquisitely beautiful film that depicts a journey up the Yangzi River propelled by poetry. This film should especially appeal to Freer|Sackler patrons, as its cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, was inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting when creating his gorgeous visuals. The screening will be preceded by a free public reception at 5:30 pm—and it will be followed by the documentary The Road, which, with shocking candor, exposes official corruption on a Chinese highway project.

"I Am Not Madame Bovary"

“I Am Not Madame Bovary”

Women take center stage on November 17, beginning with Fan Bingbing’s award-winning turn in Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary, in which she plays a woman doggedly seeking revenge on her cad of an ex-husband. Feng frames his narrative in circles and squares, and tints it with a retro color scheme to give it a look like no other film. The series concludes with a look to the future as we present A Simple Goodbye, the young director Degena Yun’s powerful autobiographical drama about a filmmaker trying to reconcile with her stubborn, dying father.

I hope you’ll join us next week for this free crash course in contemporary filmmaking in China.