National Fossil Day: A Mysterious Mammoth Carving

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

In almost every regard, this Chinese figurine is perplexing and intriguing. Until recently, it was dated to 1025, based on an inscription carved into the base. Yet, no figural ivory carvings have been documented from the Song dynasty (960–1279). Was the inscription added legitimately or by an unscrupulous modern dealer?

The intricacy of this carving and its exaggeratedly long body and hands suggest a date of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The figure is similar to Dehua (blanc de chine) porcelain figures made during this period. Radiocarbon test results on the ivory do not tell much, since the carver used fossil mammoth ivory more than 32,000 years old.


Jades for Life and Death


Jade has been one of China’s most highly valued materials for millennia, and we happen to have some of the world’s finest Chinese jades in our collections. Now, more than 250 jades produced during the Chinese Stone Age (ca. 5000―1700 BCE) are globally accessible through our new online catalogue Jades for Life and Death. Most of these works were produced by the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300―2250 BCE), the most prolific and advanced center for jade production in ancient China.

Why “life and death”? The title refers to ways that Chinese people used jade thousands of years ago. Pieces of jewelry—beads and pendants, for example—show that the ancient Chinese donned jade items as accessories. Then there are jade ritual disks (bi) and tubes (cong) that have been discovered at Liangzhu burial sites. Sometimes, the tubes had been arranged in a circle around the deceased’s body; sometimes, the disks were placed near the body and stacked below its feet.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

Peruse Jades for Life and Death to marvel at these objects and to learn about their histories. You can find label text that our curators have written about the jades, as well as a host of related materials. Archival purchase records, for example, trace the objects’ journeys to the Freer|Sackler. Several essays delve into such topics as how museum founder Charles Lang Freer gathered this collection and the culture that created them. Research spanning the twentieth century reveals how the understanding of our jades shifted with each archaeological discovery in China.

And there’s more to come. This book is only the first in a series of five volumes we have planned about our jades. The next one, scheduled to come out in fall 2017, is dedicated to jades of the early Bronze Age, chiefly the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600―1050 BCE).

Ask An Archivist



It’s #AskAnArchivist day. What questions do you have for our Archives staff? Check out their extensive collections and fire away!

Taken in 1908, this archival image shows the Peacock Room in museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home. Whistler’s masterpiece now has a permanent home in the Freer Gallery, which is currently under renovation and will reopen next year.

Art & Me: Conservators in Training

Conservator Ellen Chase works with program participants on reassembling their “ceramic” puzzles during the first Art and Me workshop.

Conservator Ellen Chase works with program participants on reassembling their “ceramic” puzzles during the first Art & Me workshop.

Calling all children ages 3–5 with adult companions! Registration is now open for an art conservation workshop where art and science will collide. On Sunday, October 23, join conservator Ellen Chase to see what goes into preserving precious art objects made of silver. Look at silver works on a gallery tour, and then return to the ImaginAsia classroom to make silver-inspired creations using your newly acquired conservation skills.

This workshop marks the second in a series of Art & Me workshops focusing on art conservation for children ages 3–5. If you are not able to join us in October, here’s a fun activity to try at home, inspired by our May 2016 workshop.

Adrian having fun trying on conservator’s gear at our first workshop in May 2016.

Adrian having fun trying on a conservator’s gear at our first workshop in May 2016.

Become an Art Conservator: The Basics
Your future as an art conservator begins now! There are 40,000 works of art at the Freer|Sackler. How does the museum take care of them all? Cleaning, preserving, and occasionally repairing works of art is known as art conservation, and the people who do this specialized work are called conservators. Art conservators make sure that art and historical objects stay safe for the future—so that they will be there when you grow up and even when your grandchildren grow up.

Try this: Sometimes, the best way to learn is to try things out yourself! Conservators look at objects very carefully to learn about how they are made and to figure out what they need to do to preserve them. Explore your home, and choose an object that’s important and special to you. Look carefully at your special object. What do you see? Do you think that there any parts missing? Would you say it is clean or dirty?

Write down why your object is important to you, and draw a picture of it. Send in your response and picture, and we’ll send back a conservator-in-training button as a prize!

Insider’s tip: It can be hard to see a familiar thing with fresh eyes. Try using a magnifying glass as you examine your object.

Head to our families page to find more events and resources for young museum visitors.

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

Welcoming NMAAHC with “Kung Fu Wildstyle”

Fab 5 Freddy's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Fab 5 Freddy’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is such a major event that fellow Smithsonian museums will spend the next year celebrating it. Here at the Freer|Sackler, we are cooking up, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a month-long celebration of the deep—and sometimes surprising—connections among African American, Asian American, and Asian pop culture. These connections formed when the rappers and break-dancers who pioneered hip-hop in New York started incorporating moves from Hong Kong martial arts movies they had binge-watched in Manhattan theaters—and they continue to flourish today.

One of those pioneers is the incomparable Fab Five Freddy. As the first graffiti artist to have his work exhibited in commercial galleries, Fab was a bridge between the uptown hip-hop scene and the downtown art and new wave music scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. (As a tween growing up in rural Pennsylvania obsessed with Blondie, I first heard of him in the band’s megahit “Rapture.”)

Since those early days as a fixture in New York, Fab has been, among other things, a television star (as the host of Yo! MTV Raps) and a music video director. In fact, his impact on the hip-hop and art worlds is so impressive that the Smithsonian itself has recognized it: a portrait of him currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the iconic boombox that was always by his side back in the day is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Fab's boombox at the National Museum of American History

Fab’s boombox at the National Museum of American History

A few years ago, Fab reconnected with an old buddy, Sean Dinsmore, who now lives in Hong Kong. Dinsmore told him about a street artist there named MC Yan, whose work was inspired by what Fab and his friends had done three decades earlier and half a world away.

Amazed and flattered, Fab struck up a friendship with Yan, and Kung Fu Wildstyle was born. A dialogue between these two artists in the form of paintings of the legendary movie star Bruce Lee, this pop-up exhibition has already popped up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. In 2017, it comes to the Freer|Sackler, along with a plethora of film screenings, discussions, and performances exploring these long-running cross-cultural connections.

Fab and Sean

Fab and Sean

In September, Fab, Sean, and I convened in Fab’s studio for a brainstorming session that resulted in what I think will be some truly amazing, fun, and informative events to be held at the Freer|Sackler, NMAAHC, and possibly elsewhere. I can’t reveal the details now, but be sure to mark your calendars for what we hope will be an entirely new Smithsonian experience welcoming an entirely new kind of museum to the fold.

High Fashion for Muslim Wear

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

New designs from Java strutted down the catwalk on September 10, kicking off this year’s Performing Indonesia festival and its theme of Islamic Intersections. Held at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design, the fashion show featured fresh garments for Muslim women created by Meeta Fauzen and Helen Dewi Krana, two leading designers from Indonesia. Fauzen took the time to answer a few questions about her creations.

Bento: Why have you been inspired to design for Muslim women?

Meeta Fauzen: After returning from the hajj, I started to wear Muslim dress. I wanted to create Muslim wear that fits my style. I learned how to design Muslim women’s fashion to give people more choices.

B: How would you describe your design aesthetic or approach?

MF: My design aesthetic is simple and elegant, to make it easy for Muslim women. And I mix my designs with Indonesian traditional fabrics such as batik and tenun.

B: How have your designs been received at home and abroad?

MF: In Indonesia, I have several customers in my hometown, Bandung, and in other cities such as Bogor, Jakarta, Surabaya, and Batam. And from abroad, I have also some clients in countries where I’ve done my show, such as Perth, Kuala Lumpur, the United States, and eastern Europe, although it’s not a big number yet.

There were big numbers for the show on September 10: a capacity crowd of two hundred guests filled the Corcoran Gallery atrium. The runway presentation was preceded by a lecture and discussion with anthropologist Carla Jones of the University of Colorado, as well as a Q&A with the designers.

The Performing Indonesia festival is made possible through a partnership with the Embassy of Indonesia, and this year is held in cooperation with George Washington University. See what’s in store.

Performing Indonesia: Andy McGraw, musician and teacher


Andy McGraw plays the kendang drum with Gamelan Raga Kusuma, one of the ensembles that will perform on September 22.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Andy McGraw, who was involved in the festival’s planning, is part of two ensembles performing the evening of September 22. An associate professor of music at the University of Richmond, McGraw describes himself as “a dad, an ethnomusicologist with wide research interests and a performer of many kinds of musics.” 

Q: When and why did you take an interest in Indonesian music?

A: In 1995, I was playing in a jazz band in Kansas City (my hometown) when I was contacted by someone in Singapore interested in a temporary house trade. One of the musicians in the jazz band had studied in Indonesia and suggested I go and retrieve some instruments he had left in Bali. So I arranged to have a friend cover my drum-set students, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I headed over to a part of the world neither of us knew anything about.

After exploring Singapore, she headed north to Malaysia and I headed south to Indonesia, without a guidebook or any knowledge of the language. I immediately became lost in the chain of islands between Singapore and Sumatra. I rode sailboats up river into Central Sumatra, where I spent several days believing I was in Java. After several more days of travel through Sumatra and Java, mainly by “goat class” train cars, I ended up in Bali.

Throughout this passage, I was amazed by the striking cultural differences (music, language, food) between villages and humbled by the consistent generosity I was shown. Despite being completely ignorant of local customs, likely committing faux pas after faux pas, I was almost always treated with patience and grace.

When I arrived in Bali, I began studying with I Wayan Gandra. With his father I Madé Lebah, Gandra had led the first Balinese tour to America in 1952 (famously appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show). On my second night on the island, he took me to see not a tourist performance, but a mabarung temple festival contest between two of Bali’s finest gamelan ensembles. I had never experienced such intense musicianship. The cohesion of the ensemble, in absence of conductor or notation, introduced me to social and musical forms I did not think were possible. I was immediately hooked.


McGraw plays cello with the kroncong ensemble Rumput, also performing on September 22.

Q: You teach courses about global music. Why should students—particularly American students—study this subject?

A: My primary teaching goal is to introduce students to aesthetic difference: to challenge students’ aesthetic common sense by exposing them to musical systems foreign to their prior experience. This is intended to perform two ethical functions: 1) to demonstrate the mutability and variability of human culture globally, reminding individuals that their own culture is constructed and changeable and 2) to instill a sense of expansive collectivity: that they have a link, and maybe even a kind of loyalty, to people they have never met, to people that represent the cultures they are studying.

Music evolved primarily to foster social relationships. Its very ambiguity (we never agree exactly on its meanings) allows us to connect through it (we can all agree that it feels good). That shared emotion creates empathy. When an American student shares a concrete musical experience of joy with a visiting Indonesian musician, for instance, they establish a connection that would be difficult to forge through writing, or online, or even through casual conversation. But beyond that, it connects that student in a concrete way not only to another individual but to “the Balinese” and “Indonesians” in a way I don’t believe a history book (or, more often today, Wikipedia) can.

It is crucial that young Americans develop a felt empathy for as many cultures as possible. I’m talking about informed, specified understandings and interests in concrete cultures, not some vague, generalized camaraderie or cosmopolitanism, which I don’t think does much to energize a real sense of obligation. Being the foremost military and economic power in the world today, America can wreak historically unprecedented levels of damage globally, but it also holds almost immeasurable potential for enacting positive change. The better informed individuals are about the world and its cultures, the more likely they are to act in ways that sustain and respect those cultures. Most importantly, the more likely they are to listen to those cultures.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

Q: Tell me a bit about your plans for the September 22 performance.

A: My primary plans for the September 22 performance are to not make any mistakes! Momenta is a wonderful ensemble, and although I’ve performed with them before, I’ll admit I’m a bit afraid! I am excited about this performance partly because of the wide variety of genres on the program. I Wayan Yudane and Jack Body’s House in Bali is a lush, lyrical work that buzzes with the incommensurable tuning clashes between Western and Balinese instruments. Tony Prabowo’s works lean towards the more austere style of global modernism. Thrown into the mix are Indonesian kroncong asli tunes, which the visiting Indonesian singer Ubiet Raseuki has recently been reviving. Kroncong is a “light classical” form that was very popular in independence-era Indonesia (circa 1950s–60s) with a deeply nostalgic resonance. This form is almost never heard in America. Both Gamelan Raga Kusuma and Orkes Kroncong Rumput, the Balinese and kroncong ensembles we have in Virginia, are working hard in preparation!

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away?

A: I want the audience to take away a sense of the incredible variety and vibrancy of Indonesia’s musical ecology. Most importantly, I hope they come to see Indonesia not only as host to many different kinds of “traditional” music but experimental, modernist, collaborative, and classical musics as well. I hope that audience members do not get aesthetic whiplash! Finally, I also hope audience members feel free to ask questions after the concert and to stick around to interact with the gamelan and kroncong instruments.

Reserve tickets now for Strings Meet Gamelan: Chamber Music from Indonesia on September 22. 

Notes from the Desert

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill's, stares down from a tree. Her gaze challenges the viewer. 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, a personal friend of Gill’s, stares down from a tree, challenging the viewer’s gaze. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; S2014.16

Tomorrow, we debut Notes from a Desert, comprising recollections and photographs by contemporary artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been photographing marginalized communities in the remote desert region of western Rajasthan, India.

In 2003, she was asked to participate in a Balika Mela, a fair that provides girls the opportunity to learn and play in a safe environment. Gill led workshops teaching basic photography and darkroom techniques. Reminiscent of the traditional itinerant photographer who would travel from village to village with his equipment, Gill also invited the girls to have their portraits taken in a makeshift studio. She gathered backdrops and props from local sources and asked the sitters to choose how and with whom they wanted to be photographed.

From the more than eighty portraits, Gill chose only a few to be printed at close to life-size; three are on display at the Sackler, including the one below. With a direct gaze and slightly clenched hands, Kanta conveys a sense of determination and cautious self-awareness. The spare use of props, plain backdrops, and natural desert light emphasize Gill’s subjects, while the large scale of the black-and-white prints asserts an iconic, self-empowered status.

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

A key figure in Gill’s work in Rajasthan is Izmat, a single mother she has known for nearly two decades. Gill repeatedly photographed Izmat, whom the artist has described as a “strong woman of tremendous character despite having lived a very difficult life,” and her two daughters, Jannat (1984–2007) and Hooran. In the portrait at top from the series Notes from the Desert (1999–present), Izmat’s face emerges from the dark foliage of a tree set against the blinding light of the desert sky. Barely perceptible in the stark landscape and shot from below, she challenges the viewer’s gaze.

Gill frequently revisits her vast archive of negatives and composes different series around a central theme. In 2011, she gathered under the title Jannat forty-four photographs and eight facsimiles of letters that she and Izmat had exchanged. This group of fifty-two prints, one for each week of the year, is a poignant memorial to Izmat’s daughter who died at twenty-three. A portrayal of Jannat unfolds through glimpses of the joy, pain, and tenderness of everyday life.

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Witness these images in person when Notes from the Desert opens tomorrow. Visit between 2 and 4 pm for a chance to meet Gill and ask her about the stories her photographs tell.

Reviving “The Death of the Historical Buddha”


Standing sixteen feet tall, The Death of the Historical Buddha by Japanese artist Hanabusa Itchō is among the most important Buddhist paintings of its time. Two of our conservators recently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help restore this massive hanging scroll, which hasn’t been treated and remounted since the 1850s. With the help of a GoPro camera, we’re able to give a quick look at their many hours of work. Below, supervisory conservator Andrew Hare talks about the project and the conservation processes seen in these time lapses.

Fellow conservator Jiro Ueda and I headed up to Boston in August to join the MFA’s conservation project. Over the past month, we have helped restore and remount a large Buddhist painting in one of their galleries, with public access available throughout the process.

As seen in the video above, we applied a temporary facing to the painting (front and back) using water and several layers of synthetic and Chinese papers. This process protects the painting’s surface while gently drawing away staining and soiling. We then placed the painting between layers of felt to dry.



Next, we covered the work table with several layers of protective paper. We then laid the painting on the work surface and humidified it before removing the temporary facing from the front. After more humidifying, we turned the painting face down on the table. We removed sections of the old lining paper that covered creases in the work, and then brushed out those sections to expand the creases and make the painting flat.



In the third video, we are carefully removing the old lining paper from the back of the painting using tweezers and bamboo spatulas. This is careful and time-consuming work. To complete the removal as efficiently as possible, Chinese painting conservation colleagues from the MFA Boston team joined in to help. As we removed large sections of the old lining, about a quarter of the painting at a time, we applied a new lining of thin Mino paper with wheat starch paste. Once the entire painting was relined, we again left it to dry between felt.

The project continues in Boston, where the public can watch the conservators at work. Follow along on our blog and the MFA‘s.