Friday Fave: Chape of a Scabbard

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

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

I first encountered this exquisite chape while visiting the Freer Gallery several years before I began to work here. Created in India during the seventeenth century, it is an ornamental covering for the tip of a scabbard. To my mind, it stands on its own as a work of art.

Indian art of the Mughal period is known for its sensitivity to detail and a delight in forms from the natural world. Like so much great Mughal art, this iron and gold chape exists as a world in itself—one you can return to again and again. And so I used to return to the Freer to rediscover it when it was on display. When it wasn’t, there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, but I never forgot it and it was one of the first works of art I looked up when I arrived.

Like the leaves and flowers it depicts, the chape appears to have been created effortlessly by nature. It is possible to forget that a skilled artisan painstakingly etched out the fractal, interlocking plant forms and filled them with inlaid gold. There appear to be four or five kinds of flowers depicted—one of them a poppy—and six little butterflies lie nestled in the leaves. The intimate power of its scale and the economy of its form make the chape a marvel to behold. Yes, it was created for wealthy tastes that reveled in fine decoration, but from the vantage point of our consumer culture awash in mass-produced things, this little wonder is a reminder that the natural world is the original source of elegance. A true work of art speaks for itself and can be astonishing at any scale.

Friday Fave: Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

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

It’s not a piece I paid a lot of attention to at first. At first glance, the statue is almost forlorn, a robed Buddha missing head and hands. I appreciated it abstractly but never looked very closely at it.

The project that would become SmithsonianX3D changed all that. The Cosmic Buddha was chosen as one of the pieces to showcase for the launch of the 3D site, and I had the chance to learn so much more about this fascinating statue while working with Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art, and the Smithsonian digitization team. For example, the decoration on the stone robes is not just abstract imagery, but rich illustrations depicting the Buddhist “Realms of Existence” and scenes from the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The stories are told in bands stacked up the front and back of the Buddha. Wear and tear on the low relief carvings show that the Buddha was cleaned and cared for, and probably had scholars taking rubbings of the imagery.

Now, the Cosmic Buddha—as well as Promise of Paradise, the exhibition in which the sculpture is featured—are my favorite things in the Freer. I still love to wander through the gallery and study the Buddha, and try to picture what the missing head and hands were like (we don’t know, though we can make an educated guess from existing depictions of the Vairochana—the Cosmic Buddha).

Next time you’re at the Freer, look closer at the Buddha. Don’t forget that you can explore it online, too, and learn more at 3d.si.edu.

Celebrate the Lunar New Year at Freer|Sackler

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Greetings from the ImaginAsia family program!

To ring in the Year of the Sheep, we are hosting our first annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 21, from 11 am to 4 pm. Throughout the day, visitors of all ages can learn, play, and indulge in culinary delights to mark the new year in China, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.

Visitors can explore the Freer|Sackler’s rich collections through educator-led tours, sample and learn how to make Lunar New Year-themed recipes with author Pat Tanumihardja, and discover the history and traditions of the holiday through book readings hosted by the DC Public Library. Other activities include creating festive good-luck figures with handmade paper and pop-up greeting cards with Sushmita Mazumdar, a local book artist.

This event, held in the midst of the fifteen-day holiday, is co-organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Can’t wait for Saturday? Send a Lunar New Year e-card now!

Grey Matters

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

No. 5; Takiguchi Kazuo (born 1953); Kyoto, Japan, Heisei era, 1996; stoneware with dark gray matte textured glaze; Purchase—John and Marinka Bennett, S1997.33

Well, we all know what movie you saw last weekend. Enough said.

But why be satisfied with a mere fifty shades of grey? The Freer|Sackler’s newly digitized collections contain more than four hundred objects featuring most every kind of grey known to man … and woman. Enter grey (or gray, if you prefer) into the search, and hundreds of works of art will become available for your viewing, study, and personal pleasure.

Curious? Check out Open F|S and enter a world you’ve always wanted to know more about.

Valentine’s Day Cards: Be(ad) Mine?

Heart-shaped bead; Egypt, New Kingdom, 1550–1197 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.1462

Heart-shaped bead; Egypt, New Kingdom, 1550–1197 BCE; glass; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.1462

Forget something? I’ll wait.

Yes, that’s right. It’s Valentine’s Day. If panic is setting in because you forgot to send your loved one a card, fear not (or Freer not, as we like to say around here), we’re here for you. Choose an e-card specially selected from the Freer|Sackler collections and all will be right with your valentine. And thanks to our recent digitization effort, Open F|S, the images will not only fill a screen, but a heart as well.

You’re welcome.

Friday Fave: Tea Bowl

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

Tea bowl, possibly Satsuma ware; possibly Kagoshima prefecture, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with clear, crackled glaze, stained by ink; gold lacquer repairs; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.323

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

This Japanese tea bowl from the 17th century is beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. It’s stoneware with a crackled glaze, and most likely a Satsuma ware vessel, a style of Japanese ceramic associated with the region formerly known by that name. It seems perfect on its own, but it’s rich with narrative and has a story to tell. Sometime during its life, the tea bowl broke and shattered into pieces. It was repaired using powdered gold sprinkled over repairs made in lacquer. It became a graceful alternative to the traditional Chinese method of using staples to repair ceramics. The technique became known as “golden joinery” (kintsugi) or “golden concealment” (kintsuguroi). The broken object is not only fixed, but somehow transformed. Apparently, as the technique developed over the centuries, some people may have deliberately broken their bowls so that they could make a plain vessel more interesting and valuable by adding a golden repair.

When I look at the bowl, I don’t see damage. The break and repair have made it more beautiful. It looks to me like an artist has riffed on a Japanese poem of a moon entangled in the branches of a tree, and etched it onto the bowl.

Though today is Friday the 13th, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Good follows bad—and the same goes for luck. What you may think is broken today could be something you cherish tomorrow.

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.

* * *

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