art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

The Power of Koringa

Koringa, a magicienne of the 1930s, creatively reimagined yogic referents to enhance the allure of her act

Koringa, a magicienne of the 1930s, creatively reimagined yogic referents to enhance the allure of her act.

Hetty Lipscomb is development writer and stewardship manager at Freer|Sackler.

It takes some kind of woman to take on a crocodile. Look magazine’s cover from September 1937 shows Koringa, the beautiful mystic, crouched low, staring down her adversary. She positions her arms like the jaws of the croc, only wider to intimidate him. A caste mark on her forehead glows red like a third eye, suggesting hypnotic powers.

She claimed to be from India, orphaned at the age of three and raised by fakirs who taught her magic so that she could charm snakes, read minds, or walk on beds of shattered glass. In truth, she was Renée Bernard (1913–1976) a dancer from Bordeaux, who was a member of a traveling circus, a popular entertainment in France from the 19th century on. Bernard’s main act was a quick-footed dance on a ladder made of sword blades. Her performance impressed the Mills Brothers of England, who immediately engaged her as a star attraction of Bertram Mills‘ Circus and Menagerie.

Reflecting the public’s romanticized fascination with India, Bernard and the Mills Brothers created the persona of Koringa, “The Only Female Fakir in the World.” A striking woman, Bernard heightened her exotic look with “Orientalist” costumes—short leopard-print dresses or pantaloons with sequined tops—and a dramatic, auerole hairstyle. She dusted her body with a green-tinged powder before performances to give her a glowing, otherworldly appearance. A poster for Mills Circus in the Sackler’s upcoming exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation shows Koringa in green, posed like the Look cover only surrounded by snakes as well as crocodiles. Koringa remained with the Mills Brothers through the 1960s, touring England, France, and South Africa.

A fierce, 10th century yogini goddess in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.905

A fierce, 10th-century yogini goddess in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.905

Today, we may see Koringa as a product of a colonialist fantasy of India and “the exotic woman.” But Koringa’s attributes of the crocodile and snake also appear on a 10th-century sculpture of a yogini goddess in the Sackler’s collections. One of a cult of goddesses worshiped in a temple at Tamil Nadu in Kaveripakkam, south India, the yogini came to the aid of the faithful and helped them achieve worldly powers and success. Renée Bernard’s Koringa can be interpreted as an homage to these ancient goddesses, who in turn helped her achieve fame and fortune.

Want to contribute to the Yoga exhibition? Donate to our “Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Tags:
Posted by in Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Book Yoga: The Other Yoga Boom

Curator Debra Diamond preparing presentation on “The Roots of Yoga” at Jaipur Literary Festival, January 24, 2013. Left to right: Debra Diamond, David Gordon White, Birad Rajaram Yajnik, Mark Singleton, Sir James Mallinson (photo by Neil Greentree)

Curator Debra Diamond preparing presentation on “The Roots of Yoga” at Jaipur Literary Festival, January 24, 2013.
Left to right: Debra Diamond, David Gordon White, Birad Rajaram Yajnik, Mark Singleton, Sir James Mallinson
(photo by Neil Greentree)

Cathryn Keller, senior advisor and producer for external affairs, is writing a book on yoga in Europe during World War II.

Summer is the ideal time to add some yoga reading to your practice. Review your yoga summer reading list below, and read on for details about what you’ll learn.

Alongside the global yoga boom, there’s been an exciting explosion of insights into yoga’s past and present. Scholars are tracing yoga’s origins, meanings, and changes through history, anthropology, sociology, and religious studies—and now, for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, through art history and visual culture. Before the exhibition opens on October 19, we can delve into fascinating reads by authors who are contributing to its catalogue—the first art book to provide a visual context for contemporary yoga—and who will share new research at the Freer|Sackler’s public symposium in November.

As the body is central to both yoga and Indian art, Mark Singleton’s fascinating and accessible Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice is a great place to start. For lighter reading, check out this interview with Singleton and catalogue author James Mallinson, and Modern Yoga Research, a website Singleton maintains with his teacher Elizabeth De Michelis and emerging scholar Suzanne Newcombe.

Yoga is an embodied practice, a means to transcend physical and metaphysical suffering. We can preview the themes of nationalism, health and the body in South Asia, in the forthcoming catalogue essay on “Metaphysical Fitness” by Joseph S. Alter, an anthropologist of medicine who was born in India, in his book Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Philosophy and Science.

The exhibition will provide new views of places where yoga has been practiced, portrayed, and researched, from medieval temples to the caves and forest huts of ascetics to early twentieth-century gyms and clinics. Worth contemplating: the yogic landscapes in curator Debra Diamond’s award-winning Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur and the temple sculptures in her teacher Vidya Dehejia‘s many books on Indian art.

You can also visit the Freer|Sackler this summer to preview one of the treasures that will be on view in the exhibition. Watch Diamond interpret its representation of the paradox of the yoga body in our latest video.

On the beach or on the way to work, yoga reading is a relaxing and stimulating way to prepare for Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Yoga Summer Reading List

Joseph Alter, Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Philosophy and Science (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Vidya Dehejia, The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)

Debra Diamond (editor), Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (London: Thames and Hudson, 2010)

James Mallinson (translator), The Shiva Samhita: A Critical Edition and An English Translation (Woodstock, NY: yogavidya.com, 2007)

Elizabeth de Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (London: Continuum, 2004)

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

David Gordon White (editor), Yoga in Practice (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012)

Birad Rajaram Yajnik, The Great Indian Yoga Masters, Tracing 2500 Years of Yoga (Hyderabad, India: Visual Quest Books, 2009)

Want to contribute to the exhibition? Donate to our ”Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Tags:
Posted by in Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Putting Our Heads Together to Make Yoga History

Vishvarupa

Krishna Vishvarupa, ca. 1740, India; Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection

A week ago today we kicked off Together We’re One, our Razoo crowdfunding campaign to support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition of yogic art. Opening this October at the Sackler, Yoga will include temple sculptures, devotional icons, and vibrant manuscripts, as well as early-modern photographs, books, and films.

Because of yoga’s broad appeal, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to launch a crowdfunding campaign, enabling lots of people to get involved in helping us make yoga history.

The image we’ve chosen for the campaign was painted in the eighteenth century, but we felt like it was speaking to us today. The deity Krishna is known as “Master of Yoga” in the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, when he reveals his infinite cosmic form (Vishvarupa), which encompasses all time, space, and beings. An artist from the Himalayan foothills of India evoked the vast and proliferating universe by depicting Krishna with sixty multicolored heads and forty-four pinwheeling arms.

Everyone on the Razoo team loved this image for the campaign because it evokes a community working together. Debra Diamond, curator of the exhibition, also recommended this image because one of yoga’s most powerful transformations is realizing that the self and the universe are one.

Learn more about the campaign, and email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved!

Tags:
Posted by in Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Transformation and the Art of Yoga

Folio 6B from a Gulshan; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; ELS2013.1.174

Folio 6B from a Gulshan; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; ELS2013.1.174

Elizabeth Axelson, Siobhan Donnelly, and Natalie Creamer are interns in the office of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

On May 29, we celebrated the launch of our first crowdfunding campaign, a month-long effort to support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on yogic art. During the event, we talked to guests about their passion for yoga and what transformation means to them.

Among those in attendance was Valerie Grange, cofounder and codirector of DC’s Buddha B Yoga Center. Adorned in crystals and a fuchsia sari—recently purchased by the yogini on a trip to India—Grange told us, “Transformation in the context of yoga is the idea of evolving on a spiritual and physical level.”

Valerie Grange of DC's Buddha B Yoga Center.

Valerie Grange of DC’s Buddha B Yoga Center

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa teach, practice, and partake of the yoga lifestyle at the Guru Ram Das Ashram in Herndon, Virginia. Dressed in all white and wearing turbans, the couple discussed their long history with yoga. Gurumeet noted that their practice began by reading books and meeting with a teacher. Today, she explained, the couple practices “Kundalini yoga and the Sikh way of life.” While many people think of yoga as an exercise featuring postures, the Khalsas were quick to point out that “yoga is more than just posture—posture is only one-eighth” of the equation. While postures, also known as asanas, are part of yoga, they are the least important part, according to the Khalsas. “Yoga means ‘union’ and requires discipline,” noted Gurumeet. “We love all kinds of yoga.”

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa with exhibition curator, Debra Diamond.

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa with exhibition curator Debra Diamond

Ceren Ozer, a member of the Freer|Sackler’s Silk Road Society, brought along a few of her friends to the launch party. When we asked why she practiced yoga, Ceren explained, “It’s a way to get relaxed and centered. It’s not only the act of us doing sun salutations. Physical activities are a way for us to be prepared for meditation. In a given day, I try to become centered if I get too … all over the place [by] breathing and being aware of my emotions.”

Ceren Ozer, a member of the Silk Road Society at right with a friend

Ceren Ozer (right), a member of the Silk Road Society, with a friend

Finally, we asked Sara VanderGoot, cofounder and owner of the local Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga studios, what transformation meant to her. Her definition, she answered, is “being present in every moment and knowing that we are always in transformation.” As someone very involved with yoga, she said she was excited that the exhibition will expose the public to the history and other aspects of yoga.

Sara VanderGoot (left), cofounder and studio owner of Mind the Mat Pilates and Yoga.

Sara VanderGoot (left), cofounder and owner of Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga

Visit our website to learn more about the campaign, or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Namaste,
Lizzy, Siobhan, and Natalie

Tags:
Posted by in Exhibitions, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Together We’re One: Crowdfunding our Yoga Exhibition

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Miranda Gale is project manager of Together We’re One.

On Wednesday, May 29, the Freer|Sackler will launch the Smithsonian’s first major crowdfunding campaign, “Together we’re one.” The campaign will support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on yogic art, opening this October at the Sackler Gallery. You may have read about the campaign in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington City Paper, or DCist, or perhaps heard about it on NBC Washington—but what exactly is “Together we’re one,” and why did we choose to launch the campaign in the first place? Here are the answers to our most frequently asked questions as we prepare to make yoga history over the next five weeks.

Why crowdfunding?
We’re trying a new (to us, at least!) and innovative fundraising approach worthy of a new and innovative exhibition. Crowdfunding is not too different from our other fundraising efforts; we’re just asking more people for a smaller amount of money, rather than asking a few people or corporations for a large amount of money. Since so many people practice and are enthusiastic about yoga, we’re choosing a format that allows everyone to get involved, not just those who have the means to make large donations.

Why does the Smithsonian need money? Don’t our taxes fund the museums?

While federal taxpayer funding covers some of our costs (mostly operating costs, such as keeping the galleries clean and the lights on), private and public support—whether from donors, sponsors, or grants—cover the majority of expenses related to exhibitions and programming. We rely on public and private support to offer our programs and exhibitions free of charge to the public. Private and public support for the Yoga exhibition will help us create videos, publications, and pamphlets; print catalogs (and sell them for a much more reasonable price than through a bookstore!); offer yoga classes during the exhibition, and more.

The cost of putting on a major exhibition like this one is high—but not unusual for the Freer|Sackler. It is simply necessary for keeping the artwork and visitors safe and ensuring a quality experience for both.

How will my money be used?
Yoga: The Art of Transformation, a longtime labor of love for the Freer|Sackler, will bring more than 130 artworks from around the world to Washington, DC. The associated costs are high. All donations will fund the unexciting but expensive logistics (shipping, mounting, lighting, paint, cases, labels), plus the fun aspects that allow us to better share the exhibition’s content with the public: workshops for adults and families, yoga classes in the exhibit space, a yoga festival, pamphlets and other takeaway materials, honorariums for speakers and teachers, a comprehensive website, and videos. It will also support a public symposium that will bring international art and yoga scholars to DC, and the production of a full-color exhibition catalog, the first on yogic art.

Visit our website to learn more about the campaign, or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Namaste!

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

The Paper Chase: Making Japanese Books

Handmade books and paper from Pyramid Atlantic.

Examples of books you can make at our Inner-Artist Workshops: The Art of Japanese Pouch-books

The Freer|Sackler has teamed up with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center to offer six Japanese book-making workshops for adults in conjunction with the exhibition Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books. F|S educator Joanna Pecore chatted with Pyramid Atlantic’s artistic director, Gretchen Schermerhorn, about these events, which will take place on selected weekends through the end of June.

Joanna: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Gretchen. Can you tell me about your work with making papers and books?

Gretchen: I am a printmaker and paper-maker. I started making paper around 10 years ago and have since been trained in making both Western and Asian papers. I am also specifically interested in woodblock printing.

Joanna: What inspired you to begin making paper?

Gretchen: In graduate school, one of my professors taught a paper-making class. At the time, I wondered why anyone would want or need to make paper. It is so easy to purchase. Then, I learned about everything that goes into it: the vision, what it is made from, and the control involved in the process. There is so much variation in what can be done.

Joanna: Can you tell me about Pyramid Atlantic?

Gretchen: It is an art center in Silver Spring, Maryland, dedicated to the preservation and creation of prints, paper, and book arts. We offer all kinds of opportunities, like residencies, internships, and classes. Visiting artists come from all over the world to share their art at our center. What’s more important, though, is that we do it all: paper, prints, and books. We explore how all of these elements relate to each other. They are all important to the process of bookmaking. People can do it all under one roof at Pyramid Atlantic.

Joanna: What can participants expect when they join your workshops at the Sackler?

Gretchen: They will to get to create a book and a print inspired by works in the Hand-Held exhibition. After the workshop, they will be able to really understand how the books in the exhibition were made, especially how they were bound and printed. It ties into exhibit. It is not just an art project.

Joanna: What is unique about this opportunity?

Gretchen: This is an authentic experience. It is really exciting for me. Although I have been doing stab binding—the type of binding used in the “pouch-books”—for years, this is the first time I have tried to replicate how it was done in Japan. And we are going to use the “pouch” technique. We haven’t done that before. This workshop is an incredibly rare and affordable way for participants to get this experience.

The first classes begin this weekend. Check the F|S website for the complete schedule.

Tags:
Posted by in Japanese Art, Workshop | No Comments

Charles Lang Freer: A Wild and Crazy Guy?

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, takes a closer look at American art this month in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened its doors to the public on May 2, 1923.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Charles Lang Freer, captain of industry, connoisseur of fine art, and, eventually, founder of the Freer Gallery, was also a fan of banjo music. In 1897, he arranged for a famous banjo trio, the Doré Brothers, to travel from New York City to Detroit, where they performed at a formal dinner at the exclusive Detroit Club in honor of club-member Russell Alger’s appointment as Secretary of War under President McKinley. (Alger, a Civil War veteran, had made a fortune in the lumber business and was a major shareholder in Freer’s Peninsular Car Company.) On the evening of January 20, the Doré Brothers played a specially commissioned piece, “The Detroit Club March.” Freer, writing to American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (another Doré Brothers fan), praised their performance as a great success.

Was there a wild and crazy guy behind that pince-nez and starched collar? Maybe … but then again, maybe not. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a movement among some musicians to “elevate” the banjo, distancing it from its African origins and subsequent association with minstrel shows. By the 1880s, the banjo had become nearly as popular as the piano among wealthy, novelty-seeking young women. It was a full-blown fad on college campuses, whose banjo clubs typically performed orchestra-fashion, with guitars and mandolins. Professionals, among them the Doré Brothers, appeared in tuxedos and played serious European music arranged for banjo: well-known works by Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin were all part of the banjo repertoire in the 1890s. “The Detroit Club March” wasn’t exactly high art, though, and it’s nice to think of what one Gilded Age critic called the banjo’s “half-barbaric twang … in harmony with the unmechanical melodies of the birds” enlivening a winter gathering of capitalists in black tie.

[Sources: Philadelphia Music and Drama, 1891; Thomas Wilmer to Charles Lang Freer, February 16, [1897] and March 2, [1897], Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives]

Posted by in A Closer Look, American Art | No Comments

Nomads and Networks: Archaeologists Between Digs

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Claudia blogged for Bento from Kazakhstan during the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan at the Sackler last fall.

My friends and even a former professor used to joke that archaeologists have a kind of schizophrenic life. We have lovely summers working in the field, doing surveys and excavations. During the winter months, we find ourselves in the laboratory, counting sherds, transposing field notes, and waiting for all the specialists’ reports to be completed, from the radiometric dates of ancient hearths to the metallurgical studies of ancient bronzes. In fact, this charmed existence of field archaeology usually means that you pay for all those good times in the field; for every week of fieldwork you need about three times that for laboratory cataloging, cleaning and processing artifacts, counting, creating statistics and spreadsheets, writing up reports, and interpreting the data. Most of us have learned to make our “deal with the devil.” Since January 1, 2013, I have been holed up in my attic office in Virginia, overlooking the foothills of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by books, papers, and articles, writing the early chapters of a book on Iron Age research on the Talgar fan

The view out my window is lovely this afternoon, as the sun sets on Paul’s Mountain. I am surrounded by books that range from the philosophy of science to Bronze Age Eurasia. Right now it seems impossible to condense 18 years of fieldwork, let alone the past five months of research on the Talgar fan, into any kind of readable narrative, either for an academic audience or myself.

Recently, Rebecca Beardmore, a PhD student in archaeology at University College, London, called me by Skype from Birmingham, England, where she had just finished graphing all the phytolith counts she made during the 2011 field season at Tuzusai, our Iron Age settlement site. Phytoliths, or plant stones, are the silicate cells of ancient plant remains that can be trapped in archaeological soils, such as ancient mudbricks. Rebecca’s analysis, conducted with a scanning electron microscope, has shown that the reddish-yellow and yellow mudbrick samples have lower densities of ancient plant materials than the brown-red and greenish mudbricks. All four samples of mudbrick seem to have some remnants of wheat plants, as well as wild grass parts, both husks and leaves. This means that the Iron Age builders at Tuzusai probably dumped a bunch of plant material into pits where they mixed the mudbricks, which then formed the walls, floors, and ramps of the adobe architecture we have discovered. But why do some bricks have higher densities of plant material than others?

That question sent me back to my field notes from 2011, which include chicken-scratch drawings of the red-brown and green mudbricks. Those mudbricks appear on my sketches to be large wall or foundation features, while the yellow or reddish-yellow ones are usually the tops of the platform or just beneath the plastered floors. Could it be that the ancient inhabitants of Tuzusai put more straw and debris into the foundation walls and less in the floor bricks? I told Rebecca that she should rename her thesis, “The Unseen Archaeological Record.” She says maybe she’ll title the thesis, “Down and Dirty, Mudbrick and Animal Dung.” Good thing I have those sketches of mudbricks in my notebook.

After we left Tuzusai last fall, the archaeological facts come now from the laboratory, the field notebooks, and an occasional inspiration I might have while staring out the window at the mocking bird perched on the crab apple tree. Central Virginia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains seem faraway from the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, but lest I forget, a large map of the Upper Asi Valley is pinned to the wall by my desk.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments

The Art of the Book

Case Study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Case study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer collection

On Saturday, April 6, Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books opens in the Sackler. In honor of the exhibition, we’re hosting a weekend celebrating Japanese arts and design. Check our calendar to learn more about the events that include tours, talks, hands-on activities, and music.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Family Day, Japanese Art | No Comments

Kilnsites and Campsites in Cambodia

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

Louise Cort is curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler.

Plop! … Plop! Oh dear, are those fat raindrops striking my ultralight tent? And is there a crowd of people outside the tent speaking French? Those were among the confused thoughts of my first night camping in Cambodia. I awoke to realize: No, not raindrops but large, glossy, oval leaves from the trees above our forest campsite. And, not French but Khmer, as people from the nearby village arrived before daybreak to cook breakfast for the members of our kilnsite excavation workshop.

Some twenty of us were camped at the foot of a mound concealing a kilnsite that had last been seen by the potters who operated the kiln in the twelfth or thirteenth century, using it to make large brown-glazed stoneware storage jars. (We knew that much from fragments of jars scattered over the mound.) Our job was to excavate the kiln, exposing it once again in order to understand the technology that made it work. Like a fingerprint, the kiln’s distinctive structure would offer clues to its place in the chronology of ceramics production during the centuries when the great urban complex of Angkor was capitol of much of mainland Southeast Asia.

Asleep beneath thatched roofs and mosquito nets elsewhere in the camp were seventeen young archaeologists from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Yunnan (China), and Germany. Also out there were Australian archaeologist Don Hein and Cambodian archaeologist Ea Darith, who would share their knowledge and experience with us. A grant awarded to the Freer|Sackler by the Henry Luce Foundation made our gathering possible.

I’m writing this while temporarily back at the museum, but I’m acutely aware of activities at the campsite, twelve hours ahead around the globe. The daily schedule there: wake-up, breakfast, morning briefing, work, lunch and rest, afternoon briefing, work, bath, dinner, sleep. In a few days, I’ll return to Cambodia, and to my tent, and to the kiln. Can’t wait.

Learn more about Southeast Asian art in our collections.

Posted by in Ceramics | 2 Comments