art outside the box | the freer | sackler blog

A Flowerful Fourth

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion.

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion; photo by F|S intern Katherine Nau

Did your July 4th go off with a boom? Ours at the Sackler is more of a bloom. In honor of the holiday, Cheyenne Kim, Smithsonian horticultural specialist, created a unique display that proves that fireworks don’t always have to be loud … or, even outdoors. Sometimes, quiet and contemplative is best.

If you’re planning a visit this weekend, don’t miss the flowers!


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Fireworks!

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, S2003.8.1195

Fireworks at Ryōgoku, 1880, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Robert O. Muller Collection; S2003.8.1195

Kobayashi Kiyochika is known for his night scenes in much the same way that James McNeill Whistler is renowned for his Nocturnes. Both men were poets of the night, and will be featured in related exhibitions at the Freer|Sackler in 2014.

In Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ryōgoku, two boats converge for Kawabiraki, a fireworks display held in mid-July to open the river to summer pleasure boats. In earlier times, fireworks had been used as part of a purification ritual to ward off summer illness. By Kiyochika’s time, the display had lost that earlier meaning and was more of a spectacle.

Kiyochika is not the first artist to depict this scene, but his novel use of light to illuminate the foreground adds a cinematic touch to the print. The members of both boating parties—traveling in a palace boat (yakatabune) on the right and a roof boat (yanebune) at left—cast silhouettes that make the revelers look as if they were sailing across a movie screen.

Happy July 4 from the Freer|Sackler!


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Danielle Probst: From Child’s Pose to Yoga Messenger

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst is marketing manager for River’s Edge Yoga studio in Alexandria and Virginia Yoga Week. In her role as Yoga Messenger, Danielle is helping to get the word out about our upcoming exhibition, Yoga: Art of Transformation.

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve spent many hours in museums, first as a child with the ubiquitous school tour, then, more memorably, as a teen. Back in the days before teens lived on their cell phones, I was a museum hound. My mother, a single parent, was more than willing to send me to this “Mall” to wander for hours. With a Metro farecard and a sandwich in my bag, the Freer|Sackler was among my favorite haunts. I recall stepping into the cool, quiet galleries, a refuge from the jungle-grade humidity of a Washington August.

What drew me in first was an interest in India. Small paintings, like pages from fantastic, magical books, lay upright in glass cases. These exquisite pictures amazed me with their vibrant colors, gold leaf, and miniature brushstrokes a hair’s breadth wide, bringing to life sari-garbed girls by the river being wooed by a playful young man with blue skin. These tiny worlds frozen on paper sucked me in and I was transported, and hooked.

The terrifying faces of wrathful deities on giant thangkas held me in awe. Gnashing teeth, blood dripping from swords, eyes rolling in wrath—I could almost feel the hellfire they walked in. From the secret mathematics of Durga’s Triangle to Lakshmi’s glittering coins, each room held objects of wonder. Every Buddha and yogini thrilled me.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in art school. In my years of traveling and study I spent many hours visiting Asian art in cities such as Chicago, London, and Berlin. As the wheel of my life spun, I returned again and again to read Buddhist texts, groove to the sounds of Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, and learn how to make my own paneer and naan.

When I heard about the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I knew I’d be back to visit my friends—those magical manuscript pages at the Freer|Sackler—that to this day can whisper their secrets to me.

Art in its many forms is, to my mind, the purest expression of the divine. Whether it is a simple rangoli created by a housewife on her front steps or the purest tone of voices joined in chant, we can’t help but express our connection with the universe.
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Today is the last day to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Donate to “Together We’re One” or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.


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Posted by in South Asian and Himalayan Art | 1 Comment

Heels Over Head: When Charles Lang Freer Met Swami Vivekananda

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago
Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22


Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on the art of yoga, will open at the Freer|Sackler in October. Bento had a chance to speak to exhibition curator Debra Diamond about an 1894 meeting between museum founder Charles Lang Freer and Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in bringing Indian philosophies about yoga to the West.

Bento: Did Charles Lang Freer know about yoga?

Debra Diamond: Probably. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the first truly influential teacher of yoga to come to the United States, arrived in Detroit in 1894 to give talks at local churches and a synagogue. Freer hosted a dinner for him at his home on Ferry Street.

Bento: Why was Swami Vivekananda in the United States?

DD: He came to participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions that was part of the Chicago World’s Fair—the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Well spoken, charismatic, and exotic in his orange robes, Swami Vivekananda was a huge hit. He introduced a rational and ecumenical Hinduism that was very appealing to Westerners interested in Eastern spiritual and religious traditions. His talks were so popular that the organizers scheduled them for the end of the day, so the auditorium wouldn’t empty out in the afternoons. Although Emerson knew of Indian philosophy and Thoreau had said, “At times, even I am a yogi,” it was really Swami Vivekananda who made yoga well known in the United States.

Bento: Why do you think Freer was intrigued?

DD: Freer had a cosmopolitan worldview, and he was part of a social and intellectual sphere that was interested in spirituality and Asian cultures. Senator Thomas W. Palmer, who would become the first president of the Detroit Museum of the Arts [now the Detroit Institute of the Arts], lived down the street from Freer. Palmer served as president of the Fair and had Swami Vivekananda stay with him in his home.

Bento: What did Freer think of Swami Vivekananda?

DD: We don’t have any records of Freer’s response; his terse diary entries don’t mention the event. However, his papers include a receipt for a donation of $250. This suggests Freer may have found Swami Vivekananda’s message of a universal spirit that transcends religious differences compatible with his conception of art. Freer believed that modern and ancient masterpieces of art were “harmonious in spiritual suggestion,” “universal,” and had the power “to elevate the human mind.”

Bento: Could Swami Vivekananda have inspired Freer’s trip to India the following year?

DD: Maybe he was inspired. Maybe he got travel tips! But we really don’t know if there is a connection. Freer’s diaries are pretty sparse at this time.

Bento: Are there principles in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings that we would recognize today?

DD: Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga is a foundational work in the dissemination of yoga across the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga…never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His commentary on (and translation of) the aṣṭāṅga (eight-limb) yoga section of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras focuses on its potential for spiritual growth. All of these things color modern discourses about yoga. Swami Vivekananda was probably the first to really convey the message that yoga was something that Americans could do. We recognize that today, and it’s taken for granted, but it was not previously. For more on Swami Vivekananda’s role in yoga history—including why he wasn’t interested in the postures of hatha yoga that we know so well today—come see the exhibition in October!

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.


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Drawing After Dark

Action Drawing HERO performing in the courtyard of the freer Gallery.

Action Drawing HERO performing in the courtyard of the Freer Gallery (photo by Cory Grace).

Natalie Creamer is an intern in the office of development at Freer|Sackler.

Korean art-performance group Action Drawing HERO fascinated an enthusiastic crowd at last week’s Asia After Dark: Korea Seoul Train. Combining drawing with synchronized dance and mime, the troupe captured elements of contemporary and traditional Korean art to create a tiger out of charcoal and a portrait of South Korean musician Psy in vibrant watercolor.

Prior to the performance, I had the opportunity to sit down with the four members of Action Drawing HERO—who call themselves the Jackson team, after Michael Jackson’s iconic moves—and a translator from the Korean Cultural Center. None of the Jackson team has ever attended art school. As a result, the group adheres to a strict rehearsal schedule that can sometimes last from 10 am to 10 pm.

The members of Action Drawing HERO have performed together for five years, mostly at private theaters in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and China. They utilize innovative art techniques such as light scratching, dust drawing, and cube art, which was showcased at the Freer. Occasionally, they also incorporate modern technologies such as video projections.

I asked the actors what they liked most about being on stage. They replied, “We love to show audiences how art can be created in new and entertaining ways.” The group’s live art performances have helped it cultivate a successful international following, including an extensive Facebook fan base. After their success at Korea Seoul Train, we hope they’ll come back for more!

Can’t get enough Asia After Dark? Get ready for Chinese Martial Arts on Saturday, August 17. Details will be posted to our website soon.


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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.


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Pang Ho-Cheung Brings it All Back Home

Vulgaria

Vulgaria

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from England to China opened up a huge new market—1.3 billion strong—for Hong Kong movies. But reaching Chinese audiences requires compromise. Politically controversial topics must be avoided, for instance, and the sex and violence have to be toned down. Often, films are made in Mandarin, which means losing the Cantonese wordplay that gives Hong Kong comedies their punch.

While many Hong Kong filmmakers have accepted these terms in return for more lucrative paydays, others, like Pang Ho-Cheung, are flipping the script. His latest film, Vulgaria (which is being screened on June 14 and 16 as part of the Freer’s 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival), is a flagrantly raunchy comedy. Chapman To stars as To Wai-Cheung, a movie producer who sheds his artistic integrity and eventually his dignity to make a softcore porn that he hopes will revive his career. From its opening scene, in which To regales aghast film students with a lengthy, obscene monologue about his job, it’s clear that Pang has no designs on the mainland market.

In this and other ways, Vulgaria is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. To’s project is a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1976 erotic film Confession of a Concubine. That film’s original star, Siu Yam-Yam (aka Yum Yum Shaw), gamely plays herself in Vulgaria, agreeing to appear in the new version (albeit with her head digitally attached to a younger actress’ body.) Shot on the fly without a complete script—as was done in the old days—Vulgaria bounces along with the anarchic energy of the Hui Brothers’ comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, flinging random subplots and absurd jokes in all directions.

Indulging in favorite Hong Kong pastimes such as making obscene puns and mocking mainlanders, Vulgaria is, like stinky tofu or fried chicken-feet, a local delicacy that will delight as many people as it disgusts. If, in recent years, people have complained that Hong Kong movies are becoming watered down, Pang’s filthy love letter to the city and its cinema may be an attempt to reclaim Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, one dirty joke at a time.


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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.


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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!


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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


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