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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee's A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Ellen Cline is an intern in the ImaginAsia family program at Freer|Sackler

Being an intern in Washington, DC, often means spending your day answering phones, running for coffee, and providing Washingtonians with plenty of fodder for intern jokes and stories.

I can say these things because I am a DC intern, but my own experience at the Sackler couldn’t be more different. From my first day at the museum, I’ve been immersed in hands-on experiences that range from rummaging through artifacts in storage rooms to helping children make art during the ImaginAsia family programs.

When I arrive at the museum each morning, I usually take the stairs down one level to the ImaginAsia classroom, not so much for exercise, but for the feeling of grandeur I get when I descend majestically (backpack notwithstanding). A few weeks ago, I was headed for the stairs when I walked by artist Rina Banerjee installing her sculpture in the Sackler pavilion. As a sculpture student who had been eagerly anticipating Banerjee’s exhibition, I wanted more than anything to duck under the black stanchions and watch the artist at work.

I soon had the opportunity to do just that—and more. Stephen Eckerd, head of ImaginAsia, told me to go upstairs and see if Rina Banerjee needed any help with her installation. “Tell them you’re from ImaginAsia,” he said. He didn’t have to ask twice.

A true child of my generation, my first impulse was to post something on Twitter. Instead, I took the stairs two at a time and then tried to cover my excitement with some level of professionalism as I walked over to Banerjee and curator Carol Huh. I introduced myself and was immediately put to work.

Art and art-making in particular have an incredible ability to create instant community. This was certainly true of my experience assisting Banerjee. Her group of helpers ranged from the curator to museum conservators to young interns—all gathered around one evolving work of art. Some of us high-fived as we untangled portions of the piece; the conservators and interns swapped recommendations about DC art exhibits; and Banerjee supervised with humble, unassuming authority.

In a way, this joining of forces, even around something as simple as the addition of threads to a rope, added meaning to Banerjee’s already rich work. The installation focuses on environmental losses, cultural changes through global movements, and rivers in their life-giving and life-threatening nature. As we worked, Banerjee talked about the river’s vital role in communities. How appropriate, I thought, as we worked quietly, that we, too, are gathering around this symbolic and reimagined river.

Banerjee’s piece, A World Lost, and various elements of the work suggest more foreboding notes, like the pieces of coral that allude to the environment’s negative effect on coral reefs. Helping the artist enriched my thinking about endangerment and loss. If we are to counteract global losses, we must make small, steady actions, and repeat them without losing hope: like threading a needle, running it through a rope, and then doing it all over again. Focused on the individual actions, I didn’t immediately see how much ground we covered that morning—all working together, hundreds of threads forming a hair-like covering, the strands intertwining and indistinguishable from one another.

Watching Banerjee’s piece come together before my eyes was educational and inspiring. It’s often said that learning is best achieved by doing. By kindly letting me into her process, Rina Banerjee allowed me to learn about art installation firsthand. From her patient demeanor as well as her flexibility throughout the process, I also learned the value of humility and approachability.

A World Lost, like all of Banerjee’s work, is filled with textures, objects, and associations. It now carries a special, personal association for me as well. This site-specific installation will be on view through June 8, 2014. If you come to see it, consider taking the stairs down to the museum’s other exhibitions. You may see a short, dark-haired intern heading toward another unexpected adventure at the Sackler.


Posted by in Behind the Scenes, ImaginAsia | No Comments

Eels in July

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

The Japanese words for the subject of this painting, unagi nobori, mean “a fast, rocket-like rise.” Eels have been an important delicacy in Japan since the Edo period (1615–1868). Eating eel during the hot, humid summer was believed to increase stamina. It is still customary to consume the fish on a certain midsummer day on the lunar calendar that usually falls in late July.

Confident sweeps of the brush define with utmost simplicity the forms of two eels and ashrimp; gold pigment highlights the edges of their bodies. The artist’s elegant, hand-painted design of maples and grasses serves as a harmonious silk mounting for the painting. Kimura Buzan studied painting under Kawabata Gyokusho (1842–1913), an artist who knew both European and Japanese painting methods. Kimura also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (founded 1876) and was active in exhibitions of the Nihon Bijutsuin, an association of artists founded in 1898.


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On Rina Banerjee’s “A World Lost”

Rina Banerjee installing "A World Lost" in the Sackler Paviion.

Rina Banerjee installing A World Lost in the Sackler Pavilion.

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

“Hospitality starts with a glass of water”
Artist talk with Rina Banerjee

Scientist and artist Rina Banerjee has created a site-specific work in the Sackler Pavilion as part of the Perspectives series of contemporary art, called A World Lost, referencing the major rivers of Asia. Actually, the full title is: A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this. It’s a wonderfully organic work, “growing” like a sea creature with tentacles and debris spilling all over the gallery’s stone floor. For Banerjee—and for all of us—the river is a metaphor for life and what we value, and an actual source of survival for many people around the world.

An experience with her mother a few years ago spurred Banerjee to think about the importance of water and inspired the sculpture. Her mother wanted to sell some property in Bangladesh, and Banerjee traveled with her from New York to help with the transaction. After they signed various papers in the local magistrate’s office, her mother wanted to to see who was living at the site. Property rights allow for squatters if the land is not occupied; whoever needs it can use it.

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee's "A World Lost."

Detail of plastic cups from Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost.

When they arrived, they saw a small house next to a pond. Inside the house, two little girls were digging in the dirt floor to reach the water table. Actually, one was digging, and the other was straining the water through an old cloth to make it drinkable, evidently a daily task. Tradition requires that when a visitor comes to your home, the first thing you do is offer her a glass of water. When one of the little girls spotted Banerjee and her mother, she immediately poured the water into a plastic cup and handed it to them. To be given something so valuable and so hard earned is an honor. In turn, Banerjee honors the young girls’ generosity and the vital importance of water by incorporating plastic cups in the Sackler installation.

Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost will be on view through June 2014.


Posted by in Contemporary Art | No Comments

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.


Posted by in American Art | No Comments

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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Posted by in Behind the Scenes | No Comments

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!


Posted by in Japanese Art | No Comments

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.
* * *
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 | No Comments

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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Posted by in South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

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