Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?

hotcoldrough

 

Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.

southend

Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.

watermark

Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.

milly-finch

Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

Art Must Bring Change: A Turquoise Mountain-Inspired Project

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibit "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan"

Sushmita at Sughra’s section in the exhibition “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan”

Located in Arlington, Virginia, Studio PAUSE is a space where artist Sushmita Mazumdar writes, teaches, and creates Handmade Storybooks and other mixed-media work. It is also where she invites people to explore creativity and celebrate community. Sushmita’s current project, Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity, was inspired by Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy and her work in the Freer|Sackler exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. Below, Sushmita talks about the project and how everything around us can connect to tell one story.

“The Body Needs Food but the Soul Needs Art”

I was captivated by this quote splashed across a wall in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition. They are the words of Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy, a graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she studied miniature painting, illumination, and calligraphy. As I read a text panel that tells her story, I found yet more inspirational words, phrases, and ideas.

When I met Sughra in March 2016—and saw her demonstrate manuscript painting and illumination in the exhibition—it struck me that in sixteen years of being a docent at this museum, I had seen only rare and centuries-old examples of this beautiful art, preserved behind protective cases. To see Sughra making this art right in front of my eyes was unbelievable. And then to have her tell me to sit down and try it myself was a whole other experience.

“It’s tracing paper and a mechanical pencil,” she said, offering the tools to me and a nine-year-old boy as we watched her work. “Sit. Try it.” As my fingers traced her designs and she showed us how she made gold paint in an oyster shell, we talked. I told her I was an artist, and I invited her to visit my studio. She agreed happily.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., visits Sughra in the "Turquoise Mountain" exhibition with her son Aidan in October 2016.

Jennifer Endo, right, resident services director with AHC Inc., and her son Aidan visit Sughra in the “Turquoise Mountain” exhibition.

On her visit to Studio PAUSE, about eight miles from the museum, Sughra created a quick and beautiful sample of her work for studio members to see. She also joined me at a workshop I was doing with teenagers called Exploring Identity Through Book Arts. The teens were there as part of an after-school program run by AHC Inc., a local organization that creates affordable housing and runs on-site educational programs for residents. I introduced Sughra to the teens, most of them immigrants, as an outstanding Afghan artist whose work was on view in a Smithsonian museum and who had come from Kabul to show museum visitors how she does her art.

That day’s workshop topic was stereotypes. Students were learning to make a book to help them explore how we see others and how others see us. We each shared our personal experiences, and Sughra shared hers, too—about how people in the United States reacted when she told them she was from Afghanistan. “Their eyes grow big,” she said, “as if I was going to explode.” We were all surprised, but we knew people make a lot of assumptions based on how we appear to them.

 “Making art is a link for me with my past—with my family and with those who went before me.” —Sughra Hussainy

When I started my art-making years ago, I wrote down stories from my childhood in India and of family members I left behind when I moved to the United States, and incorporated them into unique handmade storybooks for my children. Since then, my work has been to encourage people to share their stories and teach them how to preserve these stories in creative, handmade books. When you know how to make a book, I often say, you always have a place for your stories to live.

Sughra’s art links to her past as she continues the ancient tradition of miniature painting and illumination. I find her story so powerful. The art that I had always thought of as something made in the past and found in museums is here right now, thriving and bringing beauty to the world. I wondered if we could take it into the future in new ways.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

Sughra Hussainy with her artwork.

So I asked members of the Studio PAUSE community—everyday people who come to my studio to pause, making time to explore creativity and celebrate community—for their thoughts on an idea: What if we wrote poems about identity and asked Sughra to decorate them with a bit of her gorgeous miniature painting in traditional Afghan style? I could then design a book of poetry unlike most we might come across, print the pages in my studio, and bind them into copies by hand. It would be a book that held something about each of us that is more than what we look like, letting us express ourselves through art and show our individuality. We would be like a big, diverse family making something beautiful.

In October 2016, Sughra and Bilal Askaryar, program manager for Turquoise Mountain, visited the studio to discuss the project. “The book will be called Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity,” I told them. When Bilal explained the archaic grammar of the phrase “thou art” to Sughra, her eyes twinkled. “It has two meanings! I like it,” she smiled.

I created a mock-up of the book to show them. Sughra preferred the Japanese binding style, so the cover will comprise two pieces—the longer back cover tucking into the front cover. Each will be on a different paper, symbolizing the coming together of two forms of expression (writing and art), the people of two countries (United States and Afghanistan), and the two ideas of understanding and celebrating our community.

Studio Pause writers meet Sughra, see her art, and compose poems about identity.

Studio PAUSE members met Sughra, saw her art, and composed poems about identity.

The next week, some studio members met for our weekly Writing PAUSE session. There were poets and activists, a lawyer and social scientist, an artist and entrepreneur, a dancer and politician, and an educator. They met Sughra and saw her work. We wrote, exploring the project and sharing our ideas on identity. Today, I continue to invite people to join the project.

We plan to launch the book Thou Art: The Beauty of Identity in April 2017, in celebration of National Poetry Month. The handmade books will be available online—each sale including two copies, one for the buyer to keep, and one to give away. We’ll mark the occasion with an event at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, where contributors will read their poems aloud. The celebration also will kick off a new school-wide project for 2017, in which families will be invited to share their poetry with students and to form their own community poetry book.

This idea came from Oakridge teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala, who is part of the school’s Mosaic Project. She had been thinking of doing a poetry book project for a while. I took Sughra to meet her at Oakridge (which both my children have attended), and then Dawn came to the Freer|Sackler to see Turquoise Mountain and watch Sughra work.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Sughra visited Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and met with teacher Dawn Amin-Arsala.

Once the Oakbridge community poetry book is created, Dawn plans to have her fellow teachers use it in their K–5 classes. The text will support the school’s Mosaic objectives—to help students become better writers and to practice global stewardship. “Global stewardship includes the idea that we all have our own stories that are worth telling and worth listening to. Our individual stories connect us as a community,” Dawn explained.

After that, the students will also make a poetry book. Through this extension of our current project, we could link our lives, our arts, and our stories with more than eight hundred young Americans and their families, who come from every corner of the country and all over the world.

It’s hard to believe this is all really happening, but just writing this post makes it feel so real. I am eager to see how many people will be part of this project and what they think. In a world where we work so hard to get food for our body, here is a chance for us to create art by and for our souls.

Crash Course in Contemporary Chinese Film

The DC premiere of "The Road" screens November 16 as part of the Third China Onscreen Biennial.

The DC premiere of “The Road” screens November 16 as part of the third China Onscreen Biennial.

Better late than never, the full lineup for the third China Onscreen Biennial is now online. Playing November 15–17 free of charge at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, these films were selected by a curatorial committee that included myself and film programmers and scholars in Los Angeles and New York. We met via Skype to winnow down our selections from more than forty new features and documentaries. So you can be assured that these are the cream of the crop.

In addition to their quality, the films were selected to present the broadest possible perspective on filmmaking in China today. On November 15, for instance, you can see Tharlo, the latest film from acclaimed Tibetan director Pema Tseden. It’s followed by Ta’ang, a documentary on the very timely topic of refugees displaced by war, by the pioneering Wang Bing, whose achievements recently merited him inclusion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

On November 16, director Yang Chao appears in person with Crosscurrent, an utterly unique, exquisitely beautiful film that depicts a journey up the Yangzi River propelled by poetry. This film should especially appeal to Freer|Sackler patrons, as its cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, was inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting when creating his gorgeous visuals. The screening will be preceded by a free public reception at 5:30 pm—and it will be followed by the documentary The Road, which, with shocking candor, exposes official corruption on a Chinese highway project.

"I Am Not Madame Bovary"

“I Am Not Madame Bovary”

Women take center stage on November 17, beginning with Fan Bingbing’s award-winning turn in Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary, in which she plays a woman doggedly seeking revenge on her cad of an ex-husband. Feng frames his narrative in circles and squares, and tints it with a retro color scheme to give it a look like no other film. The series concludes with a look to the future as we present A Simple Goodbye, the young director Degena Yun’s powerful autobiographical drama about a filmmaker trying to reconcile with her stubborn, dying father.

I hope you’ll join us next week for this free crash course in contemporary filmmaking in China.

Performing Indonesia: Sumarsam

Performing Indonesia

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Sumarsam, a scholar, puppeteer, and professor of music at Wesleyan University, helped plan tomorrow night’s lecture series. He also will share his talents at our shadow-puppet play (wayang kulit) Thursday evening.

You have a long history with music, particularly the gamelan. How has that passion intersected with your interest in puppeteering? 

I began playing gamelan when I was seven years old, in the village where I was born, in East Java. That was also the time when I became interested in wayang puppet plays, which gamelan groups often accompany.

I continued studying and teaching gamelan at the conservatory and academy in Solo [Surakarta, Indonesia] from 1962–68. When I was a student at the conservatory/academy, no major on puppetry was offered, but students were required to take a course on the subject. So that’s the only formal training I have received on puppeteering. But I was determined to continue learning, so I learned on my own, with occasional guidance. I still feel I am a student of the art of wayang, especially in performing wayang for a Western audience.

How does wayang kulit intersect with music in general?

Gamelan music accompanies wayang performances almost without a break. It is played to accompany entrances, exits, journeys, battles, the puppeteer’s chanting, and dialogues and narrations. Different pieces and songs are performed for the particular moods of the scenes. Kendhang (a two-headed drum) closely accompanies the puppets—certain puppets’ movements are accompanied by certain rhythmic patterns.

The puppeteer (dhalang) has complete control over the music. He (or, rarely, she) signals the ensemble to start and end the music, to cue dynamic changes, and to ask musicians to play certain pieces. The cues are conveyed by sounding a box with a mallet; there are also verbal cues and cues from certain puppet movements. The puppeteer also produces clashing sounds from a set of metal plates that he kicks against the box to accentuate the movements of the puppets. Besides delivering dialogue and narration, the puppeteer sings songs to heighten the mood of a scene.

I think that the complex connections between the play and its musical accompaniment make it difficult to stage wayang performances in the United States. Many rehearsals are needed. I am glad that I have had ample time to rehearse with the Indonesian Embassy gamelan group and with an ad hoc group consisting of gamelan teachers and players, members of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Tell me a bit about the story that the puppets will tell on November 10.

Here’s a synopsis of Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment:

Durna, a spiritual preceptor, asks his loyal student Bima to search for divine enlightenment. To commence his quest, Bima must go to dangerous places. First, he must search for the “Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind” on the peak of Mt. Candramuka. There, Bima encounters two ferocious ogres who attempt to foil his effort—they are actually transformed gods testing his will and strength by attacking him. Bima repels and kills the giants, but he does not find the tall tree. Disappointed, he returns to Durna empty-handed.

On the second leg of Bima’s quest, his guru orders him to search for lustrating water in the depths of the ocean. Plunging himself into the sea, he is attacked by a dragon monster. Using his long, sharp nails, Bima destroys the dragon. Miraculously, a tiny figure, Dewa Ruci, appears from nowhere. He teaches Bima the highest mystical insight: the divine enlightenment, which includes some aspects of Islamic Sufi teachings.

What do you hope audiences will experience and take away from the play?

In my early years at Wesleyan, I used to perform wayang in the Javanese language. One hundred or more people came to watch the performance. However, after two hours or so, people started leaving; only a dozen stayed until the end.

Like all of my more recent performances, Thursday’s will be about two hours long and presented mostly in English. For me, performing wayang in English is an ongoing project. Finding well-constructed English sentences that suit the mood of wayang is a challenge (not to mention making sure to pronounce English words clearly). Fortunately, several wayang stories and a number of Javanese literary works from past centuries have been translated into English—they are my main references. For example, the eighteenth-century Serat Cabolek (composed by R. Ng. Yasadipura, a court poet) has been translated into English by Professor Soebardi. This classic work has sections that tell the story of Bima’s quest for enlightenment.

The November 10 performance will be a condensed version of an all-night wayang play, featuring only the main episodes of the story. But it will have almost all aspects of a wayang play, including the three-division plot structure of the story (music, fight scene, and clown scene), popular songs and local jokes, and the teaching of a mystical path.

You’ve been closely involved with Performing Indonesia from the start. Why do you feel the festival is important?

I am always happy to be part of the festival to introduce the performing arts in Indonesia, exploring the diversity of their content and context, and the crisscrossing of their national, ethnic, and religious identities. This year’s Performing Indonesia, with the theme of Islamic Intersections, is a way to introduce the dynamic formative and transformational process of performing arts in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The Art of Qur’anic Recitation

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

The recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents an opportunity to look closely at a Muslim music tradition that may have profoundly influenced black music in the United States. Historians have determined that Muslims made up about a quarter of all Africans forcibly shipped to the Americas through the slave trade. They brought with them long-standing traditions of unaccompanied vocal music that probably fared well under the ban on drums enforced by US plantation owners.

The Muslim call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an are marked by florid melodic lines (multiple notes to each syllable), altered notes outside Western scales, an absence of rhythm, and no instrumental accompaniment. Not surprisingly, a vocal tradition developed among African Americans that bears remarkable similarities to this Muslim heritage—the field holler, a genre that probably predated and influenced the blues.

When historian Sylviane Diouf gave public talks following the 1998 publication of her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, she began by playing audio samples of these two traditions side-by-side. You can hear historic recordings of field hollers on the Library of Congress website, such as this one by Enoch Brown recorded in Alabama in 1939. Compare for yourself by listening to Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah, who will lead our lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation on Saturday, November 5, at 2 pm at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The event is free—no tickets required—and presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.

Performing Indonesia: Ismunandar

This year's Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

This year’s Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Ismunandar, head of the education and culture section at the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, DC, helped plan the 2016 celebration of all things Indonesia. Here, he explains this year’s theme.

Some people associate Islam only with the Middle East. Although Islam was born in that region, Muslims are spread out all over the earth. Globally, there are 1.7 billion Muslims, from the Middle East to Africa, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s Muslim population is larger than that of the Middle East region.

We are proud that the long history of Islamization in Indonesia has been a peaceful one. Cultural expressions of various ethnic groups were not lost but influenced by Islam. The result is a diversity of expression in the performing arts. This is what inspired the Islamic Intersections subtitle: it summarizes our efforts to show the kaleidoscope encounter of Islam with Indonesian cultures. The theme also complements the Freer|Sackler’s landmark exhibition The Art of the Qur’an, now on view.

In this year’s Performing Indonesia, we proudly present a diversity of Indonesian arts, from the traditional and classic to the contemporary and secular. On Thursday, November 10, for example, we will host a shadow puppet show. This ancient art form was utilized by the Wali Songo, the nine revered saints who first spread Islam in Indonesia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Another way to demonstrate Islam in Indonesia culture is through Qur’anic recitation. In Indonesia, these recitations are performed not only as rituals, but also for festive occasions ranging from national anniversaries to wedding receptions. Plus, every year, a Qur’an recitation competition is held in Indonesia, starting in the districts and reaching the national level. Experience a taste for yourself on Saturday, November 5.

For those of you who are more academically minded, the festival also features a series of lectures. And there are workshops on martial arts and shadow-puppet painting for children and families to enjoy. We hope you’ll join us!

A Monumental Qur’an

Two folios from a Qur’an; sura 45:9–13, 45:13–16; attributed to Omar Aqta‘; historic Iran, present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand, Timurid period, ca. 1400; ink, color, and gold on paper; lent by the Art and History Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, LTS1995.2.16.1 and LTS1995.2.16.2

Two folios from a Qur’an; sura 45:9–13, 45:13–16; attributed to Omar Aqta‘; historic Iran, present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand, Timurid period, ca. 1400; ink, color, and gold on paper; lent by the Art and History Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, LTS1995.2.16.1 and LTS1995.2.16.2

The content of the Qur’an has not changed since the beginning of Islam in the seventh century. By choosing different sizes, formats, materials, calligraphic styles, and illumination, however, artists have created a stunning variety of Qur’anic manuscripts through the ages.

These consecutive folios, written in majestic muhaqqaq script, belong to one of the largest and most impressive Qur’ans ever produced in the Islamic world. They were originally attributed to Baysunghur (died 1433), a Timurid prince and an accomplished calligrapher who governed the vibrant cultural and artistic center of Herat. More recently, they have been associated with his grandfather Timur, who established a vast empire centered on Iran and Central Asia.

Allegedly, the left-handed calligrapher Omar Aqta‘ wanted to impress Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405) with his skill. He copied a Qur’an that was so small it fit into a signet ring. When the sovereign was unimpressed, Omar Aqta‘ then transcribed a second Qur’an that was so large it had to be transported to the palace in a wheelbarrow. This time Timur was extremely pleased, and he rewarded the calligrapher accordingly. These folios are believed to be among the few remaining examples of the enormous manuscript that was displayed in Timur’s mosque in Samarqand, the first Timurid capital.

Curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig with a monumental Qur'an. Photo c/o AP.

Curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig with a monumental Qur’an. Photo c/o AP.

National Cat Day: Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

This scene of a courtesan emerging from a mosquito net as her cat returns her gaze alludes to a well-known episode from the eleventh-century Japanese work The Tale of Genji. Prince Genji’s wife, the Third Princess, was concealed from public view, as was the custom among women of high status. When her cat pushed aside a bamboo blind, however, the princess was revealed to the courtier Kashiwagi, and thus began a secret affair between the two.

Inscribed at the top of the painting is a poem by Honda Jinzaburo (1781–1861), whose pen name was Tenmei Rojin. The poem alludes to the source of mosquito nets—the vendors from Omi near Lake Biwa—and to the trysts of courtesans beneath the netting on steamy summer nights:

No matter whom
the maiden meets
under the omi net,
her arm shows the mark
of a mosquito’s stinger.

Translation by John Carpenter

Rediscovering Afghan Designs

tommy2

I opened up the package and gave a yelp. Inside was a small book of about one hundred pages stapled together, featuring text in Dari—one of the languages of Afghanistan—and floral and geometric motifs. The document was a little ripped and bleached with age, but otherwise looked in pretty good nick.

A small note revealed that the book had been sent to me by a ninety-something visitor named Leila Poullada. Two weeks before, I had given a curator’s tour of my exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. This tiny, birdlike lady had concentrated intensely during my talk and asked me rounds of quick-fire questions afterward, in which she proved herself deeply knowledgeable and insightful. We sat chatting for forty minutes in the middle of the exhibition as she told me about her life and travels.

It turns out that Leila had lived in Afghanistan in the 1960s, moving with her husband, Leon Poullada, a US diplomat and scholar of Afghanistan. Poullada is a major name in the historiography of Afghanistan, having written one of the main accounts of the country in the early twentieth century. I knew his work well from my time as a PhD student of Afghan history.

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy in this 1961 photograph. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Leon had died several decades ago, Leila told me, and she now lives in a condominium in St. Louis, Missouri. She still keeps in touch with friends from their Afghanistan days. Leila had been a great traveler in Afghanistan, visiting sites like the remote Minaret of Jam that are now extremely difficult for people to reach. She had seen more of the country than I had in all my years there.

The book Leila sent was one of many that she had collected during her time in Afghanistan. Titled Afghan Designs, it was printed in Kabul in 1967. It is a design book for teachers of art and craft skills, containing patterns found in buildings and sites across the country.

I recently spent a few years working with artisans in Afghanistan—woodworkers, calligraphers, jewelers, ceramicists—as part of the Turquoise Mountain organization. As explored in the Freer|Sackler exhibition, we focus on preserving and reviving techniques and designs that have fallen or were in danger of falling out of use. Here in Leila’s book were hundreds and hundreds of those designs, recorded and detailed by researchers in the 1960s. I recognized many from buildings that Turquoise Mountain has restored in the old city district of Murad Khani in Kabul, designs that were often carved into Himalayan cedar or wet clay up in the pottery village of Istalif.

tommy3-crop

Aside from the practical uses of the work for Turquoise Mountain students in Kabul, I was struck by the nature of the designs. From the several hundred varieties that the researchers had collected, more than three-quarters are plant and flower motifs. Only a few are purely geometric, and about a fifth are a mix of geometric and floral. In a country with such a rich appreciation of flowers and gardening, it is interesting to see how this focus has played out historically in designs that artisans use in their work. It also challenges the common misapprehension that geometric design is the overwhelming mode used in the decorative arts of the Islamic world.

I’ll be taking the book back to where it belongs—Kabul—on my next trip over. I’m very grateful to Leila Poullada for sharing it with me.