Archive for August, 2008

What’s in a Vowel? Why We Should Care about Huns and Hans in Western China

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

Uighur silk textile fragment, Xinjiang, 10th-11th century (photo courtesy One Central Asia)

In hosting the Olympic Games, China has once again opened the proverbial kimono for inspection by the outside world, offering us a rare opportunity to gain insight into a country in the process of becoming a dominant world power. Harmony is an ancient component of the Chinese identity. Paradoxically, separatist conflict percolates throughout present-day China.

The Chinese “occupation” of Tibet has been well publicized for years, in part because the Dali Lama is able to travel and educate the world. Another, less publicized, ethnic conflict pits the minority Uighurs (pr: WEE-ger) against the majority Han Chinese in the far western province of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Uighur’s historic homeland. The conflict has simmered for centuries. It became an international news item in the beginning of August, when 16 Chinese paramilitary police officers were killed in Kashgar, alledgely by Uighur “terrorists” under the supervision of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  A string of “incidents” have been reported since then; many say the Chinese government is inflating the group’s importance, as an excuse to tighten control over the beleaguered peoples. 

Why should those of us who live half a world away care about the Uighurs, a poor and historically nomadic people? Their beautiful textile tradition is reason enough for me, the artist. The map below suggests a more compelling reason for the rest of us.

Xinjiang sits in already volatile region, which includes the sovereign nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. The well-documented conflict over Kashmir rages still after 50 years, the danger to the world heightened by Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities.  In Afghanistan, each superpower in turn has painfully relearned the difficulties of containment in a land of porous borders.  As part of the ancient Turkic (i.e. Hun) tribes that migrated over centuries from Mongolia to Central Asia, the Uighurs spill over Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We should know from history that tribal loyalties and animosities do not necessarily respect artificially-drawn national borders, so a conflict in Xinjiang eventually ripples outward.

Further, the march to modernization in this area necessitates that all these countries meld numerous tribal identities (not to mention Russians and Chinese) into singular national identities. Tricky business in places where tribal loyalties die slowly. Forcing “harmony,” while disenfranchising the native population, is certainly flirting with danger.

Xinjiang is an energy paradise—lots of sun, wind and, yes, oil. Something on the order of 60% of the province’s GNP is derived from oil and natural gas production. And this of course is the reason the rest of the world should really care about the Huns and the Hans in Western China.   

Need more?

Textiles in Oil Rich Countries

Analysis: August Incidents in Xinjiang

Der Spiegel on events in Xinjiang

Tarim Mummies

Fantastic grassland in Xinjiang province

Short history of the Huns

Uighurs—A Dying Race

High Noon in China’s Far West

“Born + Raised”—Look Down!: IWP, SF#8

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on August 12, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/12/08

Time: 11:28 am

Location: Duboce, between Steiner & Potomac/Walter, North Pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: If you look closely you can see the remnants of a graffiti tag below the neck of this highly-stylized head. They remind us that one piece of art is always in danger of appropriation by another, somewhere down the line.

“Economic Woes”—Look Down!:IWP, SR#7

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , on August 11, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/11/08

Time: 11:31 am

Location: Brosnan between Valencia & Guerrero

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: Most likely penned during the 80s, this person’s economics primer reminded me that the relevancy of indispensable wisdom, like the economy, ebbs and flows.  While Reagan is no longer with us, tough economic times are.  

American economy is like a sick man with a thermometer up his ass. Every month someone yanks it out and takes a reading. If the banking rate stays up, the inflation down, unemployment will disappear and the man will recover. Strange Rxs. R. Reagan sucks. Herb Cain —

A(nother) Great Leap Forward?

Posted in Architecture, Music & Dance, People & Places, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

photo ©Emilio Naranja

Like much of the world, I was riveted to the television for 3 1/2 hours last night as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics unfolded. The cynic in me noted the overt propagandistic nature and shear economic cost of the evening. But the artist in me experienced moments of undeniable viewing ecstasy—the lighted batons of 2,008 drummers moving in unison in the dark; the undulating rectangle of character blocks; the tai-chi masters, whose movement from above resembled a swarm of bees; and the pièce—those “lighted dot” suits, flashing together at one point like a giant neon arrow. “This way China!”  It was an evening of Peking opera, Cirque de Soleil, and Jackie Chan all rolled up together. 

As one commentator remarked near the end: “they should retire the trophy for opening ceremonies.” Indeed, I am hard pressed to think how Vancouver or London, next on the list of host cities, will come up with programs that top not only the shock and awe technology on display last night but the colorful, graceful, well-choreographed, and often quite sobering symbolic elements of the program created by Zhang Yimou (pr: john-ee-moe). Nor should they perhaps: the extravaganza was rumored to have cost the government as much as $300 million. 

Not too long into the program, I developed a real fondness for its backdrop, the Bird’s Nest stadium.   We San Franciscans now have automatic affinity with Beijing through our two Herzog and de Meuron buildings; we’re the little guy city in a worldwide club of bigger venues (London, Munich, Beijing) and that’s good for an often-parochial city like ours. Our own de Young Museum is one of the few joyous exceptions in a skyline full of repetitively dull versions of the modernist glass box motif.  I completely understand why the Chinese have latched on so quickly to the Bird’s Nest as their 21st century icon. Nicolai Ouroussoff covers the details of this topic much better than I could in his article this morning in the NY Times. Additionally, Gordon Raynor of the UK Telegraph focuses on the symbolism of the structure very nicely in his 8/7 post “Guide to the Birds Nest.” 

Certainly director Zhang Yimou deserves huge kudos for conceiving and pulling off a spectacular show that had to have included thousands of logistical nightmares. (For starters, think about fashioning and fitting 15,000 costumes.) Obviously, he didn’t do it by himself; the international “concept” team included Steven Spielberg and choreographer Zhang Jigang. But in the end, it was his show. I’m not conversant enough with Zhang Yimou’s films (Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to offer meaningful commentary in that vein about last night’s extravaganza, so I’ve listed some other linkages below. Suffice it to say, he’s a master of visual symbolism.

In the final analysis, though, what better symbol of 21st century China than the army of human performers that were required to execute Zhang’s vision?  Not just marching mind you, but dancing, twirling and running, all in lock-step precision. These perfectly-harnessed masses were a sobering and disquieting reminder of the inherent force of a nation with 1.3 billion people at its disposal.   

In a telling moment, when asked about the huge number of people involved, Zhang is reported to have smiled demurely and said: “Well why not? We have them.”   

And that might just be the real point of last night’s entertainment. 

 Need more?

For those of you who missed the program (or just want to see it again), play the “Opening Ceremony: Sites & Sounds”  at NBC

Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

Interview with Zhang

“Marriage” —Look Down!:IWP, SF#6

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on August 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/08/08

Time: 8:48 am

Location: Duboce & Guerrero, NE pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: The SF Chronicle carried a story this week about the 16,000 or so couples in Beijing rushing to get married today, 08/08/08 being a highly-auspicious number in China. Apparently, there were more than a few who were even trying to squeeze in a little extra good fortune by scheduling their marriage vows at 8:08 am. It’s also the reason the Olympic officials planned the opening ceremonies for today; I suppose they were hoping to offset all the “bad luck” surrounding the upcoming games—appalling pollution, for starters.  

I happened upon this piece of wisdom on the pavement while on my way to a meeting this morning and a carpe diem moment materialized. Although the shot is 40 minutes late to cash in on the super Vegas jackpot, I’m hoping that at least hitting the 8-8-8- trifecta will bring some luck my way.   If that happens, I promise to pass along a little to you, dear reader!

A Yastik for My Divan

Posted in Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by Liz Hager

Silk Velvet Yastik, probably 17th c., though identified as 7thc (typo?), (photo courtesy Sadberk Hanim Museum, Istanbul)

The great migration of Turkic tribes from north-east Siberia into Central Asia began in the 6th c. AD and continued for centuries. The Seljuk tribe dominated beginning in the 11th century; at the peak of its influence, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Western shores of Turkey to the Punjab. Among other things, the Turkic peoples brought weaving and embroidery traditions with them into the conquered lands. Though only a few of Seljuk textiles have survived, their weaving traditions have lived on in the textiles of their successors. 

The Seljuk Empire was eventually subsumed by the Oshmans (Ottomans), an upstart tribe with ambitions.     In 1326 after a seige of nearly seven years, Orhan I, the second Beg (chief) of the Ottomans, captured the Byzantium city of Bursa and made it the capital of his expanding empire.  Given Bursa’s strategic location on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmar, this victory ultimately paved the way to the greatest prize, Constantinople. That fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans advanced rapidly over additional territories, until they controlled a vast swath of land, which stretched west into Europe, east to China and south to Morocco and Yemen.  The Ottoman Empire remained intact for nearly 600 years, until the Versailles Treaty of 1919 distroyed it.

Beyond its role in the march of empires, Bursa is important for another reason—silk. The Chinese were able to kept the method of silk production secret for centuries, but the vast trade network that was the Silk Route facilitated the smuggling of the secret west to the Byzantine Empire.  By the time of its conquest by the Ottomans, Bursa had long been a Byzantium center of sericulture, due to a climate favorable to the cultivation of mulberry trees (the leaves of which the silkworm must feed).  By the 14th century, it had become a principal market for world silk and its workshops handled not only the manufacture of silk for domestic Ottoman use, but also added value to silk products flowing from Persia to Europe, by way of the Italian cities of Genoa, Florence and Venice. By 1502 records reveal that Bursa had over 1,000 looms.The period between 1550-1650 was the heyday of Bursa’s economic activity; Sulieman was responsible for expansion of the fine and decorative arts at court and Bursa provided most of the textiles. Contemporary inventories list 91 types of fabric made there, although the city’s artisans were predominantly known for their lampas (woven cloths with ornamental designs) twill, seraser and velvet. Which brings me to the piece above. 

Combing silk threads from cocoons at rug factory near Ephesus, Turkey (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

There was no attribution, but a good guess would be that it was made in Bursa.  

Depending on whom you consult, velvet weaving originated in Egypt, China, Kashmir or Italy.  Velvet derives its sumptuous sheen from a special weaving technique, in which a second weft (the horizontal thread) is looped over a rod and then cut with special tool, causing the fibers to stand horizontal to the cloth. Until the Industrial Revolution created economical production, velvet was the exclusive domain of the court and aristocracy. Further, due to its high natural sheen, silk was the material of choice in making velvet until after the Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine how silk velvet would be an essential item in every sultan’s palace, for its opulence splendidly conveys the wealth of the court.  For seating, Turks have always favored the long low mattress-like seat called a divan (which derives from the Turkish word for government council, itself borrowed from the Persian for “book of accounts”).  Yastiks are the front side of the cushions used to bolster one’s back while sitting on a divan.

The yastik above sports an ogival pattern of stylized carnations. In comparison with other Ottoman and Italian velvets, this particular example of the diamond shape ogee (ogive) pattern is quite simple, and it strikes me that the weaver knew those big carnations could stand on their own without embellishment. Their stylized form evokes hand-held fans, a subtle reference to the leisures of court, perhaps?  In the cells at the top and bottom of the yastik is the stylized tulip motif, a perennial favorite of the Ottomans (probably because tulips originated in Turkey). Though I enjoy the intricacies of the more elaborate yastik designs—there’s palpable joy in tracing the interlocking lines of the patterns—I find the flat, regimented and bold character of this design quite majestic.

I’d like a yastik just like it for my divan, please. 

Want more?


“The Silk Road”: overview on silk making process

Christie’s—Ottoman Velvet


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

“No Standing”—Look Down!: IWP, SF#5

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: August 4, 2008

Time: 10:13pm

Location: Arcade Section 149 walkway,  ATT Park 

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  A pedestrian warning or ubiquitous command of crowd control is rendered noteworthy by its placement at the end of the first base line along the habitual trajectory of Barry Bonds’ homers.  Barry’s no longer with the Giants, but his spirit lives on from the pavement.

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