Archive for Silk Route

Dark Day Picks—New York Roundup

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , on November 23, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Today Dark Day Picks departs from its usual coverage of San Francisco to highlight noteworthy events in New York.

Onassis Cultural Center—The Origins of El Greco. Holland Cotter reviewed this show as: the “most enwrapping and enrapturing art in town, framed by alert scholarship, a lambent environment (the installation design is by Daniel Kershaw), and a score of Byzantine music, arranged and performed by the Greek ensemble En Chordais, that will soak into your system and stay there.” See also VR The Making of an Iconoclast.  Though February 27, 2010.

International Center for Photography—Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video. A global survey of some of the most exciting photographers interpreting the theme of fashion. Through January 17, 2010.

American Museum of Natural History—Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World. Making stops at Xi’an, Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad, this multi-faceted show includes dioramas, interactive exhibits, artifacts, performances by Yo-Yo Ma and a variety of films bring the legacy of the ancient Silk Road alive. Through August 15, 2010.

Iznik Ware: A Chronicle of Ingenuity

Posted in Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2008 by Liz Hager

Isnik Plate, ca. 16th century, ceramic, Archeology Museum Istanbul (photo ©2007 Liz Hager)

[For more on Iznik ceramics, No Trifle: William de Morgan & the Iznik Tradition and Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court] 

It is May 3, 1481 in Constantinople. 

Sultan Mehmed II‘s conquest of the city nearly 30 years earlier has provided a critical base of operations from which the Ottomans vault to pre-eminence in the Mediterranean. To celebrate the might of his sultanate, Mehmed has undertaken a lavish building program in Constantinople, which reaches an opulent crescendo in 1465 with the completion of Topkapı Palace. Covering some 150 acres, the Sultan’s compound contains enough buildings to lodge 4,000 people. Inside, the structures are lavishly appointed; each of their rooms is transformed into an exquisite mirror of Paradise through the magic of ceramic tiles made to specification in a small town south of Constantinople.  

On this day Mehmed dies.  But his tiles endure to inspire Ottoman artisans to new aesthetic heights.  

Like his father, Bayezid II  is a patron of western and eastern cultures. The Ottoman Court is ravenous for sumptuous goods that show off their new-found wealth.  Infatuated by the blue and white arabesque designs of Yüan and Ming Dynasty porcelain, Sultan Bayezid’s treasury is rumored to be paying exorbitant prices for the delicate, yet durable, ware. It takes months to ship the plates and bowls from China by camel caravan along the Silk Route.   Supply is spotty.  

An enterprising man returns to Iznik from Constantinople, where he has heard whispers of the difficulties securing porcelain from China. Surrounded by the tiles in his workshop, he conceives a plan. He who adapts the venerable Iznik tile technique to emulate Chinese porcelain will profit greatly.

In his workshop, the ceramicist mixes clay with silica, or pulverized quartz, the additive that gives porcelain its strength. He throws the lump onto his potter’s wheel and methodically pumps its paddles with his feet. Slowly the wheel gains speed; the lump wobbles lopsidedly. The artisan gazes out his studio window to the grape arbor on a nearby slope. He smiles, remembering the last time he and his brother-in-law drank the wine from those grapes.   At once he knows what he will create.  With his left hand he steadies the outside of the lump, while the fingers of his right hand firmly, but gently, run over the clay, gradually coaxing it into the flat symmetrical shape of a plate. 

After the first firing, the master applies a thin undercoat of kaolin. The clay mineral creates the opaque white ground that is the hallmark of porcelain. In various hues of cobalt, he paints a pattern of grape clusters in the center of the plate, taking care that their tendrils form a pleasing interlocking design. Then remembering the Ottoman love of flowers, he adds a circle of stylized roses around the outer rim.   He places the piece back in the oven.  He stays awake to stoke the fire, for the success of this piece depends on maintaining an exceptionally hot oven.  In two day’s time, when the piece has cooled, he paints a thin solution of lead, tin, and glass particles over its surface. This transparent glaze insures that his plate will carry the luster of luxury.  The master sets the plate into the oven for its final firing.   

Looking for more?

Iznik ware images

Ming Ceramics at the British Museum

Images of Topkapı Palace tiles

“Talisman of the Pole Star”—Protection Along the Silk Route

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Talisman of the Pole Star, ink and colors on paper, mid-10th century, Cave 17, Mogao Grottos, Dunhuang (©The British Museum)

In early March, 1907, archeologist Aurel Stein reached the square-walled oasis of Dunhuang on the edge of the Lop Nur, now just a dried lake bed at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. Twelve miles SE of the oasis in a shallow depression, known as the “Valley of 1000 Buddhas,”  Stein would soon uncover the world’s most extensive and celebrated cache of Buddhist art, some of it more than 1500 years old.

For more Venetian Red posts on Dunhuang Caves—On Trail of Alexander; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

“Talisman of the Pole Star” was one of perhaps 40,000 manuscripts that Stein eventually removed from the caves.  At 17×12 inches, it was designed to be carried, rather than read in a library. Certainly its magical powers and delightful design have made it an object of interest. However, the real value of the scroll for me was in its context in the history of human development, specifically the migration of Buddhism from India to China.

Ashoka the Great did much to spread Buddhism beyond India in the 3rd c. BCE. As Aurel Stein’s many Central Asian digs were to make clear, Alexander and his armies introduced Hellenic culture to lands already steeped in Buddhist beliefs.  It was only natural that proselytizing monks should travel along the well-established roads of the Silk Route, establishing monasteries and enclaves in and around key trading center.   Though Daoism and Confucionism were well-established in China, the Chinese were curious about new ideas. Or perhaps they perceived a threat.  By the 1st c. BCE, the Hou Hanshu chronicles describe Emperor Ming sending envoys West to “inquire about the Buddha’s doctrine.”

By the 2nd/3rd c. CE, many Silk Route cities came to be dominated by Buddhist stupas and monasteries, some of them evident today.   In the 7th century, Dunhuang became a prosperous way station at the juncture of the northern and southern routes around the Takla Makan desert. Also by the 7th century, the Chinese had embraced Buddhism and were undertaking the wholesale translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese. This endeavor was to require many generations of scholars traveling back and forth from India to China. It’s not surprising with this confluence of factors that a considerable and lasting Buddhist outpost was established near Dunhuang.

The scroll form is believed to have come to China with Buddhism along the Silk Route. The layout of the “Pole Star” scroll with the image on top and text below was to become the dominant form for Chinese illustrated books from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.  Further, the imagery on this scrol beautifully the absolute demonstrates the absolute fungibility of cultures, where they mix freely.

The Pole Star was an established figure in Chinese Daoist and Hindu religions, so undoubtedly the Buddhists adopted from either of these sources.  In depicting the figure of the Pole Star (left) holding a paper and a brush, the artist was careful to follow existing traditions that associated the figure with imparting of information. On the right of the scroll is mythological figure, Ketu, a Hindu tradition whom the Buddhists embraced. Together with deity Rahu, Ketu represents a point on the ecliptic where the Moon is in alignment with the Sun and the Earth.

Thus, the pairing of the Pole Star and Ketu denotes precise harmony with the celestial elements—i.e. the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, the stars; important to Buddhists in the enfolding of individual consciousness and no doubt appealing to the Chinese.  For extra protection, the artist has added text in Chinese and Daoist writing (transcribed below), penned in red to confer extra good luck and/or supernatural powers on the bearer of the talisman.

Whoever wears in his girdle this talisman, which is a dharani (magic chant) talisman, will obtain magic power and will have his sins remitted during a thousand kalpas (eras). And of the Ten Quarters all the Buddhas shall appear before his eyes. Abroad in the world he shall everywhere encounter good fortune and profit. Throughout his whole life he shall enjoy other men’s respect and esteem. His religious merit shall be unparalleled, and this protection and purification shall come to him as swiftly as Lü Ling (a Daoist sage) rides.

—Roderick Whitfield (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) translation of the “Pole Star” text.

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

Tomorrow’s Headlines?: Oil & Textiles in Daghestan

Posted in Book Review, Central Asia, Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2008 by Liz Hager

Kaitag Embroidery, Daghestan, 18th century, silk thread on cotton (photo courtesy Mehmet Çetinkaya Gallery)

I’m on a Central Asia kick these days and reading some first-rate contemporary “travel” writers who follow in the great 19th-century tradition of Westerners to the East.  Last month, I dove into another of Robert Kaplan’s always-rewarding books; his latest, Eastward to Tartary (Tartary being the Victorian identification of the Turkic lands east of the Caspian to the River Oxus, now the Amu Darya, and the longest river in Central Asia). It’s limiting to categorize Kaplan as a travel writer.   His insightful “reporting” on a variety of current events provoked by his travels belies the incredible historical and political education one gets as his reader.

On the surface, Tartary is the account of Kaplan’s 1998 journey throughthe many lands of the  Byzantium and, later, the Ottoman Empire. We know them as the former Soviet bloc countries—e.g. Hungary, Bulgaria, etc.—and Central Asian republics (the “stans”), as well as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel).  The book is anything but superficial. It is an eye-opening discourse on potential flashpoints across the region, where tribal peoples struggle to modernize into nation-states in the face of ancient animosities and a deficit of leadership. Until recently these places received little attention, but given their natural resources (we’re talking oil & gas here), their future might be, as Kaplan notes, “tomorrow’s news.”   This prescient observation, noted while the author was in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is worth quoting in its entirety:

“From what I learned over the next two weeks, I was left with the queasy apprehension that what Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century; an explosive region that draws in the Great Powers.” 

And this statement near the end of the book had me rechecking the copyright on the book (it is 2000); to my mind it couldn’t have summed up our problem in Iraq any better:

“While there is no hatred so ingrained that it cannot be sedated by prosperity (as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once told me), the building of a middle class from a nation of peasants requires strong and wily leadership more than it may require elections.”

So, what does all of this have to do with embroidered panels from Daghestan? Maybe nothing or maybe a lot.

Daghestan is one of the former Soviet republics; now part of the Russian Federation. It sits on the Caspian Sea just north of Azerbaijan and east of Chechnya. It’s a mountainous country with southern flatlands but like a lot of its “stan” cousins, it’s extremely arid. Crops can only be cultivated through irrigation; thus, prior to the modern era, like most of the other Central Asian countries, Daghestan was populated principally by nomadic tribes, who mostly raised livestock. As was true of tribal peoples in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the Daghestani ethnicities developed their own textile traditions. The Kaitegs (sometimes referred to as Kaytaks) were among the most prominent of tribes and it is their brightly-colored embroideries with anthropomorphic and primal shapes that gained favor among collectors in the West. Unlike the Uzbeki pieces, Kaitags use the embroideries only for ritual occasions—birth, marriage, death.

Based on the country’s strategic location, one can imagine that ethnically diverse peoples tramped through Daghestan; thus similaries in the embroidery can be drawn to the traditions of Persia, China, Turkey.

These beautiful works are in their own contradictory way both serene and fiercely alive. They belie the fact that post-break up Daghestan has had its fair share of troubles. It too struggles in ways not unlike the countries Kaplan visited. (For more detail, I refer you to the linkages below.)

Oh, and I forgot to mention that Daghestan has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.

Kaitag Embroidery, East Caucasus, 18th Century, silk threads on cotton ground (photo courtesy Sotheby’s).

Kaitag Resources:

J. Barry O’Connell spongobongo.com

Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan

Daghestan Resources:

Central Asia-Caucus Institute

All Academic

The Jamestown Foundation

 

Part II to follow: my thoughts on Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia.

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