Connecting Continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange

A taster, what seems like a cupboard stocked with little nuggets of information about trade around an ocean that connects Asia, Africa and the middle East, where commodities such as spices, gemstones, ivory and ceramics have been exchanged for over five thousand years.

It wasn’t until the first Century AD though that people understood the ocean currents and monsoon winds, which would shape the pattern of trading until the steamship in the Nineteenth Century. Merchants would live for 6 months in port cities and travel back with the prevailing winds.

The first thing you see as you step into the small room is a boat and figures made from cloves, from the Indonesian Spice Islands, that were popular from the seventeenth century onwards. The exhibits on show are complimented by images from sailors, travellers and pilgrims, all of whom traversed this mighty ocean along with the merchants, who’s ships bulged with people, culture and religions, ideas and beliefs as well as goods such as pottery, plants, food and luxury goods such as gold and ivory from Zanzibar and Bagamoyo, used for piano keys and billiard balls.

For much of the time beads were used both as a form of money as well as decoration, as were cowrie shells, which are impossible to forge and which were used widely. However incredibly, their value depreciated between 1897 and 1902 from 200 to 1 rupee to 1200 to 1 rupee.

Into this complex and established network sailed the Europeans, as they rounded the Cape, hunting for spices such as nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon and pepper to take back to a hungry and excited population back home, which they did so in vast quantities from the sixteen hundreds onwards. As their empires moved in they moved people for infrastructure projects and plantation labour using a form of indenture, where workers from South East Asia and China worked to pay for their passage, as East Indiamen, built for large quantities of cargo, joined Chinese Junks and Arabian Dhow’s riding the ocean currents and winds.

The exhibition and interest in the ocean as a focus, has formed from work of a growing body of scholars, inspired in part by the work of Fernand Braudel on the Mediterranean, which uses seas and oceans as the geographical setting for research, over and above continents and land based regions. Although goods were originally traded along coastal routes, ships were soon traversing the ocean, creating the need for ports and trading centres to cater for an ever increasing array of merchants and sailors. A travel route along the coastal route of this network, although almost impossible today given where it would traverse through, would provide some fascinating insights into the historical and current impact and influence of the ocean on it’s shores. Paul Theroux did something similar, travelling around the coast of the Mediterranean in his 1996 book, the Pillars of Hercules

There is much much more to say here, and in the end this small exhibition can merely give a taster, and like the first time a European tasted pepper and enthused the what and wherefore’s that would eventually lead to pushing the boundaries of the known world, hopefully this will lead to people learning more about the history of this mighty Ocean.

The exhibition, Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange is on in room 69a of the British Museum until the 31st of May

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Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Two ordinary cities suffered one extraordinary fate that has fascinated the world since it’s tragic occurrence in AD79.  They remained hidden right up until the 1700’s, probably because one of them, Herculaneum was buried under twenty metres of ash, following a Pyroclastic surge that incinerated anyone and anything it touched with it’s four hundred degree heat.  Pompeii was not buried so deep, a mere four to five metres by comparison, from the eruption that climbed twenty miles into the Roman sky.

This post is quite late, given the exhibition has now finished, but it is one of the most fascinating that I have seen at the museum and I wanted to post something on it.  Focusing on the ordinariness of both cities, Pompeii a bustling city of twelve thousand to fifteen thousand people and the smaller Herculaneum, with it’s population of four to five thousand.  They had baths, temples and theatres, and mixed populations of rich home owners, freeborn shop keepers, ex slave craftsmen and slaves and a startling amount was preserved under the ash and debris from the volatile Vesuvius.

Opening with the cast of a dog contorted in agony, as you start in the street the walls are lined with eerie photos of empty streets and houses.  You can see in them pedestrianized streets with stone bollards, but there were also one way thoroughfares, roads scarred with wheel ruts worn by traffic.  An extraordinary amount of taverns were found, where intoxicating drinks and women could be bought for a price.

The exhibition is built around a typical home, and as you move from room to room objects discovered from both cities are on display.  The Atrium opens with a guard dog mosaic and behind that stands a Herm, a marble or wooden pillar topped with a bust, which initially draws the eyes, but look down, it also, bizarrely, has a phallus half way down, for protective powers.
There were generally a few cubiculum’s off of the atrium, where the Romans slept or not, depending on who they were in there with.  Erotic images were displayed, admired for fertility connotations, superstitions or purely for humour.  Not just images either, there is an oil lamp shaped like a satyr with a large phallus to watch over the bed while allowing you to see what you’re doing.  Jarring heavily with the raging sexuality was a carbonised wooden cot, babies were kept in the bedrooms as well, and the little occupant of this particular one died wrapped in a blanket.  It is a deep pause in the middle of the frivolity of the bedroom, and the exhibition.  Possibly time to grab some air, and next up is the hortus, or garden.  While admiring the brilliant statues of stags being attacked by hunting dogs, hewn from single blocks of marble, a couple moved up behind me,
“I’m going to see the mega cock again!” the guy announced as he darted off to the naughty corner. I turned to his girlfriend.
“You must be so proud”
“It’s the main reason we came back” she sighed, with an indulgent smile on her face.
I was laughing as I took in the brilliant statue of Hercules, worse for wear, slight paunch pushed out as he leans back and urinates.  It did confirm though what I thought, people came back to this exhibition, members certainly.  I went three times in all, an interest in the Romans certainly helps, but this is also a story about ordinary people made extraordinary. In the naughty corner I ignored the cock this time, but did stare at the not inconsiderable statue of Pan and the goat, described as ‘Pan making love to a nanny goat’.  Whether the nanny goat would agree, as Pan tugs her beard and his penetration is in full view of all and sundry, is something we’ll never know. It was disturbing, less for the fact that this would have been on full display in the middle of a garden, but for the fact that it had been carved at all, perhaps a bit of nineteenth century prudishness lingers on within me, or maybe it was because there was a goat involved.  The main draw of the garden though are three massive frescoes that decorated a garden room, depicting marigolds, poppies, oleander bushes, plane trees, wood pigeons and jays, a cleverly illustrated fantasy to bring the garden inside.

It was the living room that contained my favourite pieces.  Two small mosaic panels featuring tragic theatrical masks, carefully depicting a lion and monkey looking faces in yellows, oranges and browns, that would have been put into plainer floors.  The best mosaic though was a dancing death figure, with a wine jug in each hand, the centrepiece of a dining area no less, a subtle way no doubt, of telling your diners to seize the day, while they enjoyed breads, olive oil, figs, almonds and beans, all of which have been preserved and are on display in the kitchen area, along with a shrine and some notes about the toilet, usually lumped with the kitchen.

Moving on through a projected timeline of events you come to the most poignant part of the exhibition, with a collection of personal items found on people who had perished, these conjure up innumerable stories about them and their owners, but as you turn around you are faced with the harsh reality of the eruption.  In the eighteen sixties archaeologists began pouring plaster of Paris into the voids in the ash, forming detailed bodies of those that had been caught in the grip of the eruption. Barely crawling, the woman in resin is one of a kind.  You hope the rutted outline of her body is the drying of the resin, not her flesh as she was overcome.  Finally a family of four found together in an alcove.  You have just wandered through their home, and now you witness their instantaneous and horrific death.  Even as I returned for the third time, I could only look on in mute horror and sadness at such a tragic fate.

All we can do now is offer our condolences by an appreciation of the richness of historical detail that Vesuvius has bequeathed future generations, and this exhibition allowed a greater number outside of Italy the chance to do this.  I’ve not been to Pompeii or Herculaneum, but having seen them bought so vividly to life, perhaps I will.

Ice Age Art – The Arrival of the Modern Mind

Inside the exhibition, it claims the oldest known figurative art appears in Europe towards the end of the last ice age, about 40,000 years ago, and yet here I was still outside and one of the exhibits had just walked out of the entrance doors!  But no, the ancient relic in front of me was an old woman huffing and tutting her way to replacing her audio/visual aid.  I slipped past and into the low lit exhibition room.  A distant irregular drip could be heard, making the cool grey room feel like an ancient cave, filled with treasure from the entire width of continental europe, from decorated weaponry to flutes

One of the first objects was the Lion Man found in Stadel cave in Germany.  Looking good for it’s forty thousand years, it is cleverly carved in mammoth’s ivory and depicts a man’s body with an instantly recognisable lions head.  The carver demonstrating the capability to imagine something that does not exist.  While it is impossible to know why it was created, the existence of this capability kicks your mind into touch, as possibilities open up and more questions flood through.

Some things seem to have remained constant, and the female form in its softly curved, fully figured glory is the subject of a number of sculptures.   In a freezing climate that would have required at least some clothing, the fact that most of the figures are naked, could possibly indicate a more artistic depiction, especially as women in all stages of their lives are depicted. The exhibition hypothesises that they could have been created by women rather than men, nearby a Henry Moore shows how far art has come in forty thousand years (not very, or perhaps full circle).

Tucked to the side but perhaps more fascinating was a male doll or puppet, with moveable limbs, buried with a man who had pain from a disease of his joints.  What purpose did it serve?  Did he make it, did someone else make it as a talisman?
It was a while before I moved on, and a bit further on is the Zaraysk Bison.  An adult female carved in mammoth tusk, in exact proportion and three dimensions.  Despite her small size you fully expect her to wander up to the glass or dip her head to graze.

She is not as small however, as the miniatures, some of which have holes for cords which indicated they would have been worn upside down, possibly to be lifted up and viewed by the wearer.  On other works there are abstract drawings, perspective when more than one animal was featured, and a spinning pendant, that had a cow on one side and a calf on the other.  Even more practical items, such as spear throwers and antler batons, an essential part of a hunting man’s kit, were adorned with animal sculptures or motifs, art crept into practical use over pure form even then.

This is a brilliant exhibition, that will linger in your mind long after you exit through the gift shop into the searing brightness of the great court.
We can only speculate what Ice Age people were thinking, what place those sculptures held in their life and beliefs, but whatever it was, they were skilled enough to give it form with their hands,and minds.

Ice Age Art is on at the British Museum until the 2nd of June, details here

Social Fabric: African textiles of today

A compact, bright, colourful and informative exhibition at the British Museum, African textiles today looks at the history and production of clothing in Eastern and Southern Africa, focusing on Kanga’s from Kenya and Tanzania, Capulana’s from Mozambique and Shweshwe from South Africa.

Textiles are the most obvious, visible signifier of culture throughout Africa.  History, beliefs, politics, fashions, status and aspirations are communicated through the colours and patterns of textiles.

At the front of the exhibition is a welcoming Kanga with the inscription of Karibu Mgeni ‘Welcome Stranger’ in Kiswahili, on which a labelled map of the African continent is printed.  The Kanga is a printed cloth, each with it’s own inscriptions written in the same place.  They are sold and worn in matching pairs, and, although principally a women’s garment, they are sometimes worn by single men at home or by masaai men in public.  The word Kanga is the Kiswahili word for guinea fowl, and they are named after the spotted plumage of the bird which were reminiscent of the early cloths.

Worn by women, the Kanga can be used to demonstrate her stance on global issues or political allegiance, or even to convey sentiments that would not normally be said out loud.  At the end of the exhibition is a Kanga with the inscription ‘Hujui Kitu’, ‘You Know Nothing’, which could be worn by an older woman to comment on her younger rivals.   They are also playful, such as ‘The Mangoes are Ready’ a friendly invitation from a wife to her husband to help himself.

A wedding Kanga (Kisitu) is also displayed.  These are worn by the bride, her family and friends.  In Eastern Africa women and men may dress in the same pattern and colour of cloth to show unity and friendship at any gathering.
More contemporary Kanga’s are on show, ‘Daima Tuta Kukumbuka’, ‘We will always remember you’ the inscription for a Michael Jackson Kanga, which hangs just above one for Barack Obama.
From Tanzania a Kanga for the Millennium reads ‘The new millennium belongs to us’.  The central space, known as mji, meaning ‘tomb’ or ‘womb’ is left deliberately empty, filled only with the deep blue of the unknown future.

Kanga’s were originally created in the late 19th Century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenco’s, which were traded from the Portuguese.

It’s not all Kanga’s though, in Mozambique the Lenco (here a head scarf) is worn with the quimau , a tailored blouse, and a Capulana, a wrap around dress.  Herero men and women from Angola wear a printed cloth called a Samakaka on special occasions, while on the Comoros islands the Cheramine completely covers the face and body of the woman.

The last part of the exhibition looks at the discharge-printed indigo cloth, the Shweshwe, and the Kings Blankets.  On display are blankets that celebrate world figures, such as Albertina Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Josina Machel, from Mozambique, the late lamented mother of the nation.

The textiles of eastern and southern Africa play a central role in all of the major rites of passage ceremonies in women’s and sometimes men’s lives, and this exhibition shines a small, but bright light on this.

The exhibition is on until tomorrow (21st April) so again a bit late on this one..

Details here

In Search of Classical Greece – Travel Drawings by Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi

It’s 1801, and Napoleon has now occupied Rome for the last five years, preventing you from the well trodden grand tour.  What’s a classically educated young gentleman of means to do? Well if you’re Edward Dodwell, you pick up Simone Pomardi as a companion, skip past the boot and travel onto classical Greece. It’s reality, however, was far removed from the imagined Greek idyll, it’s former city states reduced to ramshackle villages, surrounding and surrounded by ruins of mighty ancient monuments, toppled and worn down by time and the Ottoman heel.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, my thoughts coming away from it were more to do with recording travel and experience. While the camera captures immediate reality, which can be manipulated after the event, I felt I was far more engaged by the paintings than I would have been by the same exhibition had it been more contemporary and consisted of photographs.  Or maybe it was just nostalgia, the landscapes evoking a sparsely populated countryside broken up only by the romanticised ruins, while a camera could capture this, would a painting properly capture the more brutal reality of today, a whole world far more populated and ravaged than nineteenth century Greece?  Perhaps, but even Dodwell and Pomardi’s use of the camera obscura, a mechanical drawing device used for recording architecture more quickly and accurately than freehand, involved them finishing off the picture by hand, giving the picture it’s human touch.  But exactly where did they take their brushes and easels?

Well, the companions began in the western isles of Corfu and Ithaca before moving through the Greek mainland to Athens. Dodwell, his mind seduced by Homer’s tales of Troy, travelled onwards to northern Turkey as well.
Just outside the room is a magnificent panorama of Corfu town, spread across four separate sheets, with details even in the roof tiles and undulating green fields in the distance.
Another multiple sheeted panorama is that from the hill of the muses, where Athens is a small village, nestled almost out of site, under the Acropolis on the far right of the painting.

Both Dodwell and Pomardi have a similar style and they evoke a quiet, sparse landscape, as well as elaborate grotto’s and shrines, you could almost hear the thud of the cattle bell carried by a light breeze as you walked round.
Not all the drawings were complete, Pomardi’s Temple of Olympian Zeus, had rusty looking columns coloured and completed, while the rest is just sketched outlines, drawing the eye in, before it gazes across the unfinished surroundings, would this, for example, work as well in a manipulated photograph?  Others were taken back to Italy and completed there, where locals such as Turkish women, slaves, shepherds or musicians were sometimes added in, almost the exact opposite of photoshopping today, where we take unwanted people out of the picture as they are spoiling view.  In other instances, the inclusion of people, such as the seated man in view through the porch colonnades of the West side of the Partenon by Dodwell, give the drawing a natural portrayal of scale.

At one end of the room is a panorama displayed in a rotunda in the strand in London in 1818.  Giving people the chance to stand in the centre and take in 360 degree views, the completed drawings sometimes took up as much as 900 sq m of canvas.  Also in the exhibition are sketchbooks, pottery and vases and casts from various monuments.

At the end I felt that the paintings offer a much warmer, human depiction of a place, than the full on truth of a photograph.  While exhibitions such as the world press photography awards show just how great photographs are for capturing the unadorned truth, I wonder if that’s what we want from travel pictures.  Ignoring for the moment the inconvenience of lugging around painting materials and keeping completed works safe, a completed drawing of a place surely offers a much more personal experience of your travels than a photograph?  Or does it depend on the person?  Give five people a camera and point them at a scene, you are just as likely to get five different photographs as you would if you gave the same five people paints, paper, brushes and an easel.  As it is, the inconvenience will prevent all but the most dedicated from painting their way round the world, or, if you are like me, so will a complete lack of ability as far as drawing is concerned.

Dodwell and Pomardi, on the other hand, capture a lost Greece, that even in their time had already lost itself.  The companions were lured and enticed by the romantic notions of the Greece of antiquity but still sought to accurately portray the land they travelled, and for that we should be grateful, whether they used a camera or brush.

exhibition details here

Contemporary Chinese Seals by Li Lanqing

Nestled in about 5 or 6 cabinets in the Asian room at the British Museum is a small exhibition of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.

For 2500 years, seals have served as commanding emblems of identity and authority in China. Since the fourteenth century seal carving was invested with the same status as the three perfections, painting, poetry and calligraphy.
Li Lanqing is a former vice premier of the People’s Republic of China and one of the engineers of China’s opening up policies of the late 197os.  After retiring in 2003 he devoted himself to seal carving, amongst his other passions.

The display, remarkably, has over one hundred of his seals and calligraphic works on display, and celebrates the tradition and innovation in Li’s work, as he promotes seal cutting as a popular art in modern China.
The first two cabinets show examples of  Li’s seal work, along with implements.  The most striking is the great seal used for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in Heitan Jade.  The seal takes the character of ‘Jing’, meaning ‘capital’, part of Beijings name, and shapes it like a dancer.

He also cuts phrases into the seals that reveal his life philosophy and the expressive power of seals, such as A Stone Speaks of Beauty (2008 Shoushan Stone) and  A Stone Declares One’s Interests (2008 Qintian Stone). The implements include a seal cutting fastner, Calligraphy brushes and three carving knives.  Seal carvers call a chisel an iron calligraphy brush.
Li also exploits the inherent pictorial qualities of Chinese characters and each seal is like a minature work of art, like song from a fishing boat at dusk (2010 Shoushan Stone) and water receding and stones emerging (2006 Balin Stone) while his changing outlook on life as he gets older is also reflected in seals such as my heart calms as water (2010 Shoushan Stone), eat like an ant (2009 Stone) and honesty (2012 lacquered wood).

A couple of Yinpu are also displayed, these are a book or album of famous seals or seals by famous engravers.  The seal is stamped into the book and a rubbing taken of it’s side.  One of the Yinpu was done especially by Li for this exhibition.

For Li, China’s forward development is grounded in an understanding of the past.  A long arduous journey (2011 Stone) is his characterisation of the path towards revitalising China after the Cultural Revolution.  Reflecting on the past a selection of the seals commemorate some of the strategies and maxims espoused by politicians during China’s opening up from the late 1970’s.

The last section looks at innovations, Li Lanqing takes an age old tradition and uses it to work with the issues of his time.  For his calligraphy Li employs all 5 of the major types of script developed before the Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907), sometimes in the same piece of work and on show are a couple of examples of brush written calligraphy, towering over a fantastic dragon seal and a number of character seals, with a bust on top of each one and their translated names on the bottom.  Included are Dickens, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare amongst others, all intricately detailed brass.  It’s not just foreign icons that are celebrated, also included is Li Bai (701 – 762), the immortal poet, who I remember from the Art of Drinking exhibition as one of the 8 immortals of the wine cup.  His seal is a small column block of Qinatian stone.

An example of Li’s wit can be seen in a seal of Balin Stone called Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person).  Some strokes were carved to print in red, and some in white, to mimic a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out.  If you read only the red strokes it alludes to the illiterate person examining a bad official, instead of advertising a famous Beijing restaurant, which is the full seal.

My favourite though, is nestled between seals for Ballet, Matisse and Goethe. Made in Shoushan stone, the seal is for Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Don Quixote himself pops up above the seal itself.

This is a small but enjoyable exhibition that serves an engaging, contemporary introduction to the ancient art of seal carving.  Unfortunately I’ve been slow as usual, and it’s only on until the 15th of Jan, so get on the good foot!  Details here

Ritual and Revelry: The Art of Drinking in Asia

An exhibition looking at the diverse and rich traditions associated with water, alcohol and tea across Asia.

With three quarters of the worlds surface covered with water, major cities worldwide built on rivers, coasts and lakes, water holds a significant place in our lives.  It’s power over us, with its ability to vitalise is delicately balanced against its ability to kill or pollute.

In room 91 the British Museum displays the acts of pouring, drinking and offering in different cultural contexts.

Kicking off in India, where Hindu’s have a profound connection with water.  In Hindu tradition water is sacred and dictates the rhythm of life.  Rivers are revered as personifications of the divine, such as the Goddess Ganga.  A painting showing King Harischandra and his family bathing in the sacred waters of the holy city of Varnasi, while the river creatures parade underneath them.  There are also spouted Lota’s, a vessel with a globular body and spout made from bronze and silver.

In a similar vein are the Kendi, a Malay term, from the sanskrit Kundi, a pot with a spout.  It’s shape removes the need for the drinkers lips to touch the spout of the vessel, making the form an embodiment of hygeine and purity.
A Yay Khwet Gyi, in bamboo and lacquer, is displayed, the large red bowl decorated with red, yellow, green and black designs.
Originating in South Asia, Kundika slightly differ from Kendi by the addition of a lidded opening on it’s side.  Water is poured into the body by this opening and poured out of the tall spout.  These were used to sprinkle sacred water in Buddhist rituals and were one of the few permitted possessions of a monk.

Perhaps the most striking item in the exhibition is the Kapala or skull-cup.  No points for guessing what this is.  Made during the 18th and 19th centuries and consisting or part of a human skull mounted on a richly ornamented brass base, inlaid with precious stones. the Kapala would have been used during drinking rituals where a Lama would have drunk beer or another kind of alcohol from it.

But enough about ritual, what about the revelry?

“Become not like Shou the King of Yin, who went quite astray and became abandoned to drunkeness” Duke of Zhou, quotation from the Shangshu C1100BC.

Firstly you should know your Jue from your Jiu.
A Jue vessel, used to warm alcohol over a fire, has tripod legs and is jug shaped, while a Jiu is a large vase like cup used to drink alcohol.

India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur (1526 – 30) used intoxicants such as alcohol and opium to encourage camaraderie amongst his men.  A number of Toddy tapper jugs are on display.  Toddy was a mildly alcoholic drink extracted from the coconut or palm tree flower.
Meanwhile in China during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), the state encouraged the combination of alcohol related intoxication and prostitution to collect higher tax incomes.
The 8 immortals of the wine cup were a group of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) who produced their poems while drunk.  A brush washer depicts the poet Lin Bai (701 – 762) smiling and leaning on an empty alcohol container, in porcelain and enamel.

Finally comes the Sake, made from fermented rice.  Sake was distributed widely thanks mostly to the development of large entertainment districts with large tea houses, restaurants and brothels, in places such as Edo (Tokyo).  Three Netsuke, miniature sculptures used as kimono toggles, show men displaying the 3 effects of Sake – Sadness, Euphoria and Fatigue.

Possibly coming somewhere between ritual and revelry, Tea became the national drink in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) while it was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 800’s.  It was associated with tea gathering, a distinct philosophy with great emphasis on simplicity, humility and austerity.  The display includes tea bowls, caddies, netsuke and teapots of various materials as well as paintings.  Also shown is a Tibetan tea brick.  In Tibet a persons daily consumption of tea often exceeds 40 cups.  Butter tea is a churning tea from bricks made of fermented black leaves with yak butter and salt.

The exhibition, although only one room, covers ritual and revelry in Asia in a surprising level of detail with a good mixture of objects that leave you gasping for a cuppa, or a tipple when you’ve finished, just remember to heed the warning of the Duke of Zhou.

The exhibition is on until January the 6th, details here