A Continent, a Kaleidoscope: Across Asia at the Walters

A Continent, a Kaleidoscope: Across Asia at the Walters

For, after all, sitting and pondering is exactly what we might do if we were sipping tea in a traditional Japanese teahouse. And, indeed, an adjacent array of smaller items speaks of the sensuous (but not necessarily less sophisticated) pleasures of tea and tobacco. There’s even a touchable resin reproduction of a netsuke, a carved object used to attach a tobacco box to a sash. Take it in hand and delight in the varied surface, polished to preclude any damage to a silk outfit. 

Next, enjoy a stroll through the nearby gaggle of religious figures—various Hindu and Jain deities; languorous Buddhas—pausing at the impressive evocation of a Burmese shrine, capped by a sculpture of a serene, seated Buddha. This figure (which recently also held court in the museum’s Carriage House) is the product of a complex history: covered with paper-thin gold leaf donated by devotees, it also belonged to the billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke, before being donated to the Walters.

Just a few steps away is another clear highlight of the show: a recently repaired 12-foot-tall thammat, or pulpit, from a Thai Buddhist temple. This wooden structure, the largest object in the Walters’ collection, once hosted monks as they recited Buddhist literature (in fact, an adjacent video screen offers a chance to hear a local monk doing just that). As a material object, it is riveting. The hundreds of reflective panels glitter, sharp contours of cut glass offset the less regular lines of joined wood, and solid elements and bold voids coexist in a provocative tension.

Thammat, Thailand, 19th century, wood, glass inlay, lacquer, gilt
Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s
Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2002
Image Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Several galleries are given to works of art from the Islamic world, marking the first time that the Walters has shown Asian and Islamic material in a contiguous manner. Particularly notable is a handsome case that evokes the furniture of a Persian collector and holds fifteen ceramic specimens: a concise and colorful visual primer. Nearby, several very different objects (Yemeni silver work likely executed by Jewish craftsmen; a jeweled Ottoman rifle made by an Armenian Christian) illustrate the complex intercultural intersections that have long characterized visual culture in the region.

Or, in one notable case, in Maryland.

In developing this show, Dimmig assembled an Islamic art advisory committee, which challenged her to consider the local relevance of such material. That resulted in the inclusion of a 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a West African Muslim who was briefly enslaved on Kent Island before being freed, welcomed into London’s educated circles, and painted. In the portrait, Diallo wears a Qur’an about his neck; in an adjacent case, a comparable Qur’an suggests the popularity of such a practice, and gives us a sense of the scale and heft of such texts, which also served as portable talismans.

In a sense, Diallo’s experience thus lines up neatly with the installation’s more general emphasis on cosmopolitanism and exchange. Again, these are hardly novel themes; exhibitions that focus on the Silk Road are common, and a 2017 show at the Denver Art Museum also foregrounded the relationship between Asian art, trade and devotion. Still, several of the objects on display are eloquent reminders of the complexity of those interactions. A powerful Baroque sculpture of the archangel Michael, for instance, is made of ivory gathered in both Africa and southeast Asia; carved in the Philippines by Chinese craftsmen, it was probably intended for a Catholic audience in either Europe or Mexico. The world was evidently already flat, in some senses, more than 300 years ago.

 

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