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Object of the Week: Camel

Of the nearly 24,000 objects in SAM’s collection, two sculptures have probably had the broadest impact on visitors’ experience of the museum since it opened in 1933. They have proven a popular attraction for visitors of all ages, newcomers and regulars alike. For a long time, though, they weren’t even physically in the museum. They’re the greeters, the guardians. They are: the camels.

Writing in 1968—35 years after the arrival of our Chinese camels and the opening of our doors—SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller proclaimed the camels “unquestionably the most popular items” in the museum’s collection. No doubt this was partly because he enthusiastically encouraged kids to have a go at riding them.

Riding the Camel

Kids on the Camel

Standing on the Camel

Chosen specifically by Dr. Fuller and his mother, SAM co-founder Margaret MacTavish Fuller, to be the symbolic guardians of the museum, they were installed on either side of the front entrance. Former SAM curator and historian Josh Yiu reflected on their significance: “They were the first works of art that children and adults alike experienced at the Seattle Art Museum. The camels achieved an iconic status because they introduced art, the museum, and China to the general public.”1

Asian Art Museum Exterior in 1933

Dr. Fuller also clearly saw in the pair of marble bactrians an impressive aesthetic achievement, one that complemented the striking Art Deco design of SAM’s original building in Volunteer Park and echoed the cultural focus of its artworks. In his personal correspondence from 1933, Fuller wrote the following justification:

“Granting that the sculptor had made no attempt to achieve lifelike forms, I think that there is no question but that his results are great works of art…Viewed purely from the view-point of artistry, I personally think that it would be almost impossible to have modern sculpture designed that could have coincided more perfectly with the spirit that we endeavored to attain in the design of the building, and it seems especially fortunate that they should, at the same time, emphasize our interest in Oriental art.”

Camel

In 1986 conservation concerns won out, and the camel-riding tradition came to a sad, but necessary end (hundreds-of-years-old marble sculptures, folks). We no longer sanction it, at least! The Chinese camels journeyed downtown for the inaugural installation here in 1991, and today replicas flank the front doors to the Asian Art Museum.

Camel replica being installed

You can still see (not ride) the originals in our grand stairway.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 46.

IMAGES: Camel, Chinese, late 14th-mid-17th century, marble, each 101 1/2 x 56 x 36 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.814.1, 33.814.2, Photo: Jasmine Boothroyd. Photos: SAM Archive.
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Madeleine on camel outside Seattle Asian Art Museum on June 23rd during Mandala Demonstration

A SAM Intern’s First Visit to the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Monks from Gaden Shartse Monastery in Fuller Room of Seattle Asian Art Museum for Mandala Demonstration

Within the Fuller room, visiting monks from the Gaden Shartse monastery were creating a mandala and will do so over the next few days. Mandalas are a Buddhist form of sacred art that carry spiritual significance. They are made by layering colored sands in an intricate design which usually relates to the dwelling of a diety. The monks vigorously run one chakpur (a bronze funnel that holds colored sand) over the ridges of another chakpur in order to direct the sand into the design.

Gaden Shartse monk making mandala as part of Seattle Asian Art Museum and Dechenling collaboration

Monk prepping chakpur for mandala making.

Once the design is complete, the monks will sweep the sand into a container which will be placed in moving  water such as a river or ocean. So four days of concentrated, intricate work gone in about thirty minutes. Quite a reminder of beauty and its impermanence.

Gaden Shartse monks using chakpurs and colored sands to make a mandala at Seattle Asian Art Museum in collaboration with Dechenling

Continuing through the museum, I repeatedly viewed objects made of nephrite. Upon later research, I learned that nephrite is one of two kinds of jade and usually comes in shades of green, grey, and brown with varying degrees of translucence. My favorite object was a dragon and tiger plaque, made of nephrite in the Ming period (1368-1644). It’s a decorative object, and it made me think about how there was a time that anything functional was expected to be beautiful, that functionality and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

Dragon and tiger nephrite plaque from Ming period at Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Dragon and tiger nephrite plaque.

The displays of ceramics, sculptures, and scrolls were lovely and accessible. The labels gave clarity to the objects they described but still left me with room to interpret and understand the works on my own. I most appreciated this when admiring a woman’s robe from China, ca. 1875-1908. The label mentioned that garments in this era were seen as descriptors of one’s true nature as well as indicative of socioeconomic status. I found this idea inspiring and refreshing as much of what I’ve studied with fashion discusses garments as an act of display of wealth or a purposeful effort to control how others’ interpret us, not necessarily as an indication of our nature.

Chinese, woman's robe from 1875-1908 at Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Woman’s robe.

I definitely enjoyed my time at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It’s a manageable museum with space that facilitates easy movement from exhibition to exhibition and that contains a diverse range of work characterized by unique perspectives. I enjoyed something in each exhibition: plaques, robes, kimonos, prints, ceramics, and contemporary prints juxtaposed with sculptures and paintings. I plan on going back there and taking some people I know that will likely enjoy it as well.

Front entrance of Seattle Asian Art Museum with camels and art deco doors.

Seattle Asian Art Museum

 

 

Top photo: First camel ride ever.
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