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Object of the Week: Oiling

Faig Ahmed is a textile artist and sculptor based in Baku, Azerbaijan, who uses both traditional and modern carpet-making techniques to create something unexpected. His work, Oiling (2012), begins as a traditional wool-knotted Azerbaijani carpet, but then transforms and spills into a fluid, modern form as the pattern and weaving technique are altered.

Carpets have always occupied a place of interest for Ahmed. As a child, he entertained himself by rearranging motifs he found in the carpet on the floor of his grandmother’s home. Unable to keep his ideas contained solely to his imagination, he cut out symbols from the carpet and moved them into new positions. His interest in the potential of traditional carpets to carry and transmit new stories stayed with him into his professional artistic practice.[1]

For Ahmed, the carpet is a “cultural code, or DNA, incorporating a language of universal signs that has been carried across generations and cultures through the immemorial migration and intermingling of peoples, in this case along the Silk Road trade routes.”[2] Traditionally, in Azerbaijan, women were expected to weave a carpet before their marriage as part of their dowry. Today, those traditions and craft knowledge are no longer common, but there are still local weavers who continue to weave by hand. Ahmed works in collaboration with these women, based in the village of Bulbule not far from his studio in Baku. These weavers use the same hand-weaving techniques to create cut pile wool carpets that have been used in the area for hundreds of years. Ahmed explained in an interview that working with these women to realize his designs means he is constantly learning. “They teach me the meaning of symbols, but they are always trying to bring me back to tradition!”[3]

The title of the work in SAM’s collection, Oiling, might have a dual meaning referring both to the oozing shape in which the carpet’s design descends, and to the artist’s country’s relationship with oil. Azerbaijan has been connected to oil for hundreds of years. Medieval travelers to the region remarked on its abundant oil supply. In 1846, Azerbaijan drilled its first oil well in Bibi-Heybat—more than a decade before oil was discovered in the United States. By the 19th century, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world’s oil supply.[4]

In the words of the artist:

“The value of the Carpet for art is the fact that this object included layers of millennial stories that could be instantly translated into modern language. Through my work I am asking, where are the boundaries of craft and art? And carpet itself creates questions on cultural boundaries. As an artist, I was looking for a modern language of art to talk about the future, but I found an ancient one and started talking about the present. And in the present, there is no value more important than life itself.”[5]

– Faig Ahmed

Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Jessica Hemmings, “Faig Ahmed,” Surface Design Journal, Spring 2015: 38-43.
[2] Cathryn Drake, “Faig Ahmed at Yarat,” [exhibition review] Artforum (February 2017), https://www.artforum.com/inprint/issue=201702&id=66123, accessed September 2, 2020.
[3] Hemmings, Ibid.
[4] Mir Yusif Mir-Babayev, “Azerbaijan’s Oil History: A Chronology Leading up to the Soviet Era,” Azerbaijan International 10.2 (Summer 2002): 34-40, https://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai102_folder/102_articles/102_oil_chronology.html, accessed September 2, 2020.
[5] Interview with Maria Rosaria Roseo: “The Carpet as a Cultural Metaphor: Interview with Faig Ahmed,” Artemorbida Textile Arts, https://www.artemorbida.com/il-tappeto-come-metafora-culturale-intervista-con-faig-ahmed/?lang=en, accessed September 7, 2020.
Image: Oiling, 2012, Faig Ahmed, hand-knotted wool, 59 × 39 1/2 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 2013.13 © Faig Ahmed

Virtual Tour with Carol Frankel

The recently renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum reopened only a few short weeks before SAM had to close due to COVID-19. In this virtual docent tour, Carol Frankel takes us through one of the reimagined galleries—the Color in Clay gallery overlooking Volunteer Park. Carol Frankel has been a SAM docent since 2007. After 25 years at the University of Puget Sound, she became a docent and found her real interest in Asian art. She travels regularly to Japan to visit friends and seek out new and interesting places. When not sleuthing out some Asian art object, she cooks with her grandchildren by FaceTime if not in person.

Many may find this gallery, which is organized solely by color, perplexing. It is filled with several objects, none of which have a label. For me, it’s the most rewarding room to explore, with so many interesting and thought-provoking opportunities. To help narrow our virtual tour, we’ll focus on two colors: blue and white. 

We’ll start by looking at blue pieces. Blue can be the most desired and difficult color to achieve in textiles, paints, and ceramics. While we’re focused on this precious hue, you may be surprised that our first three objects are primarily brown, green, and cream.

These are sancai 三彩  ware. The name literally translates to “three colors.” A railroad company named these precious objects! There were Tang dynasty tombs still in-tact all over China in the 1920s when the Longhai Railroad started developing rail lines throughout the country. In the process, they dug up many tombs and ceramic pieces. The most prevalent were glazed in three colors: brown, green, and cream. These works were sold to museums all over the world under the name “Tang Dynasty Sancai.” 

So why are these on our blue-themed tour? If you look closely, you can see touches of blue and whenever we see blue in Chinese ceramics we can assume it uses cobalt that came from West Asia—also known as the Middle East—where the element was prevalent. This confirms that in the 7th and 8th centuries CE China was trading across the continent. (Additionally, we can see the evidence of trade with the west in the facial structure of the wine merchant.) 

The development of glaze was a notable achievement of the Tang Dynasty, but most important in our exploration of blue and white pottery was the move from the darker clay popular in China at that time to the whiter clay, which eventually led to porcelain. At the end of the gallery, you can see how this change in materials created a spectacular lack of color.

We’ve now seen blue and white separately, and if you were to look to your left in the gallery, you would see the colors combined. 

We have now skipped ahead maybe 700 years to the Ming dynasty in China. The Ming blue-and-white objects are what some consider the pinnacle of ceramic ware. In the gallery is a large Ming plate, pictured above, surrounded by blue and white examples from Vietnam and present-day Iran (the origin of the cobalt blue glazes used in the sancai ware).  

While Persia had the natural resources to create a deep, rich blue, what they didn’t have was the white clay available in China. Their clay was dark and in order to create a good blue and white, they had to first glaze the piece with a white glaze! If you were to look at the unglazed foot of each of these pieces (the back of the plates), you would see a dark gray clay, whereas the accompanying Chinese ceramic’s foot shows a bright white. You can also notice differences in the glazes of these two cultures. While the colors are similar, the lines are slightly different. Look closely at the Persian works and you’ll notice the blue glaze is somewhat blurry and the Chinese blue and white edges are crisp. In China, potters learned to mix the cobalt glaze with some of the indigenous kaolin clay and were able to obtain the sharp edges seen in Ming ceramics.

The world really opens up through the lens of only two colors. Once the museum reopens, you can return to the Color in Clay gallery and explore using another color combination as a vehicle to consider materials, trade, history, and fashion.

– Carol Frankel, SAM Docent

Images: Installation view Color in Clay gallery, Asian Art Museum, 2019, Jueqian Fang. Figure of foreign merchant holding wine skin, 8th century, Chines, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze, 14 5/8 x 10 x 6 1/2in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 38.6. Tripod plate, 8th–9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and incised decoration, 1 7/8 in., diam. 7 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.49. Phoenix head ewer, 8th-9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and molded decoration, 12 5/8 x 4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Silk Road, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., September 16, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silk-Road-trade-route. Jar, 9th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze, 8 3/4 in., Silver Anniversary Fund, 59.121. Dish with the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols, late 15th century, Chinese, porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, h. 1 9/16 in., diam. 7 1/2 in., diam. bottom 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.85. Dish with foliated rim and Chinese landscape, late 15th to early 16th century, Vietnamese, stoneware with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, diam. 13 1/4 in., Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Plate, 16th century, robably Iranian (Persia), Mashhad, stonepaste with underglaze-blue, black, and sage-green decoration, h. 2 3/8 in., diam. 12 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 57.17. Plate, 17th century, Iranian (Persian), stonepaste with underglaze-blue decoration, 2 1/2 x 13 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.146.

Gardner Center goes down the Silk Roads of History

What is it about Silk Roads history and art that interests so many people? In the late 19th century, German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term ‘Silk Road’ or ‘Silk Routes’ as part of his map-making efforts. After all, better maps of travel routes had commercial value for access to coal or building railroads, for instance. In the early 20th century, several spectacular “discoveries” (ie, new to the West) of magnificent troves of art and manuscripts in Central Asia and western China fueled the fascination.

Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy, photo: Wu Jian. 

Now the plural ‘Silk Roads’ is used to better describe the many complex historic trade routes through the Eurasian continent. The idea of commercial exchange across a continent that involved interactions of many cultures, languages, religions, and arts can be such an appealing picture of cosmopolitan societies—in contrast to present-day tensions at home and abroad. “Silk Road nostalgia” refers to interpreting this history in the imagination as a time of tolerance and international understanding as well as prosperity, rooted in hope for peaceful and respectful global exchange in future.

The Jewel of Muscat, a reconstructed replica of a ninth century Omani trading ship, sails into the harbour of Galle, 116 km (72 miles) south of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, on April 19, 2010. The ship, built in a traditional design without nails and sewn together with coconut fibers, left Oman on February 15 to re-enact the old trade routes used by Arab traders, with its final port of call in Singapore, according to the organizers of the voyage. AFP PHOTO/ Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI. (Photo credit should read LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

The fall Saturday University Lecture Series, Silk Roads Past and Present: From Ancient Afghan Treasure to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, presents current understandings in seven lectures. Beginning with a talk on the Begram Hoard excavated in Afghanistan, we consider how these storerooms from the first century CE could contain Roman glass, Chinese lacquer, and extraordinarily carved ivories from India. A talk on Maritime Silk Roads explores the shipping that actually transported more goods than overland routes, despite the persistent image of camel caravans.

Bodhisattva leading a lady to the Pure Land (detail), Chinese, Tang dynasty, c. 851–900 CE, Hanging scroll, Ink and colors on silk, Height: 80.5 centimetres, Width: 53.8 centimetres, ©️Trustees of the British Museum. 

The Silk Roads also saw the spread of Buddhism, and two speakers explore Buddhist art in China. Two lesser-known religions are introduced in a talk on Zoroastrian and Manichaean arts. And what about silk? Find out about silk and fashion in Tang Dynasty China, as trade made new textile technologies, colors, and patterns available.  The series concludes with a talk on China’s current international initiative also referred to as the New Silk Road. Please join us!

– Sarah Loudon, Director, Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas

Image: Mogao Cave 237. Image courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy, photo: Zhang Weiwen.