Dr. Prita Meier on the Vibrant Arts of the Swahili Coast

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics on Asian art and culture across time. On Saturday, May 11, Dr. Prita Meier, Associated Professor of Africanist Art History in the Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, will discuss the vibrant contemporary art and architectural scenes of the Swahili Coast. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Meier about what visitors can expect to learn about in her upcoming talk, the boundaries of culture and geography, and her extended travels to Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

PRITA MEIER: I will introduce audiences to the vibrant arts and architectures of the Swahili Coast of present-day Kenya and Tanzania. This maritime region of eastern Africa is where Africa and the Indian Ocean intersect. This vibrant arena of convergence has been a center of globalism and intercultural negotiating for more than a millennium. The Swahili Coast has an especially long history or engagement and exchange with Asia. My lecture will focus on a range of artifacts, ornaments, architectural forms—and even photographs—from the early modern period to the present. I will invite audiences to rethink how they draw boundaries between cultures and geographies. Oceanic places like Swahili port cities are transcontinental and multicultural in ways that challenge our ways of seeing the world. The main question animating my lecture will be: Where does Africa end and Asia begin from the vantage point of archipelagos, islands, and itinerant objects moving across the sea?

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

PM: I am trained as an Africanist, which means my primary research method is fieldwork and ethnography. That is, I talk to people about their culture in order to learn from them. I have been traveling and working in the port cities of Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar for over twenty years. I have become deeply connected to families in Old Town Mombasa, who have been nurturing me and sustaining me for a long time. While my research on the arts of the Swahili Coast is focused on object and material culture, I am first and foremost dedicated to centering the amazing Kenyan individuals who have mentored me and guided me over the years. In fact, I have just spent the month of April in Mombasa and Nairobi, working on a new research project with local collaborators.

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

PM: I am fascinated this Pakistani Bodhisattva from the mid-2nd to 3rd century. I love artworks and cultural forms that challenge our ideas about where an object or style belongs. This is a sacred Buddhist manifestation, but its style and figuration is connected to the Hellenistic world. It belongs to two artistic traditions, but also exceeds those traditions. It is a fascinating artwork of the crossroads.

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

PM: Here are a few recommendations:

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Headshot by Josh Kwassman. Hair Comb, about 1800, from Swahili coast of eastern Africa, courtesy of Minneapolis Museum of Art. Image of Bodhisattva by Paul Macapia.

Professor Aurelia Campbell on the Rarity and Artistry of Chinese Buddhist Burial Shrouds

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics on Asian art and culture across time. On Saturday, April 13, Aurelia Campbell, Associate Professor of Asian Art History at Boston College, will examine the artistry and significance of the elaborate Buddhist burial shrouds that were excavated from the graves of high-ranking men and women from China’s Ming and Qing dynasties. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Campbell about what visitors can expect to learn about in her upcoming talk, her first encounter with a burial shroud, and prevalent misconnections of Buddhism.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

AURELIA CAMPBELL: My talk will introduce Buddhist burial shrouds excavated from tombs dating between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties in China. The shrouds vary in form depending on the identity of the tomb occupant (for instance, those of lower-ranking individuals are printed on paper, while those of higher-ranking individuals are embroidered on silk). Some shrouds are executed in a Chinese style while others reflect a more Tibetan style, which was popular after the Mongols ruled China in the 13th and 14th centuries. Despite these differences, the shrouds all combine text and image to create a kind of power object that was thought to help bring about an auspicious rebirth. I was initially drawn to the topic of Buddhist burial shrouds after first encountering one in 2016. Since then, I have found out about several others while conducting research for my new book project on Ming dynasty burials. I now know of at least five burial shrouds, all of which are quite extraordinary, and I eventually plan to publish my research on them in a journal article.

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

AC: Given the fragile nature of these burial shrouds, they are rarely on display in museums. Moreover, only a few survive and, in some cases, they are associated with very lofty individuals, including emperors and empresses. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to obtain access to them in China. Perhaps surprisingly, my first encounter with a burial shroud, and my only travel related story pertaining to one, was in California. This shroud was part of an exhibition entitled Royal Taste: The Art of Princely Courts in Fifteenth-Century China held at the University of Southern California Pacific Asia Museum in 2016. At that time, I had never heard of this burial shroud, nor did I know that Buddhist burial shrouds even existed China. The shroud was massive and was entirely covered with text and image printed in red. I probably spent a half hour looking at it, totally captivated. Sometime soon, I will travel to see another burial shroud in the collection of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island. Beyond that, I’m not sure I’ll be able to see any of the precious shrouds in person, unfortunately. 

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

AC: The Seattle Art Museum has a fantastic collection of East Asian art, so it is difficult to choose just one. But I’m fascinated by this sleeveless undergarment with Buddhist text from 19th century Japan. The garment, made of hemp and silk and printed with Sanskrit and Chinese Buddhist text, was meant to protect the wearer from evil spirits. According to the object’s description, it may have been worn during rituals or when going into battle. The talismanic function of the sacred writing on this garment is analogous to that of the burial shrouds that I will be discussing in my talk. However, it obviously differs in the sense that it is fabricated into an item of clothing and worn by the living. I would love to be able to study this garment more closely.

SAM: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you want to share with the public in advance of your lecture?

AC: It might be useful for the audience to think about what the burial shrouds examined in my talk tell us about what Buddhists living in the Ming and Qing dynasties believed and how they practiced. I have often felt that there is a general misconception that Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a “philosophy” centered on meditation. While that may be true in some times and places, these shrouds reveal that spells, magic, rituals, and notions of salvation were actually much more closely associated with lay Buddhist practice at this time than was meditation.

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

AC: Paul Copp’s The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) provides an excellent introduction to the apotropaic function of Buddhist writing in China. He investigates spells inscribed onto a wide range of objects that were situated in temples, worn on the body, and buried with the deceased. The book is richly illustrated and full of interesting material that has not traditionally been examined in academic scholarship. Although the book focuses on an earlier period than I will cover in my talk, it helps set the scene for the Ming and Qing period by demonstrating the longstanding perceived efficacy of Buddhist texts and images in a funerary context. 

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Headshot by Ashley Craig. Wang Shancai 王善才, ed. Zhang Mao fufu hezang mu 張懋夫婦合葬墓 (The tomb of Zhang Mao husband and wife). Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 2007. Sleeveless Undergarment with Buddhist Text, early 19th century, Japanese, Hemp and silk with ink, 36 x 24 in. (91.44 x 60.96 cm), Purchased with funds from the Estate of Pauline King Butts, 93.166.

Curator Jeannie Kenmotsu on the Untold Stories of Women Printmakers in Postwar Japan

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics on Asian art and culture across time. On Saturday, March 9, Dr. Jeannie Kenmotsu, Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, will share insight on the remarkable influence of women printmakers in postwar Japan. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Dr. Kenmotsu about what visitors can expect to learn about in her upcoming talk, the persistence of sexism in art history, and the significance of bringing the stories of these women printmakers to light.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

Dr. Jeannie Kenmotsu: In 2020, I organized the exhibition Joryū Hanga Kyōkai, 1956–1965: Japan’s Women Printmakers at the Portland Art Museum. This was the first close examination of the activities of this important group, Joryū Hanga Kyōkai, or the Women Printmakers Association. I was fascinated by this collective, which organized collaborative exhibitions together over the course of ten years and seemed to serve as a catalyst for a number of artists, yet had received so little scholarly attention. Of course, I am indebted to many colleagues who have also championed the work of women printmakers in Japan, through their writing, teaching, and exhibitions. But two things remain true: one, that women printmakers were overshadowed by their male counterparts in the twentieth century, a situation that persists today. And two, that there is much more primary documentation and excavation to do in this area, particularly in terms of exploring the depth and richness of individual artists’ stories.

My upcoming Saturday University lecture will provide a broader introduction to the topic of postwar women printmakers, so it is suitable for anyone with an interest in, but limited knowledge, of Asian art, of creative prints (sōsaku hanga), or even of printmaking more generally. I’m interested in the historical conditions that shaped their work, their contemporary reception, and how we do—or don’t—talk about them today. I’m equally interested in bringing to light both the commonalities and the diversity of their career trajectories. Therefore, my focus will be on bringing their stories into greater focus and celebrating their work.

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

JK: In a funny way, my work in this area has been shaped by a lack of an ability to travel. In early 2020 I was making plans to pursue research in both Japan and North America for the Joryū Hanga Kyōkai exhibition. That quickly became impossible, but I was fortunate to have already received a trove of amazing archival materials related to that artist collective, which I could sort through once I was able to get back into the museum building. After that, it became very much “research by mail” — on the one hand, I was able to secure some fantastic loans for the exhibition that were critical to telling the story; on the other hand, secondary research was virtually impossible, as I had very limited library access. The exhibition opened September 2020. While one of my big regrets is that so few people were able to see it, it was one of the intellectual and personal bright spots for me during a difficult time in the world.

Yoshida Chizuko (Japanese, 1924–2017), Ao no fūkei (Landscape in Blue), 1972, color woodblock print with blind embossing on paper, image: 22 in x 16 1/2 in; sheet: 25 in x 18 3/8 in, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Asian Art Auction proceeds. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 2016.23.1.

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

JK: Choose just one? Goodness, that’s hard. The Deer Scroll, with calligraphy by Hon’ami Kōetsu and decorated paper painted by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, makes my heart sing. Another favorite is Tsuji Kakō’s two-panel folding screen, Green Waves, from SAM’s excellent nihonga collection, for the artist’s deft handling of mineral pigments on silk to explore light on water. It’s stunning in person, and captures that mesmerizing sensation of watching the ocean.

SAM: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you want to share with the public in advance of your lecture?

JK: My lecture will introduce some understudied but wonderfully creative artists. But of course my research is also driven by some deeper scholarly questions about discourse and reparative history, in this case through the lens of gender and art. I consider my work in the area of postwar printmaking to be just one contribution to a larger, ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that these projects will spark questions and critical engagement from other scholars, particularly the younger generation.

Iwami Reika (Japanese, 1927–2020), Mizu no fu 78-H (Song of Water 78-H), 1978, color woodblock print with embossing, gold leaf, and metallic pigments on paper, image: 16 1/8 in x 10 15/16 in; sheet: 20 3/16 in x 14 in, Gift of Marge Carter. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 2018.58.2.

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

JK: Alas, to date there is limited English-language literature focused specifically on the women artists I will discuss in my talk, let alone on the collective conditions that shaped and attended their careers despite their highly individual practices. That said, they are widely collected and have been included in many group exhibitions, catalogues, essays, and academic monographs over the last few decades. But the point is that these artists have rarely been the focus, with a few notable exceptions, such as solo retrospectives (usually focused on artists who have lived abroad). Some broader publications on modern Japanese prints more generally that might be enjoyed by those new to the topic include Made in Japan by Alicia Volk or Hanga by Chiaki Ajioka, or the classics Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn by Oliver Statler and The Modern Japanese Print by James Michener. These last two are still widely available, and I’ll touch on them in my talk.

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Courtesy of Jeannie Kenmotsu.

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