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.

Muse/News: Art Doctor, Fall Reading, and Dürer’s Spite

SAM News

“Behind the scenes at SAM’s new Asian art conservation studio”: For the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest Magazine, Brendan Kiley takes you into SAM’s Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Conservation Center and introduces to you to Tanya Uyeda, the center’s new conservator of East Asian paintings.

“Now that SAM has its own studio and conservator—with plans to hire others, likely with Chinese or Korean expertise—it hopes to treat works not only from its own collection, but collections around the country. From here on out, Uyeda expects to be doing a lot of surgery.”

Here’s a Seattle Times reader “rave” for the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s 2020 remodel. Good news: You’ve now got one more day a week to visit our Art Deco gem; it’s now open Thursdays as well as Friday–Sunday. 

Among The Seattle Times’ Margo Vansynghel’s “Must-see Seattle-area exhibits in October” is a free book launch event. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore debuts Touching the Art at SAM on Sunday, October 15. Andrew Engelson also recommended the book in “New Local Releases to Read This Fall” in The Stranger’s fall Art and Performance Quarterly.

“No, I’m not recommending an art show where you’re allowed to touch the art. But I promise that you’ll feel like you’re up close with the paintings local writer Mattilda B. Sycamore describes in her new—and yes, touching—memoir.”

Local News

Get your fall reading list together with this Seattle Met list of Washington State Book Awards winners and finalists.

Whether you made it or missed it, relive the joy of Walk the Block at Wa Na Wari

Vansynghel also reported on the departure of E. Michael Whittington as the executive director of the Bellevue Arts Museum. Kate Casprowiak Scher has been named interim executive director.

“Scher—who’d already been volunteering with the museum—has already jumped into the fray, connecting with staff and assuming Whittington’s responsibilities to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

Inter/National News

Farah Nayeri for the New York Times Magazine on Louvre director Laurence des Cars’s “big plans for the world’s most visited museum.”

CBS Sunday Morning shared highlights “from hip hop to Picasso” in the upcoming arts season. There’s even a mention of Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec, on view through December 3 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum!

A spicy headline, via Adam Schrader for Artnet: “Albrecht Dürer Painted Himself Into a 16th-Century Altarpiece to Spite a Patron Who Paid Him Poorly, New Research Suggests.”

“It’s essentially him saying, ‘this is not actually about you as a patron, Mr. Heller. This is art and this will endure and will be looked at in 500 years’ time.’”

And Finally

“The great Seattle sitcom.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Making History: Meet Tanya Uyeda, SAM’s Inaugural Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator

This spring, Tanya Uyeda joined SAM as the museum’s inaugural Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator. A leader in conservation practice, education, and research, Tanya assumes responsibility for the care of SAM’s East Asian painting collection, focusing on conservation treatments and sourcing the necessary specialized materials and tools. 

Her appointment also marked the start of regular activity in the landmark Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Conservation Center, which opened as part of the renovated and expanded Seattle Asian Art Museum in February 2020. The center is one of only a handful of museum studios nationwide dedicated to the comprehensive treatment of East Asian paintings, and the only studio of this type in the western US.

Tanya comes to SAM with over 28 years of experience in art conservation, including over 20 years as a conservator of Japanese paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Born in Eugene, Oregon, Tanya received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies: Japanese Language and History from Oberlin College and earned a Master’s Degree in Preservation of Cultural Properties from Tokyo University of the Arts. She also trained at an elite painting conservation studio in Tokyo. She is one of only four American conservators of a similar background working in a US institution, as there are no conservation training programs for East Asian paintings outside of Asia.

Just a few months into her tenure at SAM, Marketing Content Creator Lily Hansen spoke with Tanya about her short- and long-term goals, what members can expect in her upcoming Up Close With Conservators talk this fall, how she’s adjusting to Seattle, and more.


LILY HANSEN: Welcome to SAM! After spending more than 20 years in Boston, how are you adjusting to Seattle?

TANYA UYEDA: It seems I arrived in Seattle at the best time of year—I’ve really been enjoying this spectacular summer weather! I’ve settled into a home in the Ballard neighborhood and have been getting it ready in anticipation of my family relocating from Boston later this fall. It’s been so nice to explore the Ballard Farmers Market every Sunday and recently took a weekend jaunt over to Bainbridge Island. I also have extended family in the area, and it has been lovely to be able to reconnect with many of them.

LH: How does it feel to be named SAM’s inaugural Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator?

TU: I feel very honored to be chosen for this important new position. Before arriving at SAM, I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which houses one of the most important and comprehensive collections of Japanese art in the US. Most of my work on the Japanese painting collection supported large-scale touring exhibitions that were shown primarily in Japan. 

I am looking forward to continuing this work at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and contributing to the preservation of, and scholarship on, the museum’s East Asian painting collection. I can’t wait to share my insights with members and visitors alike, and to support the care and appreciation of these important artworks throughout the entire Western Pacific region.

LH: What are a few of the goals you set for yourself in taking on this position?

TU: Since assuming my role, my immediate focus has been setting up the Tateuchi Conservation Center as a fully functioning conservation studio. The renovation of the Seattle Asian Art Museum included the creation of this beautiful new workspace, necessary infrastructure such as work tables, sinks, light tables, and fume hoods. The tatami mat flooring and low work tables are what you would see in a traditional Japanese scroll mounting studio, and is what I am accustomed to from my training.

In addition to the basic conservation equipment, East Asian paintings require highly specialized (and expensive!) materials and tools, such as handmade paper, woven textiles, decorative fittings, and various types of brushes, adhesives, pigments, and dyestuffs. Many of these necessary items are imported directly from Japan and China, and are becoming increasingly difficult to source due to the aging out of the artisans that produce them and a lack of younger craftsmen to replace them.

For example, there is a type of paper called “misu-gami” that is produced in the Yoshino region of Japan and provides the flexible inner structure of Japanese hanging scrolls. However, there is now only one papermaker producing it. I will be relying on the generous cooperation of conservation colleagues in Japan and the US, as well as suppliers and craftspeople, to support me as I work to outfit the Tateuchi Conservation Center and carry out the treatments we intend to complete.

LH: The Emerging Arts Leader Internship Program is an integral part of SAM’s mission to connect art to life. This summer, you welcomed Alexa Machnik as your first Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Conservation. What has it been like working with Alexa? Do you intend to take on more interns in the future?

TU: I was very fortunate to meet Alexa and convince her to spend the summer with me in Seattle before she begins a fellowship with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall. As a Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and a fourth-year student in the university’s MA/MS program in art history and conservation, she also has extensive working experience at institutions such as the Yale University library and Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The primary focus of Alexa’s internship has been to work alongside me in building eight new karibari, or drying boards, for the studio. These boards are an essential component of every East Asian painting conservation and mounting studio. They consist of a wooden lattice undercore and feature up to 11 layers of handmade paper pasted in specific configurations on either side to provide a sturdy and breathable, yet lightweight surface for stretch drying and flattening artworks during treatment. It is a time consuming and physically demanding task, and I am grateful to have Alexa’s assistance! Building the boards is also excellent training in the use of brushes and knives, different thicknesses of paste, and the preparation of various types of handmade paper. She is also helping me process an important series of artworks gifted to SAM at the bequest of longtime benefactor, the late Frank Bayley III, as well as designing  new display apparatus for upcoming gallery rotations at the museum.

My hope is that the Tateuchi Conservation Center will serve as a training resource for future conservators of Asian art, as coursework in East Asian painting conservation is not an area of study offered in North American or European graduate conservation programs. Training in this field is still largely apprenticeship-based, taking place in private studios across Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. As a result of their unusual formats, Asian paintings require dexterity, specialized tools, refined aesthetic sensibilities, and linguistic, cultural, and historical knowledge. In the US, the field tends to attract students with a background or interest in paper conservation. These include so-called pre-program students (those seeking admittance to North American conservation programs) or recent graduates from these same programs. Occasionally, students with academic or practical training from Asia are considered as well. 

LH: This fall, SAM will launch Up Close with Conservators, a members-only lecture series offering an in-depth look at the conservation work taking place at the museum. For the inaugural lecture, you’ll be in conversation with SAM’s Jane Lang Davis Chief Conservator Nick Dorman. What can SAM members expect to hear in your discussion with Nick?

TU: Up Close with Conservators is an exciting opportunity to highlight the individuals who make up SAM’s conservation team and to share the details of our work with the public. We chose to title the series “Up Close” because much of our work begins with a close examination of the objects. We look forward to educating members on the works of art in our care, sharing our discoveries, explaining how we assist the museum’s curators in interpreting the artistic intent of each artwork’s creator, and articulating how best to handle, store, and preserve art for future generations. 

In our lecture, Nick and I will discuss the museum’s long journey to establish the Tateuchi Conservation Center at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and what the role of this new resource will be for the understanding and preservation of the important East Asian collections in the West Coast region. I will also be giving a brief overview of the kind of work that will take place in the studio, and what conservation of East Asian paintings looks like. It will be my first opportunity to speak to SAM’s members and is sure to be a engaging conversation.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad.

Elevating the Spirit: Dr. Renée Cheng on Architecture’s Role in Our Lives

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2022–23 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, with nine talks by leading scholars exploring the social power of architecture. Renée Cheng, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and a catalyst for advocating diversity and inclusion in the field, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with a discussion of cultural identities and their expression in the built environment. Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum, spoke with Cheng about her background, why equity matters in architecture, and how architecture can respond to ecological concerns.

“Space and culture are interconnected—they shape and reflect one another. When we understand the cultural messages conveyed via sacred architecture, we become aware of how those messages are heard differently depending on cultural identity.”

– Dr. Renée Cheng

Haley Ha: Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in architecture?

Dr. Renée Cheng: I grew up in the Midwest—the daughter of a painter and an engineer—and in so many ways architecture is something of a combination of the two. I always enjoyed making things when I was a child. I did a lot of painting and sculpture, but it was messy stuff. It wasn’t like a kit of Lincoln Logs or Legos; it was clay and paint and messy things that were much more open-ended in what they would lead to. So I wouldn’t say that it was a straight line to architecture by any means. I actually considered medicine at one point, but I grew into really understanding my passion for making things and making beautiful things.

Later, I started realizing that it had to do with spaces, not objects, and my focus shifted over time to be increasingly oriented towards people and the collaborative ways that you have to work to build buildings. I became more interested in the interaction between people aligning around shared goals for occupied spaces and the use of space and places. 

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

Ha: How would you describe your work and research to someone who has never heard of the ideas you explore?

Dr. Cheng: I am an architect and I maintain my license, but I don’t build buildings. I don’t design buildings. I teach those that will be building buildings. I also study the field itself and look at ways that it could be more innovative and beneficial to more people. There’s a lot of the stereotype of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright in a cape, working for wealthy clients, or even, you know, primarily working for a limited number of people. I am really trying to promote an idea of architecture that positively affects more people, the idea that a well-placed window to a view or a sequence of spaces that allow you to be part of a group ceremony can elevate the spirit. It’s something that an individual might be able to do, but working together with others, really understanding the different points of view that go into making a space that works for more than one person, creating a space that’s large, larger than what one person can build is really what I what I look at in in my work.

It was not a practice in the same way that an architect would practice in an office, where there are buildings that you can show and point to and say we did that; but it’s more of a development of programs and looking at ways that the entire discipline and profession can change. My work has been primarily US-based, but I look at a lot of international examples, often in terms of the way they incorporate new technologies or legal structures of financing that allow for different ways of working. So it encompasses more than just the practice of architecture itself.

Ha: You’re an advocate for diversity and equitable practices in the field of architecture and built environments. Can you briefly describe built environments in both research and practice? And what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play in it?

Dr. Cheng: Built environments really include all of the areas that are not natural, that are actively built by shaping of land and the infrastructure. It includes smaller-scale spaces, rooms like where you woke up this morning, with a particular light condition and orientation, or the transit you use for shopping or working. The room that you were in, the living structure, the transit, the infrastructure were all planned. It’s part of a city that was planned.

Volunteer Park was planned and laid out in certain ways to emphasize or enhance certain aspects through the choice of what to plant. Some of it might have been growing here and preserved, and others might have been added. So there’s all those aspects of what makes up our built environment. They were all planned, designed, and executed. Someone had to figure out how to pay for it, had to logistically make it happen, and get all of the permissions to make sure that it would work and function in the way that it was intended.

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

So, what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play, when you think of that broad definition of built environments? Historically those designers were hired by a small group of people, often very wealthy, and the input was usually fairly limited. And so in the end you ended up with some really beautiful spaces and places for sure, but also certain decisions that really negatively impact communities—often communities of color—whether it was in the placement of highways or the general economic investment in affordable housing. You had a lot of communities that were left out and negatively impacted by architecture. And so what I have worked for is to find ways to include more voices, to include more factors. When we consider what is good design and to find ways that we can accomplish them effectively, not only economically but with sustainable and good practices.

Ha: In the past, architecture has been viewed as a male-dominated field. As an Asian American architect and a woman of color, what challenges have you faced in the field?

Dr. Cheng: There is a definite stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated field and definitely the dominant culture is white males; if you look across the leaders and award winners, they tend to be white men, especially in America. In my experience as a Asian American architect, I’m the first woman dean of the college. I’m the first person of color. But I’ve also been the first or often the only designer or practicing architect in a group of academics, academic architects, or woman in a very dominant technology-related field. So, quite often these are even more white male dominated than the general population of architects. I’ve definitely experienced being the only woman in the room. This can have some positives in that you get noticed, and some negatives in that you get scrutinized, or you sometimes feel like you’re speaking for an entire group and can be tokenized.

I’ve been committed to increasing the number of women in architecture in particular since I was in school. I had an experience when I was in graduate school, where our class was composed of about 30% women who went on to do amazing things like become firm leaders, these women were just really incredible. And there was a time in our graduate studies where there were no women faculty on a fairly large faculty group. And we talked to the dean about this, and his response was: there were no qualified women to hire for teaching, and that statement was so shocking to me, and made me renew a commitment that I think I hadn’t articulated before then to change that by setting up systems and programs that mentor and initiate faster pathways through the education and the professions for women and other identities that were underrepresented in the field.

A lot of the work that I do is centered on the experience I had in graduate school, of feeling like there’s got to be another way. It’s not that there were no qualified women. It’s that they were not easy to find, or that they weren’t retained, promoted, and made visible. Because I knew that my female classmates had a lot to offer. We were probably losing a lot of amazing input as well by not having the role models to help us succeed in our field.

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

Ha: What are some of the biggest challenges for ecological issues of our time, and how can architecture play a role in solutions?  

Dr. Cheng: Worldwide, buildings are forty percent of the energy consumption and they can make up eighty percent of what goes to our landfills through construction and demolition processes. You can say that you know buildings and cities bear a disproportionate share of energy consumption, and also they have a disproportionate responsibility of being a solution to the problem.

Let’s use embodied carbon, for example: the carbon that is used while you produce a building, maintain a building, and disassemble a building. It’s actually a more sophisticated way of thinking, not just of the cost of your electric bill for your air conditioning. Or consider a materials decision, and how much transportation it takes to transport this piece of wood from a place that maybe doesn’t have natural forests. Would concrete be a more economic, ecologically, and carbon-reducing choice? So, it gets pretty complicated, pretty fast, but the overall impact of the development on sustainability and climate is really pretty clear. Architects, building contractors, real estate developers, and landscape architects, we all bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate solutions, because the product of our work bears a disproportionate share of the energy consumption.

Ha: This Saturday University lecture series is focused on sacred spaces in urban settings; I’m interested in the collaborative work between UW’s College of Built Environments and the Nehemiah Initiative for faith-based congregations and the communities they serve in the Central District. It seems to have been vital for these places to survive the socioeconomic challenges in the historically black neighborhood. Can you tell us more about this collaborative effort and how this initiative played a role?

Dr. Cheng: This project is a multi-year commitment to the Nehemiah Initiative, which is a group of Black churches in the Central District of Seattle who are working together to promote their beloved community. Our college hosts a series of studio classes where students work with church leaders and community members to study the potential for church property to be developed in ways that provide housing and community spaces that can support the Black community.

We have an interdisciplinary team of faculty and I teach about the intercultural aspects of working across differences. The differences that I focus on for the class include disciplinary differences in how an urban planning student and a real estate student might think about the best use of the land. It also includes how our students can work with a Black faith-based community while bringing in their own experiences and expertise in respectful and effective ways.

– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum

Photo: Renée Cheng, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Image courtesy of Sean Airhart, NBBJ.

Objects of the Week: Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor

No matter where I encounter them, Naiza Khan’s artworks always transport me back to a classroom on the campus of SOAS, University of London. It was in one such space where I had the privilege of hearing the artist speak about her series Henna Hands and The Skin She Wears—both deeply connected to Cage-Corset (2007) and New Clothes for the Emperor (2009), currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of the exhibition Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time.

Embodied Change at Seattle Asian Art Museum

These works and series illustrate Khan’s preoccupations with the female body. In thinking through the function of attire as a construct, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor present clothing as a strategy to discuss gender. This is all the more relevant placed within the context of the back-and-forth between feminist activism and Islamicization in Pakistan that began in the 1960s and 70s, and gained much greater traction in the 1980s. As scholar Iftikhar Dadi has noted, in Khan’s works “the female body finally becomes visible in modern South Asian “Islamic” art as a subject itself, rather than simply remaining a decorative motif.”[1]

Part of her Heavenly Ornaments series, in which Khan turned to metal to fabricate armor, corsets, chastity belts and lingerie, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor highlight the artist’s engagement with the Bihishti Zewar, an Urdu text written by the Islamic scholar and Sufi Ashraf Ali Thanawi. Written in the beginning of the twentieth century, the text prescribes morals and behaviors pertinent to young Muslim women and girls. Noteworthy, the Bihishti Zewar was written with state and social reform in mind. It posited that Muslim women were capable of becoming educated and moral actors just as equally as men. Thus, the Bihishti Zewar paradoxically asked, why should women conform to the authority of men or the state?

Through her artworks, Khan also references the presence/absence of women within the public sphere, particularly in the context of the roll-back of numerous rights for Pakistani women under the Zia regime of the late 1970s and 80s. Despite these retrogressions, huge numbers of women entered both the formal and informal labor sectors, and the applications of female students to higher educational institutes significantly increased. While the Zia regime attempted to control the presence of women in the public sphere, it inadvertently brought attention to the emergence of the publicly visible female body as an issue that could not simply be “rolled back.” In other works, Khan, unlike women artists before her, made use of the calligraphic form that was purported by the state as within the line of its official policy. Thus, Khan’s artworks demonstrate that simply opposing any state sanctioned idioms and logics are not enough to ensure the freedom of women.

Khan’s Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor demonstrate the entanglement of social, political, religious, and spatial relations that inform questions of subjectivity, freedom, and control imposed upon females. Then, as a starry-eyed master’s student, as now, the quiet subtlety of Khan’s artworks ring true. The artist does not simply claim her works as agents of freedom for those living under repressive regimes, but rather, brings attention to the ways in which such systems and its mechanisms, just like her corsets, are constructed, negotiated and navigated.

– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington


[1] Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2010, 198.

Images: Cage-corset, 2007, Naiza Khan, Metal and fabric, 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.1, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman. New Clothes for the Emperor (II), 2009, Naiza Khan, Black & white digital photograph on archival Canson Infinity paper, 33 x 22 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.2, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Back to School with New Eyes on Asia Educator Resources

Returning to school for K–12 students and educators not only means the beginning of a new school year, but also returning to in-person classrooms, in many cases. Around this time last year, the School & Educators team at SAM was working closely with our school and community partners on modifying the resources that had been created for the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s 2020 reopening, which were designed for in-person groups at the museum or in the classroom. In the following months, those programs pivoted from an in-person museum visit with related educator resources to a guided virtual experience featuring interactive Eyes on Asia videos.

Throughout the development of Asian art educational resources, we have consistently sought the input of those whose work is closest to youth and families. When the prospect of a fully remote 2020–21 school year became clear, we surveyed the educators that had been involved in our school partnerships for their insights on how best to meet the needs of students without high-speed internet, specialized art supplies, and/or the capacity to regularly attend online classes. Based on their feedback, we began developing Asian art resources that could be used in a virtual classroom or on their own. Instead of providing information on many artworks, we created differentiated ways to explore one object. In this way, an educator would be able to facilitate a sense of shared learning among students, even if they were not following the exact same steps.

SAM staff prepare to shoot a scene from the Eyes on Asia video series.

Working with local videographer Ellison Shieh, the School & Educators team shot three videos in October 2020. Ellison’s experience at the intersection of documentary filmmaking and historical preservation, as seen in their work on “Chinatown-International District: Bush Garden” in #VanishingSeattle’s award-winning series, was incredibly helpful in cultivating a space of learning in the Eyes on Asia videos. In the coming months, we shared these videos and related resources with educators across many school districts, including Seattle Public Schools and Highline Public Schools. Not only was it a joy to see students engaging with SAM’s Asian art collection in a new way, but educators provided feedback as well. In a focus group with educators that used these videos in their classrooms during the 2020–21 school year, participants shared their thoughts on the importance of student engagement and creative responses:

“The [activity] was just cool. They were super excited about it and like, ‘Do we get to work on this again tomorrow?’”

“I’m always looking for projects that have that balance of structure to help them build skills and then having it be really creative. It fit really well with that . . . . And I loved it because it shows that they are thinking about what is inspiring for them and what will help them be really creative.”

“I’ve been really trying to have a lot of local artists and artists from diverse backgrounds who are currently working that my kids can connect with because they just love to see young, active working artists that look like them. . . . That’s something that I know I would love to get more of.”

In May 2021, after integrating educator feedback, we shot a second round of videos with Ellison. For this second round, SAM invited teaching artist Amina Quraishi to design and lead art activities inspired by works of art on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In Amina’s activity, she reflects on how Islamic artists in the past have been inspired by the natural world around them. Creating a pattern based on Palampore (bed covering), she reminds us that the process is as important as the product when creating art.

While remote classrooms have now transitioned to hybrid or in-person, we hope that all the Eyes on Asia videos will help educators integrate a strengths-based approach with students, emphasizing their resilience and creativity over the past eighteen months. During this past year, we learned that teachers can adapt interactive video content in their classrooms, looking at works of art in SAM’s collection with their students before or after a future museum visit. With a specific focus on BIPOC artists and cultures underrepresented in our current offerings, we aim to continue improving our work toward community involvement and youth-led learning.

Watch all of SAM’s Eyes on Asia videos on YouTube.

– Yaoyao Liu, Museum Educator, Seattle Asian Art Museum

Yaoyao develops K-12 programs and resources related to other works of contemporary Asian art at SAM.

Images: Robert Wade. Yaoyao Liu.

Object of the Week: Flower Ball

During his time in New York in 1994, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami developed a style of art he describes as “East-meets-West” or “high-meets-low.”[1] Featuring bright colors and a vivid style that is ingenious in its simplicity, Murakami quickly became a renowned contemporary artist, collaborating with prominent cultural figures such as Kanye West and Pharell Williams.

Flower Ball speaks to the beauty of individuality and diversity. Each flower is unique in its colorations and size, situated harmoniously to create the illusion of a three-dimensional ball. The smiling, emoji-like faces at the center of each flower embody a sense of joy and innocence, and have become one of Murakami’s most featured motifs.

Murakami has become increasingly concerned with using his joyful artwork to balance out what he sees as sorrow or tragedy associated with minority groups in America.[2] This topic is a personal one for Murakami, based on his own experiences as an outsider in New York. The prominence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to anti-Black violence has also had an impact on Murakami’s artistic motivations. His simple pop-art images, bold and effervescent, attempt to offer an equilibrium to sadness, highlighting the joy and beauty of diversity. “If my art can effect any change here and now,” Murakami explains, “I want to contribute it not only to give back but to give power to the Black community plagued by the racial injustice.”[3]

This discussion regarding the necessity of celebration and inclusion in the face of tragedy and exclusion is more essential than ever in the current climate of not only the BLM movement, but the recent violence towards Asian Americans as well. The divisiveness and inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued racial discrimination have created unsafe spaces for many groups, with countless instances of vitriol and violence.

Works like Flower Ball remind us that differences between individuals are beautiful and vital––a concept embodied in the diversity of each iconic flower situated together in harmony. As a global art museum, SAM promotes the voices of Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), Latinx, immigrant communities, minority groups, and all other diverse actors who contribute to the beauty of art, media, culture, and society here in America and across the globe.

– Caitlin Sherman, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


[1] https://hbr.org/2021/03/lifes-work-an-interview-with-takashi-murakami
[2] https://hbr.org/2021/03/lifes-work-an-interview-with-takashi-murakami
[3] https://www.instagram.com/p/CBPI4YRl5gB/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=f0315211-5e0c-4448-87b3-76a3475193a6
Image: Flower Ball, 2002, Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas, 98 1/2 in., Gift of Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen, 2016.24.1 2002 © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Jueqian Fang

Object of the Week: Hanging Scroll

Intrigue, deception, mistaken identity, and overlapping love triangles carry Chapter 51 of the Tale of Genji to the heights of drama. Caught in between a love for two suitors who could not be more different, except in their indefatigable adoration for her, Ukifune struggles to discover where her heart truly lies. On the one hand, the prince Niou is handsome and charming, but impetuous and inconstant. On the other, the general Kaoru is understated and sensitive, but formal and overly mannered. Isolated from society in a remote mountain residence where Kaoru is keeping her, the desired lady is agonized by indecision, knowing that her life depends on a man’s provision. Ukifune, the central character’s name and also the title of this chapter, means “floating boat,” and is suggestive of Ukifune’s state of adriftness. 

The scene depicted in this hanging scroll invites us into a rare moment of calm amidst the turmoil. Niou has managed to evade the watchful eyes of Kaoru’s guards, and has absconded with Ukifune in the middle of the night, to a boat that will take them to a place across the river Uji where they can be alone. Under the gaze of the winter moon, the couple drifts through silent mists and icy waters towards the other shore.

“Without a word, he took Ukifune up in his arms and carried her off. Jijū followed after and Ukon was left to watch the house. Soon they were aboard one of the boats that had seemed so fragile out on the river. As they rowed into the stream, she clung to Niou, frightened as an exile to some hopelessly distant shore. He was delighted. The moon in the early-morning sky shone cloudless upon the waters. They were at the Islet of Oranges said the boatman, pulling up at a large rock over which evergreens trailed long branches.”[1]

The artist, Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-1682), was one of only a few known women artists permitted to publicly practice her craft in Edo-period (1603-1868) Japan. Yukinobu lived in Kyoto and was likely trained by her father in the tradition of the Kano school. Celebrated for her exacting brushwork and meticulous detail, Yukinobu was also known for her portrayals of legendary women of history. The Tale of Genji, said to be the first novel, was written in the eleventh century by a female writer, Murasaki Shikibu. In another hanging scroll by Yukinobu titled Murasaki Shikibu Gazing at the Moon, the author is captured in the process of drafting Genji.

This moment of passage across the nighttime waters is one that has drawn many artists across the centuries, but Yukinobu’s approach is unique. In the text, the couple are accompanied by a boatman and an attendant, but Yukinobu has chosen to depict them alone, sharing a private embrace. The artist may have been thinking of an exchange earlier in the chapter:

“Niou sent for an inkstone. He wrote beautifully, even though for his own amusement, and he drew interesting pictures. What young person could have resisted him? ‘You must look at this and think of me when I am not able to visit you.’ He sketched a most handsome couple leaning towards each other. ‘If only we could be together always.’ And shed a tear.”[2]

We can compare Yukinobu’s interpretation to that of one of her seventeenth-century near-contemporaries, Tosa Mitsuyoshi, in his five-volume set of handscrolls depicting scenes from the novel. Mitsuyoshi chooses the same scene, but paints Ukifune and Niou sitting apart, looking away from one another, rather than locked in a warm embrace. We are positioned with a bird’s eye view of the couple, and Niou’s back faces us, effectively excluding us from any intrusion we might make on the couple’s private escape. In contrast, Yukinobu encourages us to share this moment that is at once blissfully serene and full of anxious uncertainty. Our view is unobstructed, our gaze unfettered; we see deeply into the emotional state of each of the vessel’s passengers. We are immersed in the scene, traveling invisibly alongside Ukifune and Niou, and are invited to contemplate the tender stillness of time’s passage.

– Tori Champion, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


[1] Murasaki Shikibu and Edward Seidensticker (translator), The Tale of Genji (New York: Knopf, 1976), 991.
[2] Ibid., 983.
Images: Hanging scroll, ca. 1670, Kiyohara Yukinobu, ink and color on silk, 13 15/16 × 22 13/16 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.322. Illustrations of Genji Monogatari:  Vol. 2, The Sacred Tree, 17th century, Tosa Mitsuyoshi, color and platinum on paper, 10 1/2 in. x 29.9 ft, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.40.2

Revisiting Reopening the Asian Art Museum, At Last

One year ago, we welcomed you back to the renovated Asian Art Museum following a three-year closure while we reimagined and reinstalled SAM’s original home. Now, we are thrilled to invite you to another reopening in May 2021, following our year-long COVID closure to keep our community safe. The galleries have been waiting for you.

During the opening weekend in February 2020, 10,000 people visited the museum to experience the groundbreaking new thematic installation of SAM’s Asian art collection and share in creativity across cultures. It was moment to remember and we invite you to revisit the festivities in this video. Closing the museum just one month after this video was filmed was a sad moment and we know that many people did not get a chance to experience the expanded and enhanced Asian Art Museum. But soon, everyone will be able to!

The Asian Art Museum will reopen with limited capacity to members on May 7 and to the public on May 28. Friday, May 28 will be free and hours will be extended for Memorial Day weekend. Member tickets will be available starting April 15 and the public can get tickets starting April 29. The museum hours are 10 am–5 pm, Fridays–Sundays and admission is free on the last Friday of every month. When the museum reopens, the inaugural exhibitions will remain on view, including Boundless: Stories of Asian Art and Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art in the museum’s galleries and the installation Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn: Gather in the Fuller Garden Court. Learn more about what to know when you visit the Asian Art Museum.

Today’s Seattle Asian Art Museum is inspired. The Asian Art Museum breaks boundaries to offer a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological, exploration of art from the world’s largest continent. The restoration of the historic Art Deco building, improvements to critical systems, expanded gallery and education spaces, and a new park lobby that connects the museum to the surrounding Volunteer Park are just some of the ways the Asian Art Museum has been transformed and preserved as a cultural and community resource for future generations.

You will no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan, or India. Instead, vibrant artworks from Vietnam to Iran, and everywhere in between, come together to tell stories of human experiences across time and place. From themes of worship and celebration to clothing and identity, nature and power to birth and death, the new collection installation reveals the complexity and diversity of Asia—a place of distinct cultures, histories, and belief systems that help shape our world today.

Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

I witnessed 9/11, and was very much shocked and affected by the traumatizing and violent terrorism. This terrorism made me contemplate a lot on dogma of religion and its extreme violence against humanity, and at the same time, on peace for the world. I wish for a harmonized society: a Utopia.

– Kimsooja

In the inaugural exhibition Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the transformed Seattle Asian Art Museum, Mandala: Zone of Zero by globally acclaimed artist Kimsooja triggers memories of a recent past—9/11—but also sadly echoes what is happening in our even more divided world today. Displayed in its own dark room, the mixed media installation consists of three circular jukeboxes spinning in mesmerizing circles, each casting its own dimly-colored glow. Playing simultaneously from the jukeboxes’ speakers are Tibetan, Islamic, and Gregorian chants, all three hymns mixing and blurring until they are indistinguishable from one another.

Kimsooja was first inspired to create this work when she came across a gambling shop on New York City’s bustling Broadway. The circular jukebox, which she saw in the shop’s window, struck her as astonishingly similar to traditional Tibetan Mandalas—intricate designs meant to symbolize the universe and aid deep meditation. From its Obangsaek color scheme (the five traditional Korean colors of white, black, blue, yellow, and red), to its circular movement mimicking the cycle of life, to the speaker at the center symbolizing the completion of the self as an awakened being, for Kimsooja “all the elements of this kitsch jukebox speaker that matched with the sacred and religious Mandala system were ironical and intriguing to me, and that urged me to create a piece of art.” The subsequent combination of American pop culture and Buddhist symbolism is even expressed in the title: Mandala: Zone of Zero. However, what makes us ponder further is the meaning of “zone of zero.” Does it refer to the spiritual unification of mind and body, creating a perfect state of “zero”? Or does it simply express an emptiness—a sense of “zero”— that comes with the commercialization of religion?

The work is further enriched by the three chants, which surround the viewer in an almost dream-like fashion. Each recording was sourced at a different religious location. Most notably, the Buddhist Monks’ “Mandala” chant was recorded by Kimsooja’s brother in the same Tibetan temple that is home to the Dalai Lama.

Mandala: Zone of Zero’s call for religious tolerance was particularly topical at the time of its creation in the years following 9/11. Kimsooja herself was in New York on the day and bore witness to the tragedy, as well as to the years of violence and war that followed between the United States and the Islamic world. But the catastrophic event also made Kimsooja long for peace in the world, wishing for “a Utopia.” This duality between discord and harmony can be heard quite literally in the entrancing chants that Kimsooja sources in her piece. At times, the different hymns seem to clash against one another harshly and, in other moments, blend lullingly together, mingling and merging until they approach a sound of unity, a feeling of tranquility, a sweeping state of zero.

— Isabelle Qian, former SAM Curatorial Intern; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, Kimsooja, Three-channel sound installation with three jukeboxes, 9 min., 50 sec., Gift of William and Ruth True in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa and the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2020.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Virtual Tour with Nana

Next in our series of virtual tours from Suzanne Ragen, aka Nana, we’ll be looking at an ancient Hindu sculpture and a Chinese sculpture from the 14th century. A SAM docent since 1965, Ragen began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren when the Asian Art Museum had to close for the safety of the public in March 2020. She recently started to share these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us and we hope you enjoy them!

Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings

Do you remember our first object, the Indian Story Scroll Cloth that featured the Hindu god Ganesh? He starts the story on that scroll because he is the God of Auspicious Beginnings, which means the story gets off to a good start. 

This stone sculpture of Ganesh was located in a niche of a Hindu temple wall. In Hinduism, there are three main gods: Brahma has four heads and is the creator of pretty much everything; Vishnu often wears a top hat and is blue and comes to earth to help when needed in the form of nine different avatars; and Shiva who is the destroyer and can end the world and then you start all over again.     

This Ganesh is connected to Shiva, we know that because the snake across his round belly is Shiva’s snake. When you look at Ganesh, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, his most striking feature is his elephant head. He also has four arms, a big belly, wears jewelry, and a crown. You might notice his candy dish in his left hand (he loves candy). What do you see near his right foot? That’s Mooshika, his rat sidekick who helps Ganesh trample down or wiggle through obstacles.

Why do you think he has an elephant head? The reason starts with Shiva and his wife Parvati, who live in a big, fancy house. Shiva is gone a lot, destroying things and Parvati misses him. One day when Shiva is gone Parvati makes a child out of clay to keep her company and breathes life into him. Once she goes to take a bath and tells her child, “Don’t let anyone in the house!” But Shiva comes home unexpectedly. Ganesh stops him and says “You can’t come in!” This makes Shiva so angry that he takes his sword and cuts off Ganesh’s head.

Parvati comes out and says, “How terrible! You have cut off the head of our child!” Shiva realizes the situation and tells his servant to go to the market and bring back the first head he sees. It is an elephant. Shiva places the elephant head on his child’s body. Ganesh comes back to life and in Hindu mythology, stays as a helper to his father and a good son to his mother.

 Many Hindus pray to Ganesh for good luck when they set a new goal. After hearing this story, what do you think is lucky about Ganesh?

Dragon Tamer Luohan

This Chinese wood sculpture from the 14th century came to the Seattle Art Museum soon after it opened its doors in 1933. How do I know this information? I looked at the label! If you look at the last numbers on any label (no matter what museum you go to), you’ll see there are a series of numbers. The numbers before the first period tell you what year the museum acquired the work, after the period is the number in which the object came into the collection that year. This is called the accession number. The accession number for this object is 36.13. This means that the object was acquired in 1936 and it was the 13th object acquired that year.

For the past 84 years this object was titled Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment. While the museum was closed for a recent renovation and expansion, our Chinese curator was able to examine it very carefully, using medical equipment like x-rays and CT scans, as well as looking closely. We can do that, too.

What we discovered from the scans is that the figure is hollow, made up of five different pieces of wood, held together with long iron pins, and was painted in reds and greens with a topcoat of gold, most of which has worn off. The curator was able to remove a panel in his back and found a single Chinese character inscribed inside that the museum had never seen before! It is part of the name for the Dragon Tamer Luohan. Luohans are Buddhist monks and this one’s particular job was to control the Dragon King. The Chinese believed that rainfall was controlled from the clouds by the Dragon King, so farmers would pray to this Luohan for the right amount of rain for their crops. Because of his size  (more than three feet) and quality, it is thought that he was originally in a temple in Beijing.

The other big surprise that was found inside him was a mud wasp nest in his head! It must have been there for 800 years. A fragment of a wasp was sent to a UW entomologist, who was able to determine its species. 

He is sitting on a tree stump, his body is twisted, legs with one foot touching the ground and the other crossed over that knee. He is grasping his robe in one hand and probably held a pail or a pearl in his other hand.  He is looking upward at the sky, communicating with the Dragon King for more or less rain to fall. He seems totally animated with his swirling robes and vigorous body language. Notice his elongated pierced ear lobes, a symbol of the Buddha, who began life so wealthy that he wore heavy gold earring which stretched his ears.

Many years ago I was leading a high school group on a tour and we were talking about enlightenment and what it is? (This was when he had his first title). I suggested that it might be what happens when you are puzzling over a math problem and the symbols and numbers are just making no sense. You keep looking at them and suddenly they fall into place. Eureka! Enlightenment! When I said that, I snapped my fingers, and at that moment there was a minor Seattle earthquake. The guards came and rushed us into a doorway. I did feel a certain odd sense of power.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Image: Dragon Tamer Luohan, ca. 14th century, Chinese, wood with polychrome decoration, 41 x 30 x 22 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.13. Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Auspicious Beginnings, ca. late 10th to early 11th century, Indian , Odisha, possibly Bhubanesvara, sandstone, 18 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.33.

Virtual Tour with Nana

When the Asian Art Museum had to close due to health and safety concerns around COVID-19, Suzanne Ragen, a SAM docent since 1965, began writing what she calls Nana’s Art History 101 for her grandchildren. When Suzanne first started volunteering, Dr. Fuller was SAM’s Director and the Volunteer Park location was our only museum. She describes the reopening of the Asian Art Museum earlier this year after it’s renovation and expansion, as feeling like coming home. We are all thankful that Nana is sharing these virtual tours of SAM’s original home with us!

Story scroll of sage Bhavana

Imagine that the year is around 1850 and you live in a small Indian village where most of the people are weavers. It’s been a long hot day of work but a treat is in store for all of you this evening.  A storyteller is coming with his very long cloth scroll and he is going to tell and sing to you the story of Bhavana, the celestial weaver who wove cloth for the gods. He lights a lamp and starts to unfurl the long cloth that is wound on his bamboo poles. That’s how this object was displayed before it came to the Seattle Art Museum.

At SAM you can only see the beginning and end of the 30 yards of the story. Look at the first section and you will see the Hindu god Ganesh with his human body and elephant head. Even though most people in the original audience could not read, they would recognize Ganesh by his unique characteristics. Ganesh is the god of beginnings, so this is a good place to start our story. We’ll read the scroll from the top to the bottom.

Above Ganesh are the three main Hindu Gods—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.  The story goes that the sage, or wise man, Bhavana was victorious in a great war thanks to his army of tigers. As the victor, he can marry the daughter of the sun. Many gods attend their wedding, some arriving in flying chariots. Where do you see the chariots? Keep looking down past the chariots, towards the bottom of the scroll. Bhavana is making colored dyes from his enemies’ bodies.  

You’re part of the audience and if the storyteller did a good job, you would pay him some hard-earned rupees! You might also appreciate the donor who commissioned the scrolls for your village. Look at the patch at the end of the story and you can see the name of the person who paid for the scroll.

What are some stories that you know? Who first told you these stories and how do you show them that you appreciate their storytelling?

Some/One

We are now jumping from 19th-century India to 2001 for a look at Some/One, a sculpture by contemporary Korean artist Do Ho Suh. You might not be able to tell from the image, but this is a large sculpture, taking up almost the entire gallery. It’s located in the new expansion of the Asian Art Museum, along with art from all over Asia mostly done by currently living artists.

By looking at this picture, can you tell what the sculpture is made of? There are a ton of small, silver rectangles. These are stainless steel military dog tags that soldiers wear around their necks to identify themselves. The artist commissioned a veteran, or someone who served in the military, to manufacture hundreds of these dog tags, but with made-up names. Do Ho Suh sculpted the dog tags into a kimono-like garment that would have to be worn by someone over eight-feet tall! A steel structure holds it together, covered with a glass fiber reinforced resin and rubber and copper sheets.

Do Ho Suh made this as a student when he was given an assignment to create a piece of clothing that could serve as his identity. Suh had moved to the US for school from South Korea, where every male citizen must serve at least two years in the military.  

Why do you think Suh titled this work Some/One? One reason might be that each dog tag represents an individual soldier, but as a whole they make one—the military. When you see this work in person, you’ll notice that the tags are so shiny that you can see yourself reflected in the kimono. How do you think it might feel to see yourself in this art? 

If you were asked to make a piece of clothing that reflected your identity, what would you create?

Later in our virtual tours we will look at a Japanese terra cotta soldier called a Haniwa from around 500 AD who is also wearing armor.

Fireman’s Coat

Imagine that you live in the city of Edo (now Tokyo, Japan) around 1800.  Unlike today’s Tokyo that’s filled with tall, steel skyscrapers, 200 years ago, the houses were made of wood, bamboo and paper; the floors are covered with tatami mats made of straw. These materials would be very flammable! Now, pretend you are a fireman, a highly esteemed profession. The only way to control a fire in your city is to destroy the buildings around the one that is on fire to stop the spread. When the alarm comes, you reach for a coat like this one.

The fireman’s coat is made of very thick cotton, dyed with indigo. You would soak the coat in water before going to the fire, which might make it weigh 75 pounds, but would help protect you. The outside is solid navy blue and bears your fire brigade ID. The design of the rabbits is on the inside of the coat, closest to your body—that means when you see this at the museum, the coat is displayed inside out.

Why would rabbits be on a fireman’s coat? There is a traditional Japanese story that the Man in the Moon came to earth disguised as an old starving traveler.  He met three animal friends on the road. Monkey was agile and could climb trees to bring the old man fruit.  Fox was clever and could swim and bring him fish. Rabbit could only gather grass, so he asked the old beggar to light a fire. He jumped into that fire to offer his body as a meal. The old man was so touched by Rabbit’s sacrifice that he pulled him from the fire and invited Rabbit to live with him on the moon. He is still there. Do you agree that Rabbit is an appropriate emblem of protection from fire for firemen?

Can you tell what the rabbits are doing on the coat? They are pounding rice to make mochi in the enormous pot, with steam clouds floating above them and a few plant fronds at their feet. Have you ever eaten mochi? Mochi is rice pounded into a paste, often with added water, sugar, cornstarch, and coloring, then molded into shapes. It is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki.  Mochi is especially popular around the New Year as a symbol of good fortune.

Now when you see the Man in the Moon, you might think of this story and enjoy a delicious treat.

– Suzanne Regan, SAM Docent

Images: Section of a story scroll of sage Bhavana (Bhavana Rishi Mahatmyan Patam), mid 18th century, Indian, opaque watercolor on cloth, 58 x 34 1/4 in., Gift of Leo S. Figiel, M.D., Detroit, Michigan, 76.41. Some/One, 2001, Do Ho Suh, stainless steel military dog-tags, nickel-plated copper sheets, steel structure, glass fiber reinforced resin, rubber sheets, diam. at base: 24 ft. 4 in.; height: 81 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2002.43 © Do Ho Suh. Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417.

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.

Virtual Art Talks: Discovering the Dragon Tamer Luohan with Foong Ping & Geneva Griswold

When the Asian Art Museum closed for renovation and expansion our curators and conservators had the opportunity to conduct new research on an ancient sculpture in our Asian art collection. Hear from Foong Ping, SAM’s Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art, and Geneva Griswold, SAM Associate Conservator, in this detailed discussion about the new findings that led to renaming one of our sculptures. Previously known as “Monk at The Moment of Enlightenment,” learn why this enigmatic sculpture is now titled, “Dragon Tamer Louhan.”

This talk was originally presented in 2019 as part of SAM’s popular member-only Conversations with Curators lecture series and was adapted into a virtual art talk for everyone during Seattle’s “stay home, stay safe” directive so that you can stay connected to art while you stay home with SAM. The current season of Conversations with Curators is taking place virtually and is free for SAM members. It’s a great time to join or renew your membership.

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Why Tatami? Conserving Asian Paintings at SAM

One of the most unique features of the newly remodeled Asian Art Museum is the Asian Paintings Conservation Studio. As the only conservation studio on the west coast entirely devoted to the care and conservation of Asian paintings, the studio provides new opportunities to care for SAM’s Asian art collection. Once it is fully operational, the studio will also accept conservation projects from regional museums and private collectors. Designed so that the public can view the studio through large glass doors, the studio is located on the lower level of the Asian Art Museum. When you peer through the glass doors, you will immediately notice a beautiful tatami platform enclosed with sliding shoji doors. This platform will serve as a dedicated work area for a small team trained in the care and conservation of Asian paintings.

The tatami platform and shoji doors were built by a local master craftsman, Koji Uchida. Mr. Uchida’s company, Wafu Builders, designs and builds indoor and outdoor spaces using traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. Based on research conducted by our Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman, on research trips to Asian paintings conservation studios in Asia, North America and Europe, Mr. Uchida and Mr. Dorman collaborated on the design of the studio. We are so lucky that Mr. Uchida lives within driving distance of the museum!

Mr. Uchida built the tatami platform and shoji doors from the ground up. Before the remodel, this area housed staff offices and is part of the original building footprint. As you would expect in an old building, the floor and walls are not completely square or level. To create a level foundation for the tatami, Mr. Uchida built a two-by-four frame. As you can see in this photo, he used hundreds of custom-cut shims to level the platform.

Once the substructure was complete, Mr. Uchida began to build out the visible elements of the platform. The platform features 12 tatami mats, which are surrounded by a border of fine-grained Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The next image shows the beautifully interlocked corners of the platform. Creating this careful fit required precision cuts and impeccable measurements. Mr. Uchida’s workmanship is meticulous, and he spent many hours carefully fitting and refitting the various pieces of wood until the final composition met his high standards.

Though Mr. Uchida used power tools to rough cut the wood, many details were executed with hand tools. In the image below, you can see that the slot in the vertical beam is hand chiseled. Be sure to notice the unique grain pattern of the vertical post. Made of Kitayama cedar, this post was strategically cut to showcase the wood’s wavy grain. A building material often used in traditional Japanese architecture, Kitayama cedar grows in and around the Kitayama area of Kyoto. The wavy grain is created by pruning branches from the trunk as it grows and tightly binding the trunk with pieces of plastic and wire. Left in place for several years, this wrapping creates a distinctive and highly prized grain pattern.

Below is another view of the same corner. With the horizontal support in place, you can see how careful measuring and cutting creates a perfect fit.

Once the platform and the shoji framing were complete, Mr. Uchida returned to his studio and began making the tatami mats. Using tatami omote (the woven facing) imported from Japan, Mr. Uchida constructed each mat. The blue edging, or heri, is made from hemp and is also imported from Japan. Tatami heri vary from plain colors to subtle patterns. Mr. Uchida felt that for such a unique and special space, hemp heri would be appropriate and signify its importance.

The black metal frame and arms are a lighting system that will allow the conservation team to bring work lights close to the art undergoing conservation

Sliding shoji doors were the final component. Working from his home workshop, Mr. Uchida built the lattice for the doors and carefully glued the paper facing to the lattice. Faced with mino paper from Japan, the doors can be left open for public viewing or closed for when a conservator is working on a tricky treatment. Both the lower shoji and the upper ranma slide smoothly and quietly.

It was a pleasure to observe the work of Mr. Uchida throughout the process. Every day, I feel lucky that my desk is adjacent to this beautiful space. Once the Asian Art Museum can reopen, be sure to stop by and take a peek at the studio. When we are ready, we will offer opportunities for the public to come inside the studio and learn more about Asian paintings conservation and current studio projects. In the meantime, we are making plans for future conservation projects and looking forward to reopening the studio. We can’t wait to welcome you back to the museum!

– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Paintings Conservation Studio Associate

Photos: Rachel Harris

I ♥ Asian Art: Remembering the Asian Art Museum’s History

Did you know the Asian Art Museum is the original home of the Seattle Art Museum? In 1933, the Seattle Art Museum opened in our Art Deco building in Volunteer Park. In 1994 the museum expanded into our downtown location and the building in Volunteer Park became dedicated to exhibiting art from SAM’s Asian art collection. Many Seattleites have been visiting the Asian Art Museum right from the beginning and are sharing their love for SAM, Asian art, and the future of the Asian Art Museum in this video.

Hear about the history of the Asian Art Museum in the life of the city and the lives of the people that live here. Today’s Asian Art Museum is boundless. Placing a bodhisattva from Pakistan, a stupa from India, and a demon from China side by side reveals unifying ideas such as spiritual guides and guardians while sharing culturally specific meanings. You will no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan, or India. Instead, vibrant artworks from Vietnam to Iran, and everywhere in between, come together to tell stories of human experiences across time and place.

Following a three-year long major renovation and expansion, the Asian Art Museum reopened in February 2020, only to temporarily close again in March for the safety of our community. We miss you and can’t wait to share the love for Asian art with you once again when we can reopen! Until then, stay home with SAM and enjoy videos like these.

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Inside SAM’s Asian Painting Conservation Center

“Without the periodic conservation of these works, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore. So this work is really critical and we are conserving our collections so that they are lasting in perpetuity for generations to come.”

– Nick Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you’ll be able to stop by to learn about the conservation of Asian paintings by peeking through the public viewing window into the conservation space to see the progress! Through a $3.5M challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the conservation, mounting, and study of Asian paintings. The new conservation center serves the museum’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region. This is the first museum center of its kind in the western United States. We hope to have it completed by 2021.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

Object of the Week: Fireman’s Coat

April showers may bring May flowers, but the passing of the clouds bring clear nights to see the bright face of the moon. Moon gazing isn’t an easy task here in the Pacific Northwest, especially with all the rainstorms and grey days; however, in East Asian countries, Moon Viewing is a popular mid-autumn festival for celebrating the harvest and contemplating the beauty of the night sky. In Japan, this is called Tsukimi, and is held on the 15th day to the 18th day of the eighth lunar month––so, sometime in September or October, depending on year. In the past it was time to write waka, a form of Japanese poetry, which originated within the aristocracy. Today, Tsukimi is celebrated all over Japan with displays of pampas grass and white balls of mochi (sweet rice cakes).

At the Asian Art Museum, we have our own example of Tsukimi revelry in the form of a 19th century hikeshi banten, or a commoner’s fireman coat. Made of tough cotton to impede burning debris, this coat has a surprisingly playful depiction of rabbits on their hind-legs, pounding at a vessel of mochi. Made of glutinous rice, mochi needs to be pounded to make the smooth, stretchy texture for which it is known.

The video above shows families making mochi at the Mochi Tsuki Festival on Bainbridge Island, WA. People enjoy mochi today all over Japan. It can be found in Seattle’s Japanese grocery stores too! Have you ever tried it before? One of the most popular ways to eat it is wrapping the soft, squishy mochi over a sweet filling, like red bean paste or chocolate cream.

So why rabbits? At first glance it would seem odd to connect these bunnies to mochi creation, or Tsukimi at all. However, in terms of mythology, rabbits have a lot to do with both. In the West, we have a fairy tale about the man in the moon, so created by how the moon’s dark craters seem to mimic the features of a face. In many Eastern folktales, however, it is not a human face, but a rabbit. Specifically, it is a rabbit with a mortar and pestle. In China, this is because the rabbit is a companion to the moon goddess, and pounds her medicine of immortality. In Japan and Korea, this rabbit pounds mochi, and has an entirely different reason for being engraved on the moon. In the Konjaku Monogatarishu, a collection of tales from the Heian Period, the story is told like this:

A long time ago, the Man of the Moon came down to Earth in secret in the guise of an old man. There, he came across three friends: monkey, fox, and rabbit, who had all taken a vow of charity. To them, he begged for food.

The monkey, being nimble, brought him fruit. The fox, being clever, brought him fish. The rabbit, only able to gather grass, had nothing to offer. So he asked the old man to light a fire and jumped into it, offering his own body as a meal.

The old man changed quickly back to the Man of the Moon and pulled the rabbit from the fire. He was deeply touched by such sacrifice and said “Rabbit, you are a kind creature, but do not give yourself up for me. As you were kindest of all, you may come and live with me upon the moon.” The rabbit agreed, and was carried to his new home. He is still there to this day. If you look up at the moon, you can see his figure upon it.

Between the flame that the rabbit tossed himself into, and his associations to the moon and food, it seems a little clearer why there would be the image of a mochi-pounding rabbit on a fireman’s coat. The rabbit was miraculously pulled from the flame and provided honor for his sacrifice––the perfect emblem of protection for a fireman.

Listen to actor Hudson Yang discuss this artwork.

Even with social distancing, we can still look up and see the rabbit, pounding away at mochi on the surface of the moon. It makes you wonder if he is an essential worker, too, and whether they have such worries in the night sky. When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you can see this rabbit hikeshi-banten on view in the galleries as a fine example of what would have once defined a fireman.

Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417

Make Dreams Come True with Jung Yeondoo

Since 2001, South Korean artist Jung Yeondoo has visited six different countries to make people’s dreams come true. In his Bewitched series, he asks local people about their wishes for their future and then makes them come true with a pair of photographs: the first, a portrait of the person in their everyday life and the second, showing their dream or fantasy. Bewitched #2 Seoul shows a Baskin Robbins employee at her job next to her dream of going to the Arctic. Her change in clothing, accessories, and setting changes how we see her and shows us a part of her that we might not know about upon first glance. Jung uses costumes, settings, and props to transform a scene from everyday life into the individual’s dream.

Speaking about his inspiration, Jung said in a 2015 profile, “I started this project with an artist’s curiosity about wanting to know about the lives of people you just pass every day,” he said. “It’s not about a happy perspective or a negative perspective . . . It is more about [my] attempts as an artist to communicate with someone else.”

Jung Yeondoo Helps 28 People Realize Their Dreams by Taking Pictures

Looking questions

  • What’s going on in these artworks? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?
  • What words would you use to describe the person in each photograph, based on what they are wearing? Are there any words that would describe both of them?
  • Look closely at the image on the left. What do you think are some things this person does every day? What do you see that makes you say that? Now do the same for the image on the right.
  • Why do you think you see the same pose in both images? What does it feel like to pose in that way?
Hear from actor Hudson Yang as he looks closely at Bewitched #2

Visualize

Take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself these same questions: What is your dream? What is your fantasy? Who do you want to be? Think about this dream that you have for yourself. In this imagined future, what are you wearing? What are you doing? What are your surroundings? Time yourself for five minutes and free-write or draw any ideas that you have. Don’t worry about making it look or sound good, this is just to document your ideas.

Art Activity

Create a drawing or collage that represents the daily life and imagined dream of someone you know.

  • Call a friend and ask each other questions to learn more about your everyday lives, just like Jung Yeondoo interviews the people that he works with. Be sure to write down words that describe what they are saying! Here are some example questions:
  • Where are you right now? What does it look like there? What do you see around you?
  • What part of your daily routine happens in this space? Describe that routine.
  • Who else spends time here? Is anyone there now? What are they doing?
  • Is there anything else that you want to share?

Now, interview each other about your future dreams. This could be three months from now or far into the future. What is your dream? What is your fantasy? Who do you want to be? Keep digging—ask for more details that can help you imagine their dream. Write down more descriptive words as you listen.

For this next part, you can choose to either

Make a drawing!

  • Divide a blank sheet of paper in half. On the left side, create a drawing of your friend in their current daily life. On the right side, create a drawing of them in their imagined dream.
  • Tell a story with your drawing—the more details that you can include from the interview, the better!

Make a collage!

  • Choose a blank sheet of paper or piece of cardboard for your base. You’ll need: old magazines, newspapers, or other printed papers, a pair of scissors, and glue.
  • Cut out words and images from the magazines that remind you of what you learned about your friend in these interviews. Divide your cutouts into two piles: your friend’s everyday life and their wish for the future.
  • Draw a line dividing your base in half. On the left side, create a collage using the cutouts related to your friend’s everyday life. On the right side, create a collage using the cutouts related to your friend’s wish for the future.

When you are done, send each other photos of your artwork or exchange them the next time you see each other. What are some things that you learned about yourself and each other in this process?

– Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator & Lauren Kent, SAM’s Museum Educator for School Programs & Partnerships

Image: Bewitched #2 Seoul, 2001. Jung Yeondoo. C-print photograph. 62 5/8 × 51 9/16 in. (159.1 × 131 cm) Purchased with funds from the Estate of Rosa Ayer, 2016.8.1–2.

Inside the Reinstalled Asian Art Museum with SAM’s Curators

Be prepared to be surprised when you are next able to visit today’s Seattle Asian Art Museum! Our curators are here to share the thinking and process behind offering a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological reinstallation of SAM’s Asian art collection.

You will no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan, or India. Instead, vibrant artworks from Vietnam to Iran, and everywhere in between, come together to tell stories of human experiences across time and place. From themes of worship and celebration to clothing and identity, nature and power to birth and death, the new collection installation reveals the complexity and diversity of Asia—a place of distinct cultures, histories, and belief systems that help shape our world today.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

I ♥ Asian Art: Sharing First Impressions of the Asian Art Museum

When did you first visit the Asian Art Museum and what impression did it make on you? Before we closed SAM’s original home for a very necessary renovation and expansion, we asked visitors to share what they remember about the Asian Art Museum and why they return to the Art Deco architectural gem that houses SAM’s Asian art collection again and again. We are temporarily closed until further notice in light of the directives issued by the Governor’s office to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But, when you can visit the reimagined Asian Art Museum again, we hope you’ll make your own first impressions or be reminded of why you heart Asian art.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

I ♥ Asian Art: Making Memories at the Asian Art Museum

Before closing for renovation, we asked visitors to the Seattle Asian Art Museum to tell us why they love Asian art and what excited them about our plans for the museum’s future. The Asian Art Museum reopened on February 8, but is currently closed for the wellbeing of our staff, volunteers, and visitors in light of the directives issued by the Governor’s office to limit the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, we are sharing these thoughts to help us all consider why we love the Asian Art Museum.

Today’s Asian Art Museum is inspired. The newly renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum breaks boundaries to offer a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological, exploration of art from the world’s largest continent. The restoration of the historic Art Deco building, improvements to critical systems, expanded gallery and education spaces, and a new park lobby that connects the museum to the surrounding Volunteer Park are just some of the ways the Asian Art Museum has been transformed and preserved as a cultural and community resource for future generations. Learn more about today’s Asian Art Museum.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

Muse/News: The Asian Art Museum debuts, a conductor’s big moves, and exploring Material Art

SAM News

The Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens to the public this weekend with a free two-day celebration. 10,000 free tickets for the housewarming event have been claimed, but the museum reopens with regular hours on Wednesday, February 12.

SAM welcomed press to see the reimagined and reinstalled museum this week, and the coverage is everywhere, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Art Newspaper, Architectural Digest, Vanguard, Puget Sound Business Journal, and more. Seattle Channel’s CityStream hosted a special edition with guest host Lori Mastukawa from inside the Asian Art Museum, interviewing SAM curators Foong Ping and Xiaojin Wu.

“The larger questions we’re asking for this reopening are, ‘Where is Asia? What is Asia?’” says Xiaojin Wu, the curator of Japanese and Korean art at the museum. “We’re showing how the borders are fluid throughout history.” –From The Art Newspaper

“When the Asian Art Museum opens on Saturday, the architects hope that previous visitors will see their museum in a new light. Says Amada Cruz, CEO and director of the Seattle Art Museum, ‘We could not be more excited to open the doors of the museum and welcome everyone back.’” –Elizabeth Fazzare, Architectural Digest

“With so much to see and contemplate in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, there needed to be space to let the mind wander into a void for a bit. The experience would not be complete without it. The curators and architects all should be commended for seeing through a new vision that will expand audience’s awareness of Asia, but also remind them that the human pursuit of beauty and the sublime is, indeed, timeless and boundless.” –T.s. Flock, Vanguard

Local News

Crosscut shares a story—and impressive footage—of Seattle Symphony’s new conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, who “feels the music in his hair.”

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig devotes a recent edition of “Currently Hanging” to Amerocco, one of the incredible pieces in Aaron Fowler: Into Existence, now on view at SAM downtown.

For Seattle Met, Charlie Lahud-Zahner visits the Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture, and finds catharsis.

“As a Latinx Seattleite often feeling like the last brown unicorn in the Ballard Trader Joe’s, and on the lookout for authentic representation, this south side museum is a godsend.”

Inter/National News

Have you checked out Artnet’s Art Angle Podcast? Here’s the latest episode, exploring “How the Art World Fell Under the Spell of the Occult.”

The New York Times’ Fabrice Robinet explores the international meetups TypeThursday, which brings together people who really care about fonts. A lot.

Jennifer Li reviews Allure of Matter for ArtAsiaPacific; the exhibition is now on view at LACMA and heads to SAM this summer.

“With works that emphasized the immaterial, or the breakdown of matter, the exhibition begged the question: how applicable is the term Material Art? It seems that at this early stage, the label may conjure more questions than answers.”

 And Finally

We Heart Asian Art.

Installation view of “Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art” at the Asian Art Museum, 2020, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Reimagining the Galleries at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

When the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens next year, visitors will experience the museum’s renowned collection of Asian art in a whole new way. Most of the original galleries will showcase the museum’s collection, while the building’s new gallery—housed in the expansion—will focus on rotating special exhibitions. SAM’s curatorial team saw the renovation process as an exciting chance to rethink how visitors engage with the Asian art collection. “How often does a museum go offline and move everything out?” notes Foong Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. She continues, “This was an opportunity to dream a little bit.” 

The curators convened groups of scholars and community advisors to explore approaches to displaying SAM’s artworks. Moving away from the chronological and geographic organization of most museums, they took a thematic approach instead. Each gallery of Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, the new collection installation, focuses on a theme central to Asia’s diverse arts and societies, ranging from worship and celebration, to visual arts and literature, to clothing and identity. For instance, a gallery titled Spiritual Journeys brings many objects together, from a Pakistani Bodhisattva, to an Indian Stupa, to a Chinese demon, to explore spiritual imagery through unifying ideas such as spiritual guides and guardians. The reinstallation provides an experience of great diversity and a broad context within which to engage with artworks.

Boundless also presents varied voices and perspectives on artworks to offer visitors a wide array of approaches to appreciating SAM’s collection. Along with traditional curatorial texts, artists and Seattle community members also offer their perspectives. The Color in Clay gallery presents a large selection of ceramics from China as well as vibrant works from Vietnam to Iran in a natural light-filled gallery without any contextualizing text. Monitors with more information will be available, but Foong’s hope is for visitors to be immersed in looking closely at subtle differences in tones and textures in the clay and the glazes. “I’m particularly excited about this display because it represents a completely different experience than we’ve ever had at the Asian Art Museum,” she says.

The first special exhibition Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art also draws primarily from the museum’s collection. It brings together works by 12 artists born in different parts of Asia—Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan—who have all lived outside of Asia and are exploring their Asian heritage from global perspectives. Be/longing features Some/One by Do Ho Suh—a sculpture so large that we were previously unable to exhibit it at the Asian Art Museum. SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art Xiaojin Wu explains, “Some/One is an imposing work that compels the viewer to think about identity and our relationship with society—issues we all care about.” Positioning Some/One alongside works by other contemporary artists, visitors will encounter its powerful resonance in a new exhibition, a new gallery, a new building, in the new year.

Images: Some/One (detail), 2001, Do Ho Suh, stainless steel military dog-tags, nickel-plated copper sheets, steel structure, glass fiber reinforced resin, rubber sheets, diameter at base: 24 ft. 4 in.; Height: 81 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2002.43, © Do Ho Suh. Dish with Foliated Rim, late 15th–early 16th century, Vietnamese, blue and white ceramic, 13 1/4″ diameter, Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Lined robe (detail), 20th century, Japanese, plain weave silk crepe with paste-resist stencil decoration (Oki., bingata) lined with modern replacement silk broadcloth, 47 3/4″ long (from collar) x 43″ wide, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 89.155, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Bodhisattva, ca. 2nd–3rd century, Pakistani, Gandhara region, dark gray schist 45 x 15 x 7 in. Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.63.

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. 

Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

A Grand Return: Preparing to Reopen the Seattle Asian Art Museum

With construction nearing completion at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, SAM staff has started preparations for the months-long move back into the historic building. As most people who have changed residences know, moving back in can often be as challenging as moving out. That experience will be amplified on a massive scale as the staff begins the gargantuan task of readying the renovated museum for art and visitors.

The 10,000 collection objects that were carefully packed, tracked, and removed from the Asian Art Museum now need to return to the building—a process expected to require a full year, although the museum will reopen before that process is complete. Lauren Mellon, Director of Museum Services and Chief Registrar, explains “Moving back in will be more complicated because we’re building the storage spaces as the art returns.” However, the collection will be returning to many important improvements. Mellon continues, “We will now have full climate control, and the storage facilities will be vastly upgraded. Overall, the objects will be much happier in their new home.”

Before works of art and museum staff can enter the renovated building, a number of systems across the facility will need to be tested to ensure they are operating correctly, including those pertaining to security, mechanics, air quality, and climate control. “We must maintain what we call a ‘critical environment’ to support the art, as well as provide a safe and healthy environment for employees and museum visitors,” explains Lee Richardson, Director of Facilities.

Once testing is complete, the first works of art that will be brought inside are those to be presented in the museum’s galleries. The preparation crew will begin working gallery by gallery, building platforms, preparing the cases for object displays, and eventually mounting the works of art. One of the most exciting outcomes of this work is visitors will have the chance to experience more of the museum’s collection. “We will no longer have to de-install the permanent collection as the special exhibitions change. All thirteen of the museum’s original galleries will now be dedicated to showing the collection,” says Nathan Peek, Director of Design and Installation. 

The building’s many improvements are inspiring the work of museum staff across departments. As Richardson says, “While the renovation process was important to addressing safety issues, we also now have a better palette to work with for exhibiting art and engaging the public.”

– Erin Langner, freelance writer

Photo: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: Crow

In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.

The subject of the Crows screens is a murder[1] of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw. 

In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:

In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.[2]

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.
[2] Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
Images: Crow, 2016, Tabaimo, single-channel video installation, 4 min. 10 sec., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.5 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1.

Docents Defined: Erin Bruce

SAM is now recruiting new docents to start training for the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. You don’t need to be an art historian or a teacher to apply! In fact, SAM docents have a variety of interests and experiences. Having a diverse group of docents is how we’re able to offer tours that are engaging to all visitors. Read below and find out more about docents like Erin Bruce who volunteer their time at the museum.

If you still want to learn more about being a docent? Join SAM staff and current docents at our Docent Open House on May 16 from 6–7 pm! Or, apply now to the docent program. Applications are accepted through May 31.

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you decide to become a docent?

Erin Bruce: I have always been inspired by all things visual, whether it is nature, a building, a room and especially art. I studied art in college and made art whenever possible. Now I am a technical stock trader and rely on charts for my work—more visual interpretation! It was a three-year wait for a new docent class to start for me after a friend told me about SAM. The chance to participate with our museum is an honor.

What’s the best part about being a docent?

The best part is all of it: meeting energetic, generous, knowledgeable people; constant learning; leading a tour of young people and engaging them in the art and history of objects. It’s all gratifying. SAM’s collections are a wondrous gift to our city and special exhibitions join and expand experiences as well.

What is your favorite work of art to tour at the Asian Art Museum?

The Deer Scroll. Calligrapher Koetsu and painter Sotatsu collaborated to create this iconic masterpiece. Our 30 feet of the original 72 feet contains 12 poems from the Shin Kokinshu, which took four years to write. The beauty and harmony transports you to another time and place.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

Tours were scheduled the week before Mother’s Day so I made a gallery activity “A Gift for Mom.” Given one exhibition room students got to pick an object that they would give to their Mom if they could. It revealed so many wonderful things such as what objects in our Asian art collection young people were most drawn to, what they found beautiful and why. Crafting future tours improved since I had learned some of their favorite objects. The chance to interact with young people is yet another joy and benefit of leading a school tour.

What advice do you have for people applying for the docent program?

Your interests and life experiences offer wonderful and unique perspectives. You will discover and explore the vast and layered connections of art to our lives. It is so much fun.

– Yaoyao Liu, Seattle Asian Art Museum Educator

Donor Spotlight: Shawn Brinsfield Supports the Asian Art Museum

It’s nice to know that our community also thinks the future of the Seattle Asian Art Museum is going to be cool! More than the critical infrastructure updates to the Art Deco building that won’t be very apparent to visitors, there’s the long history of Asian culture in the Seattle area made visible at the museum. To Shawn Brinsfield, the modest expansion on the back of the Seattle Asian Art Museum is a physical commitment to expanding the understanding and appreciation of Asia. Read why the Asian Art Museum matters to this donor, learn more about the project, and stay up to date on the progress of the renovation and expansion of the Asian Art Museum.

The new Seattle Asian Art Museum is going to be very cool with more space for SAM’s growing collection, better flow and open ‘look-throughs’ to the outside. I take art lessons and sometimes they take us to Volunteer Park to draw; so I look forward to sitting on my chair outside near the trees and drawing the new large glass-walled rear addition of the museum. Ok, full disclosure—I am still just learning to draw; but it will be fun viewing Asian Art Museum visitors fishbowl-like.

The average museum-goer may not appreciate the museum’s new sophisticated climate control environment, which gives the art ‘eternal life.’ Sometimes I think about the centuries of artists who made the works inside the museum. What kind of challenges and human pressures did they have? I wonder how they would react, knowing that their year-after-year sweat and toil and evolution as artists would be preserved by loving and meticulous conservationists today. It’s my understanding that the Asian Art Museum will be an important national center of conserving Asian art. And conserving art is actually a fascinating process. Really!

My mom and her family are of Japanese descent. They were living a full life here in Seattle back in the ‘good old days.’ Grandma Benko Itoi wrote tanka poetry, the family attended art events at the Nippon Kan Theater, they danced in traditional ways at the Bon Odori. Then when World War II broke out they were compelled to destroy most things related to their Japanese culture. So, 75 years later, it’s important to me to support the expansion of Japanese and Asian culture in the Seattle area.

All the art at the Asian Art Museum tells stories of history, ideas, and ways of life. In addition to enjoying the exhibitions on wooden block prints, folding screens, and Chinese scrolls, I have loved going to the Gardner Center’s Saturday University Lecture Series and listening to experts from all over the world. I value this, especially since I help recruit speakers for an Asian art and history group in Florida.

As for the future of the Asian Art Museum, I expect that the Asian Art Museum’s growth will mirror that of Asia’s increasing presence on the world stage. I hope that it continues expanding its collection of South Asian art and continues reaching out to the growing South Asian community here in the Northwest; as well as reaching out to the non-Asian community. My spending time in India on several trips has had a significant impact on my mind and behavior. I include, in my daily life, some practices and rituals which are indigenous to India and South Asia. I have a warm and friendly feeling towards the people and culture of South Asia.

– Shawn Brinsfield

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