British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: Korean moon jar

Korean moon jarSascha Priewe, British Museum

Conventionally known as ‘moon jars’, dalhangri in Korean, because of their suggestive shape and milky-white glaze, these vessels are considered a high point of Korean ceramic production during the Choson period (1392-1910).

Korean moon jar

Korean moon jar

This jar in the British Museum is one of only 20 such vessels remaining in the world. It stands 47 cm high and was produced in around 1650-1750. It was made by joining the separately thrown top and bottom sections together, thereby creating a visible joint at the centre. Although there is no firm evidence about the use of moon jars, it has been proposed that food or drink may have been stored in them or that they held flowers.

Moon jars have recently become popular in Korea and abroad. These vessels have inspired a broad movement in contemporary Korean art. Some artists, such as the famous ceramist Park Young-sook (b. 1947), whose modern moon jar is also represented in the British Museum’s collection, have recaptured their aesthetic and technical accomplishment; while others feature moon jars as a motif in paintings, photography and art installations. In this way, moon jars have become to be an icon of Korean art.

During the Choson period, Confucianism became the dominant ideology of the upper class. A moral philosophy, Confucianism governed the conduct of social relationships, and it still remains important today. It also had an impact on Choson-period aesthetics by encouraging a preference for restraint in decoration and likely contributing to the popularisation of plain white ceramics. The moon jar with its imbalance and minor imperfections in the white glaze epitomises this approach towards objects.

The British Museum’s Choson moon jar has a special connection to the United Kingdom. It was acquired by the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) during a trip to Korea in 1935. Leach, who is often regarded as the ‘father of British studio pottery’, took much inspiration from certain East Asian ceramic traditions and incorporated aesthetic sensibilities, such as “nobility, austerity, strength, and warmth” that he identified, into his works. Decidedly anti-industrial, British studio potters strove to re-discover traditional artisan pottery – the ‘peasant pottery’- that Bernard Leach found resonated with many of the East Asian pieces he venerated. It is tempting to think that the British Museum’s moon jar from Korea helped to define the aesthetics of British studio potters.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 20 December 2012.

The Korean moon jar is on display in Room 67: Korea

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London, a world city in 20 objects: inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at GaurMichael Willis, British Museum

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur

From the 1300s, when London was still a small town on the River Thames, the city of Gaur in Bengal was a vibrant metropolis. It enjoyed trade links with Thailand, Ceylon, Africa and the Middle East and on several occasions served as the capital of Bengal. By the late 1500s, however, Gaur began to lose its population due to changes in the course of the River Ganga – the main commercial artery of the day. The mosques and tombs in Gaur fell slowly into ruins and the open land between the monuments was given over to rice cultivation, palm groves and mango trees. So it is today.

This inscription is from one of Gaur’s most famous monuments, the Firuz Minar. This high tower has drawn the attention of many travellers. It was illustrated first in watercolours and prints in the 1700s and photographed from the 1860s.

The inscription is fragmentary, with only the right-hand portion preserved. The other parts disappeared more than two centuries ago and have never been found. The inscription is written in Arabic, beautifully carved in a style of calligraphy unique to Bengal. It gives the titles of an important Bengal Sultan: Sayf al-Din Firuz Shah. He was of Ethiopian descent and ruled as king from 1486 to 1490.

Gaur is located in northern Bengal, straddling the border between Bangladesh and West Bengal. The old mosques and tombs are all made of brick, with many still carrying traces of coloured tiles. Doorframes and inscriptions were carved in stone. As Gaur declined, inscriptions began to fall from their original positions. This led to them being collected and stored for preservation. William Franklin, an officer in the East India Company and a prolific writer on history and archaeology, mentions that he found the Firuz Minar inscription stored in an indigo factory at Gaur. Indigo was an important cash crop in the early colonial period because it was the main source of blue dye before discoveries in the 1840s allowed the colour to be produced chemically. Following the same route as indigo, tea and cotton, the Gaur inscription was moved down river to Calcutta and carried aboard ship to London.

Franklin donated the Gaur inscription to the British Museum in 1826 shortly after his retirement from active service. The Gaur inscription is among the first antiquities from this region to enter the collection.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 13 December 2012.

The Inscription from the Firuz Minar at Gaur is on display in Room 34: The Islamic world

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi, 2001

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El SalahiChristopher Spring, British Museum

The Khartoum School, under the leadership of Ibrahim El Salahi, began to be recognised in the 1960s as an emergent modernist movement producing a distinctive means of expression known as Sudanawiyya – a synthesis of Western styles of art with other traditions, reflecting the remarkable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of Sudan. Salahi explains part of the rationale behind the movement:

“Originality, human originality, does not mean creating something out of nothing as such a claim is well beyond the capability of mankind. Originality in my opinion means to be able to create the new out of what is already there in existence. One simply makes a new addition, a sort of a new idea, a fresh leaf atop that same old tree of creation”.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi

Among the traditions which inspire and inform Salahi’s work is that of the patched tunic, jibba, which was the distinctive uniform of the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi or ‘rightly guided one’ who in 1884 led a jihad or Holy War to establish the Mahdist State in Sudan. The jibba was inspired by the ragged muraqqa’a which for centuries had been the dress of the Sufi religious orders, signifying their contempt for worldly goods.

The artist Ibrahim El Salahi, himself a member of a Sufi brotherhood, sees the jibba as a metaphor for the remarkably diverse nature of Sudanese society, the patches symbolising different cultures and beliefs in various parts of the country. In his Tree series El Salahi makes reference to the form of the jibba as well as to the human form, suggesting a Tree of Life in Sudan. Created in 2001 using coloured inks on paper, Tree was produced in the artist’s UK studio. Although the Mahdist State ceased to exist following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, Mahdism, through the mouthpiece of the Umma party, remains a vital political force in Sudan today.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 6 December 2012.

Tree by Ibrahim Mohammed El Salahi is on display in Room 25: Africa

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The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Throne of Weapons

Throne of weaponsChristopher Spring, British Museum

Throne of weapons

Throne of weapons. © Kester 2004

From 1977 until 1992 Mozambique, in south-east Africa, fought a civil war which was fuelled by a global power struggle between east and west – the ‘Cold War’. During this period millions of guns were poured into the country via the international arms trade.

Many weapons remained buried or hidden after the war, representing a threat to peace and stability. In 1995 Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane of the Christian Council of Mozambique set up the Transforming Arms into Tools project, which offered farming equipment and other materials in exchange for guns. Mozambican artists then turned these weapons into sculptures that reflect the collective creativity of the people of Mozambique and their refusal to submit to a culture of violence.

The Mozambique civil war claimed almost one million lives and left five million people displaced. The Throne of Weapons represents both the tragedy of that war and the human triumph of those who achieved a lasting peace. Its anthropomorphic qualities – it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face – actually two faces – link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen and described as human beings.

Although made of guns, the Throne of Weapons harks back to older wooden African stools and thrones used by leaders that showed their prestige, but also their willingness and ability to talk to their fellow men and to the ancestors. The throne is also a contemporary work of art with a global significance, linking the arts of Africa with the Western arts scene, and Mozambique with the global arms trade. None of the guns used were made in Mozambique, or even in Africa, thus it becomes a sculpture in which we are all, one way or another, complicit.

The throne is a war memorial, but it celebrates another kind of courage and another kind of victory. Museums are more and more concerned with portraying intangible as well as tangible heritage as a way of building an emotional bridge with a past inhabited by people rather than by the objects they created, especially when charged with describing traumatic histories of warfare, slavery and the abuse of human rights. The Throne of Weapons allows us to cross that bridge.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 29 November 2012.

The Throne of Weapons is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing in a ring of flames

Shiva NatarajaRichard Blurton, British Museum

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja

Fine bronze sculptures of the gods of Hinduism were produced in the Chola period in southern India for use as processional images. These portable representations of the gods could be taken from the temple, dressed and decked with garlands, and then paraded through the streets, enabling all to have a beneficial view of them. Within the temple itself, images of the Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, were venerated in images of stone and these never left the sanctuary. However, bronze images, such as this one of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, could easily be carried on platforms and paraded through the streets by devotees. Processions carrying such images and with many thousands of participants, are still a feature of south Indian temple festivals in towns such as Madurai and Chidambaram.

Lord Shiva is depicted in this famous dance form as the deity at the extremes of time, the lord who crushes ignorance underfoot and who ushers out one cycle of existence and dances in a new one. In Indian lore, time is cyclical and made up of endless iterations and this image shows the god at the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The dance of Shiva at this moment of dissolution and of creation, is conceived of as full of wild movement. The dreadlocks of the god (usually discreetly tied up on top of his head) fly out unchecked around him, providing some indication of the fury of his circular dance – though one foot is, nevertheless held up for his devotees to shelter beneath. The flame he holds in his upper left hand represents the destruction at the end of one cycle, while the sound of the drum in his upper right brings in the new cycle. Not for nothing has this image of the god, full of cosmic symbolism, become the one that people internationally associate with Hinduism.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2012.

The Shiva Nataraja is on display in Room 33: China, South Asia and Southeast Asia

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