British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: I Love Minatures by Rashid Rana

I Love Miniatures by Rashid RanaSona Datta, independent curator

The British Museum continues to collect objects both old and new from across the world to ensure that the collection reflects diverse world cultures. The Museum acquires contemporary objects, particularly those that make reference to or recast past traditions as represented in the Museum’s historic holdings.

I Love Miniatures (2002) is a groundbreaking work in which contemporary Pakistani artist Rashid Rana uses digital photomontage to compose an image of the 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The image evokes an amalgamation of well-known portraits of the ruler, best remembered for that great monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

I Love Miniatures by Rashid Rana

I Love Miniatures by Rashid Rana

The term ‘miniature’ refers not to scale but to technique. Rana constructs his portrait by marshalling thousands of photographs of billboards across modern Lahore creating a pixilation that mirrors the technique of meticulously applying individual dabs of paint in traditional miniature painting. Since, 2002, this method of ‘painting with photographs’ has become Rana’s trademark.

‘Miniature’ also refers to the artist’s training at the National College of Arts in Lahore, which was established under colonial rule in 1875. It was there, in the 1980s, that the Pakistani state instigated a revival of the historic miniature in a bid to endorse the country’s cultural identity by aligning it with its glorious Mughal past. However, the new generation of ‘experimental miniaturists’ like Rana are working to a different agenda.

The border (which in the traditional miniature often comprised a richly painted margin) is signified here by a faux-gilt frame. Rana’s picture is thus framed by the European tradition. The hanging of pictures within frames for mounting on walls was never part of the South Asian tradition. These were designed to be hand-held and enjoyed in intimate surroundings.

As a work, I Love Miniatures is both fragmented and holistic by virtue of its technique and conception. Departing in medium, Rana has concocted the ultimate modern miniature, tantalising and seductive, which forces the viewer to look beyond the surface of the image as it draws us towards the complex layering of life in modern Pakistan.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 24 January 2013.

I Love Minatures by Rashid Rana is on display in Room 37

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London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV
Aileen Dawson, British Museum

The art of ivory carving was practised in Europe above all in the town of Dieppe from the seventeenth century, often using elephant ivory from Africa. The shape of this delicately carved relief on a black velvet support conforms to a tusk. The artist responsible, whose signature ‘LE MARCHAND FECIT’ (‘Le Marchand made [it]’) appears on the lower part, was born in Dieppe and was the son of a painter. A Protestant, he left France to escape religious persecution and was in Edinburgh by 1696. Around 1700 he went to London where he carved portraits of many famous men, including Sir Isaac Newton and where a thriving French Protestant community settled around Shoreditch and Spitalfields.

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

Ivory relief of Louis XIV

The relief, measuring 14cm in height, depicts King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), often known as the ‘Sun King’, and celebrates his military exploits. He stands on a pedestal inscribed in Latin ‘To the Victory of Louis the Great’ with chained slaves at his feet and a series of flags to either side of him. The figures are framed by a laurel wreath. During his long reign Louis XIV fought many battles, vastly increasing the power and prestige of France and centralising its government. The magnificent château at Versailles was his creation and served the double purpose of demonstrating his wealth and taming the aristocracy, which was obliged to reside there.

David Le Marchand (1674-1726) is one of many artists who have sought refuge in Britain for reasons of religious persecution. It is not quite clear why he went to Edinburgh, and it seems surprising that he made this representation of the king whose religious policy led to his exile. One theory, which cannot be proved, is that the piece may have been done for a Scottish patron living in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris at the Stuart court of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward, or his father, James II, under the protection of the Catholic King Louis XIV. There is no doubt that Le Marchand had several Scottish clients, nor that his most successful years were spent working in London where he met and portrayed the leading figures of the age: Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren, and various members of the burgeoning Huguenot (French Protestant) community in London.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 8 November 2012.

The carving was purchased for the Museum in 2009 with the help of the Art Fund and the British Museum Friends and is on display in Room 46: Europe 1400-1800

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London, a world city in 20 objects: The Colossus of Dali

Colossus of DaliThomas Kiely, British Museum

Colossus of Dali

Upper part of a colossal limestone statue of a bearded man

This colossal limestone statue of a worshipper – identified by the elaborate wreath of leaves and berries around his head – was found in the ruins of a sanctuary near the village of Dali in central Cyprus in 1869. His missing left arm once held a laurel branch, another sign that he is taking part in a religious ritual, perhaps in honour of a god of the countryside. The costume, facial features and beard combine early classical Greek and Persian styles in an eclectic manner very typical of Cypriot artists who drew widely from their neighbours to create a unique Cypriot look.

The size of the figure and the high quality of the carving suggest this is an image of a king or priest. During the first millennium BC Cypriots erected thousands of large-scale images of themselves in sanctuaries to ensure their prayers to the gods continued for eternity. Cypriot sanctuaries were typically open air enclosures with few grand buildings such as temples. The sanctuary at Dali honoured a male god, depicted as a lion killer who protects humans from the wild forces of nature. He was later associated with the Greek Apollo and Phoenician Reshef who had similar attributes. This ‘Master of the Animals’ also acted as the patron god of the ancient city of Idalion where his sanctuary was once located.

The statue was discovered along with hundreds of others by Robert Hamilton Lang, then manager of the Imperial Ottoman Bank on Cyprus. Lang’s career is a typical example of nineteenth-century social mobility, from a relatively humble background in Scotland to being one of the most respected bankers and financial administrators in both the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Lang’s interests in archaeology on Cyprus were encouraged by a Cypriot antiquarian, Demetrios Pierides, who introduced many foreign travellers and amateur archaeologists to the heritage of the island. Pierides lived in London for a time in his youth and, on return to his homeland, became a leading figure in Cypriot economic and intellectual life, helping to establish the Cyprus Museum in 1882.

The British Museum has benefited enormously from the generosity of more recent Cypriot entrepreneurs with close links to United Kingdom. The A.G. Leventis Foundation has supported the work of the museum for many years in displaying and studying what is recognised as one of the most important collections of Cypriot antiquities outside of the island. If the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Ancient Cyprus had provided a mirror to the extraordinary culture of the island in antiquity, then it also bears witness to the vibrancy and dynamism of the modern Cypriot diaspora in the United Kingdom.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 25 October 2012.

The Colossus of Dali is on display in Room 72: Ancient Cyprus

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from AotearoaPolly Bence, British Museum

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

Maori cloak from Aotearoa

This feather cloak is made from woven New Zealand flax fibre (Phormium tenax). It is decorated with dyed fowl feathers and the green feathers are from the rare kākāpō bird – a ground-dwelling parrot species native to New Zealand.

This is one of 153 cloaks in the British Museum’s Oceanic collection, 49 of which have feathers as a decorative element. Feathered cloaks (kahu huruhuru) became increasingly popular from the end of the nineteenth century, becoming the most prestigious type of cloak at the beginning of the twentieth century. This cloak is in superb condition, dating between 1900 and 1906. It was donated to the British Museum by Sir Herbert Daw in 1936 after being one of several cloaks placed on the coffin of Richard John Seddon, a former New Zealand Prime Minister at his funeral in 1908.

Weaving is predominantly undertaken by women, and cloak manufacture (whatu kākahu) is one of most highly respected of all fibre arts. Historically the finest cloaks were worn by high status men, reserved for special occasions. Some were given personal names, reinforcing their significance. Starting with the collection and preparation of the flax fibre and made without using a loom, a cloak can take several months to make depending on the style, complexity and materials used. It is thought that early cloaks took up to two years to finish. Today cloaks are held in extremely high regard because of their associations with chiefly status.

A large number of people visit the Oceanic collection every year, many of whom come to research, contemplate and admire the fibre arts in the Māori collection. The manufacture of cloaks experienced a number of stylistic and material adaptations over time and they continue to be made today. Many contemporary fibre artists are keen to study and to replicate traditional techniques, as well as introduce new materials.

The London-based community group Ngāti Rānana promotes Māori values and traditions, welcoming anyone with an interest in Māori culture. Also part of this wider community is Te Kōhanga Reo o Rānana, an environment for young children and families to experience and learn Māori language.

Ngāti Rānana actively participates in a wide variety of events including those in the museums and gallery sector. When the Māori display case was opened in the Wellcome Trust Gallery in 2008, the group performed a traditional blessing of the taonga or treasures on display.

Cloaks in particular are widely understood to be symbols of national Māori identity. The complex artistry is not only respected by the local London Māori community but by those farther afield, by fibre artists, academics and Museum professionals alike.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 18 October 2012.

The Māori cloak from Aotearoa is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Cloisonné decorated jar

Cloisonne jar with dragonJessica Harrison-Hall, British Museum

Cloisonne jar with dragon

Cloisonné decorated jar

Philanthropic Londoners are supporting the Evening Standard’s campaigns to encourage London primary school children to read more and to find young adults work through apprenticeship schemes. This culture of selfless giving is a vital part of London life. Visitors to the British Museum have benefited greatly from this generosity, which manifests itself in new buildings, refurbished galleries and acquisitions of new objects.

Jimmy Riesco (1877-1964) from Croydon was one such benefactor. He collected Chinese art and bequeathed his collection of Chinese ceramics to his home town, where it is now on display in the Riesco Gallery in the Museum of Croydon. This magnificent cloisonné jar, a testimony to the quality of Chinese craftsmanship, was once in his collection. It is decorated with powerful dragons with snake-like bodies and horns flying through the clouds.

Cloisonné is a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make. Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells. The cells are filled with multicoloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks. Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is refired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

From two inscriptions around the rim of this jar, we know who commissioned it and where it was made. Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), the Ming Emperor from 1426 to 1435, commissioned it and eunuchs in the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing supervised its manufacture. Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. The magnificent dragons were symbolic of the emperor. As you can see from walking around Chinatown today, dragons continue to be a powerful symbol of good luck.

There is only one other jar like this one in the world. It is in Switzerland in the Reitburg Museum, on loan from a private collection. Originally the two jars would probably have been displayed together in the Forbidden City Palace. The British Museum plans to reunite the jars in an exhibition beginning in September 2014, which will show the splendour of early Ming courts and the extraordinary connections that Ming China established with the rest of the world.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 11 October 2012.

The Cloisonné decorated jar is on display in Room 33: Asia

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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