the walters art museum

Across Asia and the Islamic World

At the heart of human history is interconnectivity. People, and as a result their cultures, have always been in contact, and the result of those connections are visible in material culture. The Walters Art Museum is kicking off a new series of publications focusing on their collections, and the first volume Across Asia and the Islamic World illustrates the interconnectivity on the Asian continent.

Across Asia and the Islamic World accompanies the installation of the new gallery Arts of Asia and the Islamic World. In the new gallery, visitors can experience the many cultural expressions from this vast continent in one space, and more importantly, see how they are all interrelated. That interconnectivity is also the focus of the book. As it is expressed in the foreword: ‘Movement is an intrinsic part of the life of most art objects.’ (p. 6). This simple statement is such an incredibly important notion, yet it is one that is often overlooked. We are somehow used to objects being static, in their movement but also in their identity.

The first essay in the book explores that notion in fascinating detail, using objects from the collection. On the first page of that essay, we travel along with a Qur’an made in India, moving to Istanbul a century later, and now on display in Baltimore. In each of its locations, it held significance and had a role to play. A jade chime from China, used at the court to instill heavenly harmony on earth, also reflects conquest and colonization (p. 17-18), and in a similar manner, this essay presents a variety of objects that each hold several stories. This is an essay that gets you thinking on how there is so much more to ‘a teapot from China’ if we actively start considering its biography. I appreciated in particular that the essay ends with a note on how further research continues to shed light on these complex, often tangled layers of identity and history in a single object.

The second essay explores spiritual and social movement as expressed by objects. An example is a jar with a carp swimming in a lotus pond. (Fig. 8) Nothing remarkable at first sight if you’re (like me) not a connoisseur of Chinese art, but the carp swimming upstream reflects the impossibility in Chinese society for people to move up on the social ladder: the desire to ‘make it’ is so very relatable today. This particular vase has an even deeper meaning, but instead of bringing you more spoilers here, I recommend you read this book yourself! The essay continues to compare and analyze objects associated with spiritual movement: in a person, through meditation and prayer, but also in the visible act of processions and pilgrimage.

The third and last essay delves into movement across the continent: of people, goods and ideas. I really enjoyed the introduction to this chapter, presenting a Chinese statue of a camel (Fig. 18): the most important animal in caravans, but originally an ‘import’ to China itself. Portable objects, like jewellery or personal amulets, show the length and width of traveling ideas: a Buddhist locket in Japan, a tiny Qur’an from sub-Sahara Africa. Paper, a Chinese invention, was used for fans but also changed the world of book production forever, and I loved how the essay ends with a copy the famous Book of Navigation by Piri Reis. This 17th century map ties the entire book together: expansion and imperialism, travel and exploration, techniques and trade, forms and ideas permeate the history of Asia and the Islamic world in a continuous perpetuum mobile.

This may be a small book with its 64 pages, but it covers so much ground. The map on pages 8 and 9 allows you to take in the scale of the geographical region presented in the book. The many photographs are beautiful and a joy to see. And what these photos and essays leave you with is a new understanding of looking at historic objects: as material output of cultures continuously on the move. That is of course not a groundbreaking new insight itself, but the way this book has made it its central theme results in a presentation of the collection highlighting its cultural and historic interrelatedness, instead of segmenting it according to contemporary countries and their respective histories. I’m looking forward to the future publications in this series!

Across Asia and the Islamic World. Edited by Adriana Proser, 2023.

Full colour, 64 pages, in English. Published by GILES in association with The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The book was received as review copy from the publisher.

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Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.