Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

09 December 2019

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Designers promoting Aids awareness on Asian, African & Middle Eastern postage stamps (2)

World Aids Day was first marked on 1 December 1988, an historic event commemorated by the issue of postage stamps all over the world, including in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As noted in the first of this two-part blog post, issued on 1 December 2019, the philatelic material produced then and in subsequent years can thus provide important insights into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) contributions towards art and design, and more examples are presented in the second part of this post.

Ethiopia issued three stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 18 June 1991. Lithograph-printed by the State Printing Works in Vienna, each one depicts a design created by Ethiopian artist Million Abiyou.
Figure 14_20191126_10405191  Figure 15_20191126_10414529
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
The 15c stamp charts the decline of a young Ethiopian man’s heath until his death after contracting HIV and Aids. The 85c stamp depicts a lecturer teaching an unspecified audience about Aids prevention.
Figure 16_20191126_10422793
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
This 1b stamp depicts preventative measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV and Aids, including practicing ‘safe sex’ as well as avoiding needles, razors and other items containing blood possibly contaminated with HIV and Aids. It also depicts a family sheltered underneath an umbrella symbolising protection.

Figure 17_20191126_10512158  Figure 18_20191126_10514990
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Publicity Material, Cyprus
On 13 December 1991, the Turkish Cypriot Post issued a 1000 TL stamp commemorating World Aids Day. Designed by Sanatcinin Adi it depicts four different sources of infection including safe sex, drug, transmission of infected blood and an unborn baby contracting the disease of an infected mother. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections does not hold an example of the stamp but does have the publicity leaflet released by the Postal Authority containing information on its manufacture, production and sale.

Figure 19_20191126_10532183
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Morocco
Morocco issued a 3f stamp commemorating World Aids Day on 20 November 1991. Produced by Belgian artist Lisette Delooz’s design depicts two figures within a splash of blood.

On 31 January 1992, Kenya issued four stamps lithograph-printed by Cartor as part of an Anti-Aids Campaign. Each one has a separate design created by designer H. Mogul.

Figure 20_20191126_10071468  Figure 21_20191126_10073416
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
The 2/- stamp depicts a generic male figure with a hand touching his right shoulder with the statement ‘AIDS. YOU TOO CAN BE INFECTED.’ The 6/- stamp depicts a man within a Petrie dish above medications overlaid with a red cross with the statement Surmounting the design is the statement ‘AIDS HAS NO CURE.’

Figure 22_20191126_10075251  Figure 23_20191126_10080899
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
This 8/50 stamp depicts the male and female symbol representing a heterosexual couple accompanied by the statement ‘AIDS. CASUAL SEX IS UNSAFE.’ The 11/- stamp depicts a generic male figure standing behind a hypodermic syringe in the foreground with the text ‘AIDS. STERILISE SYRINGE BEFORE USE.’

On 22 January 2001 Lesotho issued four Anti-Aids Campaign stamps for the Positive Action Society Lesotho designed by Seatile Nkhomo and lithograph-printed by Questa.
Figure 24  Figure 25
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 70s stamp depicts a Basotho warrior fighting Aids whilst the 1m carries the text ‘SPEED KILLS SO DOES AIDS. Go Slow’

Figure 26  Figure 27
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 1m.50 stamp depicts two women with the statement ‘People with AIDS need friends not rejection’; and the 2m.10 stamp illustrates a rifle, military helmet, unused condom and boots beside the text ‘Even when you’re off duty protect the nation.’

Finally, Nigeria issued two stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 3 May 2003, all designed by Nigerian artist T. Faluyi.
Figure 28_20191126_10544746  Figure 29_20191126_10550580
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Nigeria
The 20N stamp illustrates a nurse tending to a seriously ill patient accompanied by the text ‘Caring for Aids victim.’ On the left side of the stamp can be seen the iconic World Aids Day ribbon. Meanwhile, the 50N stamp depicts a woman using a microphone addressing a crowd whilst gesturing towards a poster with the text ‘AIDS is REAL Beware!’

The philatelic materials discussed from Africa, Asia and the Middle East show how important stamps are in researching consistent contributions from the BAME community towards art and design. An obvious question remains: where is the original design and artwork located? Sadly, it is impossible to answer this question at present. We suspect such artwork and design material will exist within various official archival and unofficial private collections scattered globally. As its cultural value becomes increasingly recognised, the locations of such material will hopefully become known.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost thirty seven million individuals around the globe live with the HIV virus whilst nearly as many people have died from HIV-related complications, including Aids, since the 1980s. Such figures of course fail to take into account the stigma that individuals who have contracted Aids can suffer. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit region, with more than seventy percent of the world’s people living with HIV. The study of Aids can therefore extend way beyond medical science and incorporate intensely personal cultural and historic perspectives, a deserving issue demanding further research.

In addition to surveying the British Library’s Philatelic Collections, both authors conducted a wider scoping exercise to identify Aids-related material in various languages held within the British Library’s collections. From a visual and textual culture perspective, our rich holdings include journals, monographs, research papers, pamphlets, NGO publications and audio material. We call upon curators and academics to research this important subject further, to develop a resource for mainstream audiences in a more sustainable form.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support Ccownwork

05 December 2019

Three fish with one head: (1) Sufi sources from Southeast Asia

This two-part blog post will examine a striking motif of three interlocking fish with one head, which is found in widely varied locations all over the world. This first post looks at examples in Javanese mystical manuscripts; in the second post, the motif will be traced from ancient Egypt through medieval France to modern Japan.

The motif of three fish with one head is familiar from manuscripts on mystical practices from Java, where it is referred to in Javanese as iwak telu sirah sanunggal, ‘three fish with a single head’.  All known examples occur in texts relating to the Shaṭṭārīyah brotherhood, a Sufi order founded in Persia by Shaykh Sirajuddin Abdullah Shattar (d. 1406) and which spread to Southeast Asia through disciples of the eminent Meccan teacher Shaykh Ahmad al-Qushāshī (d. 1660).  Presented here are a number of examples from Javanese manuscripts in the British Library and also from manuscripts still held in Java digitised through the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

The earliest dateable examples of this motif from Java are in two manuscripts from the collection of Col. Colin Mackenzie, who served in the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1813. Both manuscripts containing Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah or spiritual genealogies, one of which is dated 1790, originate from Mataraman in Batavia, present-day Jakarta, situated on the north-west coast of Java. 

MSS.Jav.77  f.16v-fish
Three fish with one head, in a Javanese manuscript from Mataraman, Batavia, containing mystical texts, dated AH 1205 (AD 1790/1).  British Library, MSS Jav 77, f. 16v   noc

Two later manuscripts containing this motif are from Lamongan on the north coast of East Java, both of which have been digitised through the Endangered Archives programme.  The manuscripts are held in the Islamic boarding school Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah at Kranji, near the tomb of Sunan Drajat, one of the nine wali credited with bringing Islam to Java.  In both the Batavia and Lamongan manuscripts the diagram is used to illustrate the Oneness (tawhid) of God, by visualising graphically the unity of the first three stages of the ‘seven grades of being’ (martabat tujuh), and making this reference explicit through accompanying captions:  aḥadīyah - Allāh / waḥdah - Muḥammad / wāḥidīyah - Adam

Three fish with one head, shown on the left-hand page, in a manuscript  (EAP061/2/44-52) containing texts of Sufism, dated in the Javanese era 5 wulan Sawal tahun jawi 1854 (10 May 1924). Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah, Kranji, Lamongan, East Java, EAP061/2/50, f. 34a

The second manuscript from Lamongan (EAP061/2/55-61), which is undated but probably also dates from around the late 19th or early 20th century, has a very finely executed drawing of the three fish with one head.  In contrast to nearly all known diagrams of this motif where the three fish are depicted identically, in the undated Lamongan manuscript, while the two fish labelled Muhammad and Adam are decorated with delicate scales, the fish labelled Allah is left plain and unadorned, most likely to reflect the 'emptiness' associated with the first of the seven grades of being, aḥadīyah.

Three fish with one head in a manuscript containing Sufi texts, ca. late 19th c.; this is the only known example where the three fish are differentiated from one another visually. Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah, Kranji, Lamongan, East Java, EAP061/2/59, f.29b   [This page has been rotated through 180 degrees to allow the reading of the Javanese text.]

According to Mahrus eL-Mahwa, who has carried out a study of this motif in the Cirebon region of north Java, there are three late-19th century manuscripts which are all copies of a text of the Shaṭṭārīyah wa-Muḥammadīyah Sufi order closely linked to the Kaprabonan court (one of the three princely houses of Cirebon which emerged from the sultanate in 1677 following a succession dispute).  In all three Cirebon manuscripts, each fish is labelled with a different descriptor of the stage represented: zat ‘ibarat Allāh - ṣifat ‘ibarat rūḥ/Muḥammad - af‘āl ‘ibarat jasad/Adam (Essence symbolising God / attributes symbolising the soul/Muḥammad / Deeds symbolising the body/Adam).  It was thus probably one such Cirebon manuscript which was cited by the scholar Karel Steenbrink in his discussion of how simple figures and diagrams were used in the Malay world to elucidate ideas about the mystical reality: ‘A quite peculiar example of this style of summarising the totality of being is that of the three fishes, as found in a 19th century Malay tract on the unity of being, according to the Shattariyah brotherhood, composed in Java. The three fishes were given the names of Essence of Allah, Deeds (af’āl) and Attributes (sifāt). The drawing symbolises the unity of the original essence and the first emanations within the divine being … When looked upon from the tails, the figures seem to be different, but in their heads, they are identical. Difference and change have disappeared as so often in the neo-Platonic reasoning that has since long dominated Islamic mystical thinking about God’ (Steenbrink 2009: 69-79).

Mahrus eL-Mawa has suggested that the iwak telu sirah sanunggal diagram has a particular association with the Shaṭṭārīyah order in Cirebon, where it functioned as a suluk or an aid to mystical practice.  There may be a particular association with court culture in Cirebon: the motif of three fish with one head is currently the symbol of the Kacirebonan, the fourth and youngest princely house of Cirebon, which was founded in 1808, while Mahrus’s research also reveals that the past five heads of the Kaprabonan court have all been initiated into the Shaṭṭārīyah wa-Muḥammadīyah order. 

 HUT Kacirebonan lambang
Three fish with one head as the symbol of the Kacirebonan court, Cirebon, founded in 1808. Source: Cirebon Insight, 3 June 2011

The motif does appear to be particularly strongly associated with Cirebon: in addition to its appearance in manuscripts it also occurs on batik, wood carvings  and glass paintings.  The ‘three fish with one head’ also appears frolicking alongside ‘ordinary’ fish in two separate scenes in a delightful illustrated late 18th-century Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan probably from Cirebon; this is the only known appearance of the motif in a non-mystical manuscript, and may reflect a deep entrenchment in the repertoire of local artists . 

MSS Jav 89  f.41r-det
The ‘three-in-one’ fish depicted with soldiers crossing a river, in a Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan,  late 18th century. The manuscript was given to the India Office Library in 1815 by Lt. Col. Raban, who had been Resident of Cirebon from 1812 to 1814.  British Library, MSS Jav 89, f. 41r  noc

Yet the origin and meaning of this motif remains obscure. Even within Cirebon the diagram of three fish with one head is not found in all Shaṭṭārīyah manuscripts, while outside Java, apart from one manuscript in Malay from the Lanao area of Mindanao, the diagram is not encountered in any Shaṭṭārīyah manuscripts from other parts of the Malay world, for example from Aceh or west Sumatra, or in mystical manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish or Persian from the broader Islamic world.   The reason may lie in differing lines of transmission of Shaṭṭārīyah teachings, as traced through the spiritual genealogies (silsilah) contained in manuscripts.  A recent detailed philological study of Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah in Aceh, Java and Mindanao by Oman Fathurahman (2016) reveals four main lines of descent from Aḥmad Qushāshī, most notably demonstrating that not all adherents traced their spiritual genealogy from the famous Acehnese scholar and Sufi Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ra’ūf of Singkil (d. 1661), who is usually associated with the introduction of the Shaṭṭārīyah to the Malay world. 

The proposition that the diagram of ‘three fish with one head’ used to illustrate the Unity of God is linked with one particular descent line of the Shaṭṭārīyah would explain why this motif is only found in a small number of manuscripts found along the north coast of Java, particularly centred on Cirebon.  Nonetheless it remains puzzling that the motif of three fish with one head is unknown in either manuscript or other material cultural manifestations in other parts of the archipelago and even in mainland Southeast Asia, when, as will be shown in the second part of this blog post, it has in fact an exceptionally long history in many far-flung parts of the world, dating back thousands of years. 

MSS Jav 89  f.3v det
The ‘three fish with one head' depicted clustered around the anchor of a ship, at the start of a Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan, probably from Cirebon, late 18th century.  British Library, MSS Jav 89, f. 3v  noc

Further reading:

This study of the motif of ‘three fish with one head’ was initiated as part of a research project on Mindanao manuscripts coordinated by Prof. Midori Kawashima, which resulted in the publication: A.T.Gallop, Cultural interactions in Islamic manuscript art: a scholar's library from MindanaoThe library of an Islamic scholar of Mindanao: the collection of Sheik Muhammad Said bin Imam sa Bayang at the Al-Imam As-Sadiq (A.S.) Library, Marawi City, Philippines:  an annotated catalogue with essays, edited by Oman Fathurahman, Kawashima Midori and Labi Sarip Riwarung.  Tokyo: Institute of Asian, African and Middle Eastern Studies, Sophia University; pp. 205-248.

Karel Steenbrink, Circling around an unknowable truth: on the flexibility of Islamic art.  Visual arts and religion, eds Hans Alma, Marcel Barnard & Volker Küster; pp. 65-78.  Berlin: LIT, 2009.
Mahrus eL-Mawa, Suluk iwak telu sirah sanunggal: dalam naskah 'Syatariyah wa Muhammadiyah' di Cirebon. [Paper presented at: Simposium Internasional ke-16 Pernaskahan Manassa, Perpustakaan Nasional RI, 26-28 September 2016].  Jakarta.
Oman Fathurahman, Shattariyah silsilah in Aceh, Java, and the Lanao area of Mindanao.  Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2016.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

01 December 2019

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic designers promoting Aids awareness on Asian, African & Middle Eastern postage stamps (1)

Mass reproduced for global dissemination and consumption, postage stamps play an important role in promoting awareness and raising revenues for a wide range of public health issues on the national and international stage. To mark the thirty-first World Aids Day on 1 December 2019, this two-part blog post will illustrate stamp issues from Africa, Asia and the Middle East promoting Aids awareness. It is also important to remember that numerous far-sighted postcolonial nation states commissioned national artists and designers to produce the rich visual imagery on many of the stamps now under discussion. Consequently, such philatelic material also provides important insights into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) contributions towards art and design, bridging the gap between art and science within a public health context and raising Aids awareness.

Figure 1_20191126_10395437
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia

World Aids Day was first marked on 1 December 1988 and postal authorities issued commemorative postage stamps promoting this historic event. Ethiopia issued a set of four overprinted stamps in denominations of 20c, 25c, 45c and 55c commemorating World Aids Day on 1 December 1988. The actual stamps formed part of an earlier stamp issue lithograph printed by French security-printing firm Cartor, released for sale on 22 May 1987. The commemorative issue was signalled by the overprint , ‘WORLD AIDS DAY’ in Amharic and English.

Senegal issued four stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 1 December 1989. Lithograph-printed by Cartor, each stamp bears separate designs created by the Senegalese artist, Momar Ndiaye.

Figure 2_20191126_10450045 Figure 3_20191126_10451455
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Senegal

The 5f stamp depicts the Aids virus above two clasped hands, shielding people of different races. Adopting a similar theme, the 100f stamp depicts men, women and children beneath an umbrella shielding them from the French word ‘SIDA’ (AIDS) written in blood.

Figure 4_20191126_10452790  Figure 5_20191126_10454461
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Senegal

The 145f stamp depicts a sleeved arm with the UN symbol smashing and breaking up the Aids virus; likewise, the 180f stamp depicts a hand grasping a hammer that is smashing into the Aids virus.
Zaïre issued three stamps and a mini-sheet in 1989 commemorating a Red Cross Anti-Aids Campaign, produced by various African designers and printed by the English security-printing firm Harrisons & Sons Ltd.

Figure 6_20191126_10473688  Figure 7_20191126_10475039
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Zaire

The 30Z stamp designed by Mba-Nzeh depicts the French word for Aids forming the face of an owl, accompanied with the French text ‘La Sida est un Danger qui nous quette’ (Aids is a danger that lurks). For the 40Z stamp, designer Makonga Mokombelwa produced an image of an African bowman firing an arrow through the word SIDA, accompanied with the French text ‘Lutter contre le Sida, C’est lutter pour la vie’ (Fight against Aids, it’s the fight for life).

Figure 8_20191126_10480365  Figure 9_20191126_10482247
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Zaire

The design for the 80Z stamp designed by Bibesse depicts the word SIDA making up the body of a leopard with the statement ‘Sida plus q’un Fauve’ (Aids more than a fawn). The mini-sheet containing a 150Z stamp designed by Nkomo Nkonda comprises a map of the world dotted with the campaign logo comprising a red heart split in two by a blue skull and the statements ‘l’humanitie Lutte Contre le Sida’ (Humanity fights against Aids) and ‘Un effort Mondial le Vaincra’ (A world effort will overcome it).

Figure 10_20191126_10110449
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Thailand

As part of the same campaign, Thailand also issued a 2-baht stamp lithograph-printed by Cartor on 29 March 1990 commemorating the Red Cross Anti-Aids Campaign. Thai artist S. Sothonbun adopted the campaign’s official emblem comprising a blue skill splitting a heart for the design.

On 30 November 1990, Sri Lanka issued two stamps for World Aids Day designed by Sri-Lankan artist Sanath Rohana Wickramasinghe and lithograph-printed by Malaysian security printers.

Figure 11_20191126_10044336  Figure 12_20191126_10050101
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Sri Lanka

The 1 rupee stamp promotes Aids Education, depicting a female health worker talking to villagers about Aids as indicated by the poster she holds up depicting an image of the HIV virus with the word Aids in two languages. Meanwhile, the 8 rupees stamp promotes worldwide scientific engagement to combat Aids by depicting of an official emblem for the campaign next to a HIV virus.

Figure 13_20191126_10502632
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Syria

Syria issued a 500p stamp commemorating World Aids Day on 24 December 1990. The design exhorts individuals to conduct themselves in a particular manner to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS.

In the second part of this blog, to be published next week, we will feature stamps from a range of African countries incluing Ethiopia, Lesotho and Kenya.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support