THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

238 posts categorized "Art"

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

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This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

28 June 2021

The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

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Studies of the art of the Qur’an usually start with the beautiful illuminated frames across two facing pages that are naturally the most visually striking parts of the book, but all too often the studies also stop there. In fact, it is often in smaller features that geographical origin is most readily determined, through deep-seated attachments to certain preferred formats of page layout. The British Library holds eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia representing three regional traditions, with one from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula (Or 15227), three from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra (Or 15406, Or 16034, Or 16915), and four from Java (Add 12312, Add 12343, Or 16877) including one from the island of Madura (Or 15877). Drawing on these and Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, we will explore the art of minor decorative elements in Qur’an manuscripts, starting with the smallest of all: verse markers.

Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r
Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r  noc

In the absence of punctuation in Arabic script, and to support correct recitation, from at least the 10th century onwards Qur’an manuscripts were generally copied with small graphic devices separating each verse or aya. In Qur’ans from Southeast Asia, these verse markers are invariably small circles, generally varying in size from between 3 to 7 mm in diameter, and with olour schemes that differ between regions.

Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)
Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)  noc

Presented below is one line from each of the eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library, showing the start of the same verse (Surat al-Kahf, Q.18:8, ‘And lo! We shall make all that is therein a barren mound’), to show the shape and placement of the verse markers, with comments on each regional tradition.

On the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Qur’an manuscripts normally indicate verse breaks with small red-ink circles.  More de luxe volumes, especially from the Terengganu school, have black or red ink circles filled with yellow pigment, and in the most lavish cases, gold. As shown above, the fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, has black circles filled with yellow (or occasionally green) paint. While copying the Qur’anic text, the scribe has taken care to leave enough space for the round verse markers to sit on the line adjacent to the words.

Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 148v
Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 149v  noc

In the three Acehnese Qur’ans shown below, only in one manuscript (Or 15406) has space been left on the line to fit in the verse markers; in the two other manuscripts the verse markers have had to be placed above the line. In Aceh, verse markers in illuminated Qur’an manuscripts are nearly always black ink circles which are coloured in with yellow. This colour scheme is found in all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library shown below, although on the page in question in Or 16034, the scribe has forgotten to colour in the verse markers, which have been left as black ink circles. In this manuscript, we can see clearly the small black ink dots that the scribe left while copying out the text to indicate the breaks between the verses, as a guide for placing the markers.

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v [NB this page is bound upside down in the volume]   noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r  noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts copied in the Javanese tradition, verse markers are invariably red ink circles. In the four Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library, only in one manuscript are the markers placed on the line of writing, while in three others they are located above the lines. In all these manuscripts too we can see the scribal mark left to indicate where the verse markers should be placed, but in the Qur’an from Madura, the scribe has forgotten to draw a red circle around the second caret mark placed above the line at the end of the verse Q.18:8.

All these small scribal lapses are interesting because they serve to illustrate clearly the three-stage order of working: firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v  noc

Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r
Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r  noc

The round verse markers in Qur’ans from Southeast Asia are indeed the smallest artistic elements in the manuscripts, but they are also the basic buildings blocks of more elaborate graphic devices that sometimes blossom into remarkable artworks. These are used to indicate larger textual divisions such as juz’ or thirtieth parts of the Qur’an and subdivisions thereof, or the ends of suras or chapters. These composite roundels can range from the very basic models found in Javanese manuscripts to more artistic illuminated compositions in Acehnese Qur’ans, and can reach even more elaborate heights in other genres of manuscripts such as Kitab Mawlid texts.

Roundel-12312-f.14v-juz2  Roundel-16877-f.273v
Triple roundels in two Javanese Qur’ans to mark the start of a new juz’: British Library, (left) Add 12312; (right) Or 16877, f. 273v   noc

Roundel-16034-f.258r
Illuminated composite roundels used as a line filler at the end of Surat al-Fil (Q.105) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 258r  noc

Roundel-16915-f.131v  Roundel-16915-f.128v  coloured foundel in a Quran manuscript -15406-f.18v
Coloured composite roundels marking subdivisions of a juz’ in Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. British Library, (left and centre) Or 16915, (right) Or 15406.  noc

As can be seen in the images, all the verse markers are perfect circles that were drawn mechanically with a compass, as is evident from the small black dot or indent discernible in the centre of nearly all the circles. The ubiquity of these perfect circles, in Qur’an manuscripts of every varying level of competence (for example, the Javanese Qur’an Or 16877 is copied in a very poor hand), suggests that rather than using a dedicated tool, they may have been made through an easily-learned scribal technique of somehow pivoting the nib of the pen around a sharp point. The use of a sharp-pointed implement is proven by some back-lit images taken to show the watermarks in a manuscript of a sermon from Kerinci, digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP117/9/1/3), which highlight the tiny holes created in the making of the composite roundels; similar observations have been made in Islamic manuscripts from Mindanao. However, the precise method of drawing these small circles, whether by using a tool or a technique, remains at present undocumented, and a field for future study.

Pinprick pivot holes in the paper made during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3  EAEAP117-9-1-3-compass points in a composite roundel
Pinprick pivot holes made in the paper during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, shown below, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3, 6

Sermon, written on a scroll, ca. 1830s, Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.
Sermon, written ca. 1830s in the form of a scroll in English paper watermarked 'Allford 1829', Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.

Occasionally small hand-drawn circles are also found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, and these are especially common in central Sumatra and areas in the Minangkabau sphere of influence, as in the Qur’an below.

EAP144-2-5.16
Hand-drawn small red circles as verse markers in a Qur’an from West Sumatra. EAP144/2/5.16

This is the first of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the third on Surah headings; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

07 June 2021

Portrait of Charles Weston (1731-1809)

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In 2019, the Visual Arts Department acquired a late eighteenth-century portrait of the merchant and philanthropist, Charles Weston (1731-1809). Born in Calcutta (Kolkata) of both Indian and British descent, Weston’s portrait is an important document of the Anglo-Indian community in India.

Portrait of Charles Weston
Portrait of Charles Weston by an unknown artist, 1790-1808. British Library, Foster 1104 Noc

His father was William Weston, registrar of the mayor’s court in Calcutta. Little is known of his mother, although she may have been Mrs. Mary Ballantine who married a William Weston in 1731 (Hawes 2004).   

Weston had an accomplished career despite the obstacles he would have faced as someone of mixed ancestry. He began as an apprentice to the surgeon John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798), who became a lifelong friend and provided Weston with capital to start his business. Weston accumulated his wealth through commerce, investment in property, and sheer luck – in 1778, he won Tiretta’s Bazar in the Calcutta lottery, which was worth Rs 196,000 and provided him with a monthly earning of Rs 3,500 (Hawes 2004).

Portrait of John Zephaniah Howell
Portrait of John Zephaniah Holwell, platinotype print from a painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, c.1750. British Library, P587 Noc

An eminent Calcutta citizen, Weston’s Lane in the city was named after him. He was also one of two Anglo-Indians to sit on the jury of the infamous trial of Maharaja Nandakumar in 1775 (Hawes 1996, 56). By the 1790s, Anglo-Indians would no longer be permitted to serve on Calcutta juries, and this was later amended in 1827 to allow Christians to serve (Anderson 2015, 14).

Close up of a map of Calcutta showing Weston's Lane
Close-up of a Map of Calcutta showing Weston’s Lane, 1842, British Library, P2348 Noc

Weston was married twice - to Amelia de Rozario in 1758, and after her death, to Constantia Weston. Constantia died in 1801 and was buried at the convent of Bandel, on the banks of the Hooghly River. A portrait of Constantia was published in Bengal Past and Present in 1915.

Weston was an active philanthropist and is said to have donated 100 gold mohurs monthly to the poor. He also served as the parish clerk for St. John’s Church, Calcutta. After his death, he left a charitable fund worth Rs 100,000 to be managed by the church and used towards poverty relief. His will also left bequests to many friends and dependents (Hawes 2004).

WD4381
View of the west end of St John's Church, Calcutta by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep, c. 1830, watercolour on paper. British Library, WD4381 Noc

Another portrait of Weston is housed in the vestry of St. John’s Church. It shows Weston wearing a cotton handkerchief around his head, which he wore to keep warm when in his home as he suffered from rheumatism. A reproduction of this painting also features in the publication Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days produced by the Calcutta Historical Society in 1910.

Weston died in 1809 and his grave can still be visited at South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta). His epitaph reads: he led a life marked “by benevolence and charity, seldom equalled, and never yet exceeded in British India” (The Bengal Obituary 1851, 94). He was survived by his eldest son, Charles Weston (1763-1813) and by his grandchildren.

The acquisition of his portrait complements archival materials already held within the British Library’s collection that are related to Weston’s life and estate. For instance, the India Office Records and Private Papers Collection contains a copy of his will (IOR/L/AG/34/29/22) and an inventory taken after his death (IOR/L/AG/34/27/41).

 

References and further reading

Anderson, V. (2015), Race and Power in British India: Anglo-Indians, Class and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bengal wills (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/29/22 

Bengal: Past and Present (1915), vol. 10 (Jan – March)

Wilmot, C. (1910). Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days. Calcutta: Calcutta Historical Society.

Estates and Wills Branch: Inventories and Accounts of Deceased Estates - Bengal: Vol. 1 (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/27/41

Hawes, C. (2004), “Charles Weston” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63541

Hawes, C. (1996), Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Richmond: Curzon.

List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Bengal Possessing Historical or Archaeological Interest (1896), ed. C. R. Wilson.

The Telegraph India (2013), “New life for church pictures” https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/new-life-for-church-pictures/cid/1287818  

The Bengal Obituary: Or, a Record to Perpetuate the Memory of Departed Worth (1851), Holmes and Co. 

 

Nicole Ioffredi, Print Room Coordinator and Cataloguer Ccownwork

01 April 2021

Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

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Between April-June 2021 the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will co-host Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

Two-ring binder open with black and white page of illustrations, atop a green open-topped box with obscured items
From the collected archive for the project Borrowed Faces by Fehras Publishing Practices, Berlin, 2018-2021.

© Ferras Publishing Practices

The series has been co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

The series has been organised in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and the Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Video still showing a white board with writing in black ink and lines in blue ink, with a hand at the bottom holding a writing instrument
Video still from Past Disquiet.
© Past Disquiet

Engaging with a variety of artistic, design, archival, curatorial and academic research projects, this series will reflect on the multiple and overlapping worlds of publishing and on the contemporary efforts to reconstruct and reimagine them.

Learning from the leading practitioners in the field, the series examines past and present practices of publishing in Arabic. It explores questions of scale of operations and reach; mediums and formats; audience and language; and the social and political context that gave rise to the practices in question. The series also explores contemporary collecting practices of publishing archives. It highlights collections’ capacity to foreground publishing archives not merely as a signifier of other historical processes but as a historical process in its own right.

 

Split image, with colour and black and white covers of books and pamphlets on the left, some in Latin script and some in Arabic script, some with titles blacked out, laid out in an overlapping fashion, and on the right a headshot of a woman with chin-length curly hair standing against a white textured wall, with shadow obscuring part of her face
Left: Image courtesy of Kayfa ta.
© Kayfa ta

Right: Hala Auji. 
© Hala Auji

 

How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics

The first session in the series on Tuesday 27 April at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) brings together artists and curators Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun, in conversation with art historian Hala Auji, to talk about Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. In 2012, they founded Kayfa ta as an independent publishing initiative that emerged from a need to break out of the limited readership and distribution of alternative books: books that cross genres, engage a mixed range of writers and readers, and are not driven by restrictive market values that control who and what is publishable. Their project is also interested in identifying the mechanisms of “gate-keeping”, be they in art or publishing, that shape and limit the voices and practices that have access to a wider public. In 2019, Kayfa ta expanded its interest into understanding the wider field of self and independent publishing and distribution, as well as the new challenges facing access of the private to shared public platforms, and the space left to maneuver the mounting obstacles therein. Their talk explores the expanded fields of contemporary publishing and distribution – modes of making-public and of public–making, as developed through quotidian as well as artistic strategies – as a revealing entry point to understanding contemporary efforts to limit and expand the space of the commons.

 

Split image with colour photograph of seven books standing up in a line on the left, and a black and white photograph of a man wearing spectacles on the right
Left: Arabic Design Library by Khatt Books.
© Khatt Books

Right: Moe Elhossieny.
© Ahmed Othman

 

Archives of design and designing the archive

On Tuesday 11 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers, will speak on The Arabic Design Library: Alternative Narratives from the Arab World. She will address the importance of documenting and presenting an alternative design history from parts of the world that are rarely covered in main-stream design publications. She will present the series of design monographs, The Arabic Design Library, published by Khatt Books since 2016. The series covers the work of some of the Arab world's design pioneers (including the likes of Hilmi al-Tuni, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Dia Azzawi, Nasri Khattar and Abdulkader Arnaout) who were practicing in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s and who in their own way, engaged with design as a tool for political emancipation and socio-cultural progress.

She will be joined by Cairo-based multidisciplinary designer, researcher and writer Moe Elhosseiny who will speak on Arabic Cover Design Archive: Digital Archives as Design Activism. Through engaging with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, he takes a critical approach to history, archival practices and access in relation to collective memory in South Western Asia and North Africa. With archives being suppressed, neglected, avoided, or locked away, there is an urgency to support collective memory building. Consequently, forms of digital archiving may take on the role of design activism. Elhosseiny founded the Arabic Cover Design Archive which seeks to surface and record book design practices throughout the history of Arabic publishing, providing an accessible digital extension to an often inaccessible physical archive. By making the archive visible through digital means, this project multiplies the instances where engagement with this material can occur. It thus aims to increase the potentiality for creating meaning and greasing the wheels of knowledge production while simultaneously alerting the public to the existence of their history.

 

Split image with a photograph of three men, one bare-headed and two on left with hoods, standing in a close group, and right side showing a woman with medium length hair facing the camera with her shoulders and head centred
Left: Fehras Publishing Practices: Sami Rustom, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas.
© Fehras Publishing Practices

Right: Zeina Maasri
© Zeina Maasri

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War

On Tuesday 25 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Zeina Maasri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton, will speak alongside Berlin-based artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices (Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich) about their respective projects on Arabic publishing during the Cold War.

In her talk The Visual Politics and Poetics of Arabic Publishing, Maasri will explore Beirut’s development from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, intellectual debate and political contestation, which was marked by anticolonial struggle and complicated by a cold war order. Central to this nodal configuration was the city’s infrastructure of printing, Arabic publishing and distribution that sparked creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. These transnational circuits have materialised in some of the pioneering modernist Arabic cultural periodicals of the period, as well as in politically radical publishing projects that summoned revolutionary change and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Her talk centres the visuality and materiality of Arabic publications as important sites of aesthetic experimentation and as reproducible and mobile artefacts of print culture. She argues that the translocal visuality of such Arabic printscapes helped articulate political imaginaries, mobilize cross-border identifications and shape aesthetic sensibilities in and through the disjunctive flows of the global sixties.

Likewise, through their project Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices focuses on the Cold War era as one of the most fertile and critical periods in the history of Arab culture and publishing because of the entanglement between politics and culture. Their ongoing project researches cultural policies, and intellectual hegemony pursued by the bipolar power, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their establishment of institutions to fund international networks, conferences and projects. It observes the transformation of culture and publishing in the region from within, where new literary styles and ideas started to emerge. At the core of these movements were publishers, writers, poets, and translators, some of whom established collectives and seminars or who launched initiatives, publications, and publishing houses. Borrowed Faces looks into this period by observing the common denominators between cultural practices then and today. Pursuing these lines of inquiry, the project digs into print archives from the 1950s and 60s, such as books, magazines, memoirs, personal letters, newspaper articles, and photographs.

 

Split image showing on the left a colour photograph of an exhibition space with free-standing black stands, movable orange walls, and cream and green structural wall, all with artwork on them; on right hand side, headshot of a woman with hair to her jaw, smiling
Left: Exhibition view, Past Disquiet, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27-October 1, 2018.
Photograph: Christopher Baaklini, Courtesy: Sursock Museum.

Right: Refqa Abu-Remaileh
© Refqa Abu-Remaileh

 

Fragmented archives and histories of solidarity

The final session in the series on Tuesday 8 June at 17:00 (register via Zoom) brings together Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri to speak about their respective archival and curatorial projects.

In her talk  A Database for Palestinian Literature, Abu-Remaileh will share the work-in-progress of the ERC project PalREAD-Country of Words. Focusing on PalREAD’s use of digital tools, the talk will discuss the challenges and joys of tracing and mapping a highly fragmented and scattered history of Palestinian literary production in Arabic from the early 20th century to the present spanning a multiplicity of geographical locations around the globe.

Researcher and writer Kristine Khouri’s talk Reflections on the (Digital) Future(s) of Past Disquiet focuses on her decade long research project conducted with Rasha Salti which took the form of an archival and documentary exhibition, publication, and seminars and other discursive events. The project investigated the histories of art collections and museums built in solidarity with political causes for Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and South Africa as well as unearthed histories of transnational artistic solidarity networks of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the exhibition presented the research in the form of text, digital surrogates of archival and other materials, video montages of interviews with participants and other testimonies and film and other footage, the exhibition did not exhibit any artwork. Today, over a decade later, the question remains on how to treat the digital archive which has been built throughout the project, gathering surrogates of documents held primarily in private homes or difficult to find ephemera of histories that have yet to be properly written. The talk will explore some of the reflections and challenges in thinking about the digital (and other) afterlives of Past Disquiet and ways to imagine encouraging further research.

Full abstracts and speaker biographies for the series can be found here. For any further enquiries please email Hana Sleiman and Daniel Lowe.

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator, Arabic Collections
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18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

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On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
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The exhibition reopened at the British Library in May 2021 and the exhibition run has been extended to 7 October 2021. Advance booking is no longer necessary.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, until 23 August.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until 7 October 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
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The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

04 January 2021

Export paintings of Ming and Qing Chinese Interiors and Furnishings

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In 2019, Rita dal Martello undertook a PhD placement at the British Library to research a series of paintings created by Chinese artists held in the Visual Art collections. Whilst the primary focus of her placement was a collection of over 300 botanical paintings, Rita also worked on cataloguing a number of artworks that depicted Chinese interiors and furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods. This blog will explore these art works in more detail.

Consisting of 136 paintings (Add Or 2197-2332), this collection contains paintings depicting the interiors of houses and temples, furnishings, including lanterns and displays, and a variety of processional floats used in Buddhist and Taoist religious ceremonies. The objects and interior scenes depicted in these paintings represent the decorative tastes of the educated and wealthy sections of Chinese society during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The paintings are opaque watercolours on European paper, including sheets watermarked 1794 and 1805 which have subsequently been bound into a single volume. Whilst the names of the artists remain unknown, it is likely they were the work of painters working in and around Canton (Guangzhou) who were producing works for the export market during the late 18th and early 19th century. The majority of the collection (Add Or 2197-2313 & 2317-2332) were acquired circa 1806 when they are believed to entered the collections of the East India Company Library and Museum, whilst the remaining three paintings (Add Or 2314-2316) were deposited in 1813. Thematically, the paintings can be divided into three groups: Lanterns, Furniture and decorative displays, and ritual furnishings of official residences and temples.

Lanterns

A total of 35 paintings in the collection depict a variety of lantern designs including palace lanterns of square, hexagonal, or octagonal shape; “flower basket” palace lanterns; beaded lanterns and horse lanterns. Most of the paintings show individual lanterns constructed of elaborate wooden frames and panels decorated with landscape or bird and flower paintings, framed by coloured silk, with some having lavish strings of beads or tassels attached. The majority are depicted hanging from a string in the middle of the page.

A Chinese hexagonal palace lantern
A hexagonal palace lantern decorated with blue beads dangling on strings and calligraphic panels on red silk backgrounds, alternating to paintings of bamboo and prunus flowers. The central panel shows Gao Qi (1336-1374) poem "Dweller in the Clouds". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2322.

Three paintings bound in this volume are stylistically quite different from the remaining images however (Add Or 2314-2316). In these works the lantern takes up the whole page, and bear front and reverse inscriptions indicating that they were part of a set, possibly coming from the same artist or workshop. This set of paintings were deposited with the East India Company separately from the remainder of the collection and were received as a result of a letter from the East India Company written in March 1812 requesting samples of Chinese lanterns. On 22 February 1813 the Canton Factory replied saying that ‘The Lanterns indented for by the Honourable Court having been reported ready, were this day shipped on the ‘Royal George.’ A description of these Lamps with directions for putting them together drawn up by Mr Bosanquet under whose immediate inspection they were executed will be transmitted, a number in the Packet of that Ships Packet and Captain Gribble has promised that every possible care should be taken of them’ (BL Mss Eur D562/16).

 

Furniture and decorative displays

Furniture and decorative displays are the second most numerous group within the album. 33 paintings depict elaborate wooden furniture of various sizes and shapes elegantly displaying objects typically found in the homes of wealthy and educated Chinese. These objects include archaeological bronze objects, musical instruments, dishes decorated with auspicious symbols such as dragons and phoenix, vessels containing auspicious fruits, such as the Buddha’s hand citron for good fortune, or peaches for longevity, as well as vases with flowers such as lotus for purity or roses to symbolise the seasons.

A further 12 paintings depict speckled bamboo tables, chairs, and stools. These are possibly made of Xiangfei bamboo, which grows in Hunan and Guangxi provinces. According to the legend, the speckled aspect of this bamboo is derived from the tears concubines shed the death of the mythological emperor Shun.

Speckled bamboo Chinese furniture
Depiction of a speckled bamboo table and meiguiyi chair, possibly made of the so-called "Hunanese concubine bamboo". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2201.

Whilst a small number of paintings in this group also include decorative screens with landscape paintings or calligraphy scrolls, all of the pieces of furniture are painted in the centre of the page with no surrounding background or further details of the surrounding décor or architecture in which they would have been placed.

 

Ritual furnishings of official residences and temples

A final group of paintings in the album and by far the most numerous, depict a range of ritual furnishings including 3 paintings of government offices furnishings, 35 paintings of processional equipment (Add Or 2236) for both government officials and religious ceremonies, including depiction of processional sedan chairs; 17 paintings illustrating Buddhist and Taoist shrines and sacrificial arrangements and 1 of a liturgical archway celebrating filial piety.

Add Or 2236
Processional model of the Daoist temples of Wudang Mountain, in Hebei province, showing various buildings (pavilions, pagodas, etc) on a miniature mountain. At either side, a pair of matching wooden stands with a lantern and a plaque saying "Spectacular Scenery of Wudang Mountain" (武當勝景). Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2236.

These paintings once again show the furnishings, shrines and ceremonial emblems in the centre of the page with no background or contextual details. The paintings are not accompanied by descriptive inscriptions or titles and one of the key areas of my work on this collection was to create catalogue records for the individual paintings, researching and describing the subjects of each painting and transcribing any inscriptions found on the objects depicted.

The individual records of these paintings can be found on the British Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (Add Or 2187-2332).

 

Reproduction of these paintings and further information can be found in:

Lo, A., & Wood, Frances. (2011). Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library. Volumes III & IV. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Bibliography:

Wood F (2011) 'One appreciates the pearls and jade on their stands; fine smoke rises from the tripod and sacrificial vessels in the hall'- Paintings of furnishings. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume IV. pp 6-7. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Wang T-C (2011) 'Moral integrity is demonstrated in incorruptibility; the people hope for just officials'- Paintings of Canton governments offices, furnishing, and official processional equipment. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 4-6. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Lo A, Wang T-C (2001) 'Serene and solemn mountains surround the precious halls; fragrant sacrificial vessels gather on the altars'- Paintings of religious buildings and sacrificial arrangements. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 140-142. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

By Dr. Rita dal Martello, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute

 

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

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Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

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This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

1018-07
A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011