Eastern Treasures

In which more treasures from the V&A are explored.

The South Asia collections at the Victoria and Albert hold some 60,000 objects including textiles, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics; it ranges from items as small as plugs for pierced ears to full size statues of Buddhist deities.  We spent so much time in the Jameel (Islamic) and Nehru (South Asia – Sub-Continent) Rooms that there was no opportunity to see the Himalayan galleries next door.  However as we walked down the corridor we did catch glimpses of some remarkable works of South East Asian art from Nepal and Sri Lanka.

This copper ritual crown set with imitation stones was crafted by an unknown artist in Nepal and the inscription dates it to Nepal Samvat 797 or 1677 CE.  It would have been worn by a hereditary Vajracharya priest of the Kathmandu Valley.   Originally an order of celibate Buddhists that vow was forsaken by Nepalese adherents to the tenets of Vajrayana in the 13th century.vajra
The priests command the highest caste in the Newar Buddhist communities of the Kathmandu Valley.  They are highly revered as teachers and upholders of  Vajrayana, one of the three major branches of Buddhism.  The sect takes its name from the ritual Vajra (above right) which traces its origins to Indra, the Hindu deity of rain and thunder.  For Buddhists the Vajra symbolizes the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force), and figures as a ritual tool in many ceremonies.

This ceremonial ladle dates from the 1700s and was created by an unknown artist in Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka.  From 1592 until 1815 the Kingdom survived attempts by first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British to conquer and colonize the area. In 1815 the nobility overthrew their King and recognized George III as their ruler and came under British “protection”.

The ladle was for sacrificial use. The silver bowl is in the shape of a coconut with chased ornamentation.  The carved ivory handle bears the figure of a deity (?) or priest (?) and is partially encrusted with jewels and gold inlay.

There was a long tradition, dating back to the 7th century, of Newar craftsmen from the Kathmandu Valley working for wealthy Tibetan patrons and this Avalokitesvara from the 14th century is a stunning example of that work – again by an unknown artist.

Cast in copper, gilded and bejewelled it represents the Bodhisattvas in his popular manifestation as Padmapani or Lotus Bearer.  Padmapani is one of the enlightened beings who voluntarily postponed passing into nirvana in order to help others gain salvation.  His right hand is in the lowered gesture of granting wishes and his left is cast to hold the stem of a lotus or padma – perhaps a living flower or a missing gilded representation.

The stillness and serenity of the figure speaks to the state of harmony which the Boddhisattva aspires to achieve.  The sensuous contrapposto of his sleek, androgynous body indicates his ties to the human world.

Displayed opposite Avalokitesvara the goddess Sitatara (the White Tara) was widely worshipped in Nepal and Tibet.  She can be seen as the female manifestation of the Padmapani.

Painted and gilded copper, and set with semi-precious stones, turquoise, imitation rubies and lapis lazuli the figure dates to the 14th century.  Once again it is the work of an unknown Nepalese artist, created for Tibetan worshippers.

Looking back over these photos and doing a bit of research on the V&A site I once again became aware of the vast amount of art there is to see in that one gallery alone. It may necessitate another trip to London in an effort to see more of the treasures. Sigh – what we do for art!

On this day in 1930:  After the mysterious death of Empress Zewditu, Haile Selassie is proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia.

Eastern Treasures

In which the treasures of the V and A are explored.

I know I am saying nothing new but I’m sure it’s possible to spend every day for a year wandering through the Victoria and Albert Museum and still not see more than half the treasures on offer.  Aside from the special exhibitions – I’m still grinding my teeth at being there just before the Opus Anglicanum opened – the regular (if such a mundane word can be used) collection is a never-ending source of wonderment.

We had an hour or two between breakfast and our luncheon date with David and Diplomate on that exceptional Sunday back in September and as our walk to the restaurant took us along Cromwell Road we decided to pop in for a look around.  I had never been into the Asian galleries and so we headed for the Nehru and adjacent Jameel and Himalayan Rooms on the Ground Floor.

Over the next little while I thought I’d post some of the pictures I took of the remarkable examples of Islamic, Indian and Far Eastern cultures that caught my fancy.

The Mount of the Good Shepherd

Though we tend to think of the Sub-Continent as the Anglo-India of the Maharajahs and the Raj the small state of Goa on the West Coast was under Portuguese rule for over four and a half centuries.  In 1510 the Portuguese defeated the ruling Bijapur sultan Yousuf Adil Shah and began an occupation that was not to end until 1961 – a full fourteen years after Great Britain had granted India independence.

“Goa fortissima India urbs in Christianorum potestatem anno salutis 1509 deuenit”
“Goa, the most powerful city in India became Christian in 1509”
Possibly the earliest known depiction of Goa – 1572

At one point in its history Goa’s population was chiefly Roman Catholic and a display in the Nehru Room is dedicated to small but intricately beautiful ivory carvings of that period.  Often gilded and polychromed, they were created by unknown Indian artisans steeped in the centuries-old craft of ivory carving.

Though the main thrust of Portuguese colonization was commerce ships bound for the Indes were required by the Padroado with the Holy See to carry missionaries on their voyages.  From the earliest days of the occupation the four main missionary Orders (Augustinians, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans) came with the traders, built churches and worked to bring Catholic Christianity to the Sub-continent. These ivory images were commissioned to help in their evangelical efforts. In an effort to enforce dogma the Church demanded that only baptisted artists could work for churches.  However such was the private demand for these ivory statues that unconverted artists had a ready market for export to Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Americas.

What is most remarkable is that despite the control the Church had over the subject the iconography of Indian art found its way into many of the pieces.  No where is this more apparent than in carvings of Do Monte do Bom Pastor (The Mount of the Good Shepherd) – a subject that appears to be particular to ecclesiastical art of Goa and that reappeared constantly in the ivories produced there.

The iconography of The Mount of the Good Shepherd is a mix of figures from Christian mythology with animals, plants and flowers of the Sub-Continent.  The figures often have an Asian caste to their features and poses are reminiscent of  Indian temple carvings.  Often Christ the Good Shepherd is shown asleep, recalling images of the Buddha in Indian art.  Typically he has a gourd of water on a belt at his waist and he holds a lamb on his lap while another lamb nestles on his shoulder.

There are several other constants in these intricate tiered carvings – a fountain providing life giving water to the sheep and at the base, a jar of ointment beside her, Mary Magdalene, the repentant sinner, reads a book. I was a bit puzzled by that detail but research revealed that in many Medieval  and Renaissance depictions the Magdalene, absolved of her past sins, serenely contemplates a book of scripture.  Often Saints, particularly those associated with the evangelizing orders, with their attributes are represented in the tiers of the Mount.

The unknown Indian artisans who created these works also made carvings of the Virgin, various saints and canonical scenes but they were often just copies of European models for export and lack any local influence.  However the Mount of the Good Shepherd was the perfect representation of the Gospels for the new converts.  The symbolism of the Crucifix – a dead body on the cross – was only warily accepted in Indian culture; however the idea of a benevolent Shepherd, like Krishna and Buddha, providing life giving water (the Eucharist) to feed his flock and the natural world reflected the cultural norms for Indians who had turned to the Christian faith.

An devotional image melding the two cultures, the Mount of the Good Shepherd was once the perfect summation of the Catholic faith and the Gospel for India.

On this day in 1675:  John Flamsteed is appointed the first Astronomer Royal of England.

The Art of the North – V

All Things Great and Small

Amongst the 1000 treasures at the now closed Museum of Inuit Art were objects both great and small.

The small included some of the loveliest miniature carvings I’ve seen anywhere. And like miniatures in museums all over the world they reflected a moment frozen in time of the world surrounding the carver. Some went back to the late 1800s with the more recent being created in this century. Most were in ivory – from walrus tusk – with the addition in some cases of stone or other natural materials found in the area. They came from varied regions across the North – Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Northern Labrador and Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay). The earlier examples are the work of anonymous artisans carving scraps of tusk often into rough approximations of what they saw around them. However the highlight was a miniature landscape created by one of the great Inuit miniaturists, the late Emily Iluitok. (A click on the link will lead to some other stunning examples of this artist’s works)


All artists anonymous

Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet)
Seated Woman (left front) – c1920

Men – seated and standing c1880-1920
Ivory and pigment

Igloo – unattributed
Ivory and pigment



Artist and Region unidentified
Bear Heads– c 1950
Ivory, stone, pigment


Emily Iluitok (1943-2012)
Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay)
Winter Scene
Ivory, stone, leather, hide, sinew
(Again a left click will enlargen the photos for a closer look.)

Prior to closing it’s door on May 30 the Museum hosted one final exhibition – the works of Abraham Anghik Ruben. Ruben is an artist whose concepts are as large as Emily Iluitok’s are small and who’s medium comes from beyond the Arctic. But if he carves largely in stones from as far afield as Brazil and Portugal his subjects remain of the North. But Ruben goes beyond the regions of Canada to include many Northern cultures. As well as his own heritage he looks to the legends and gods of the Icelandic  countries to inspire his monumental works.

The entrance to the MIA was flanked by two of his sculptures – one inspired by an ancient legend and the other by recent history.

Beowulf is recognized as the first known record of English story telling and its roots are in the stories of the Anglo-Saxon invaders from the North. Ruben captures the hero helmeted for battle with Grendel, the first of the three monsters he faces in the saga.

Abraham Anghik Ruben (b. 1951)
Beowulf – 2013
Brazilian soapstone, Portugese Alabaster
(Again a left click will take you to a slideshow of larger pictures.)

Aside from the complexity of his pieces – in line and symbolisim – the sheer size and, I’m sure weight, of his pieces are awesome.  Setting them in place is a major chore as demonstrated in this slideshow.

Abraham Anghik Ruben (b. 1951)
New World Saga

Unfortunately this was the last exhibition to be hosted by the Museum of Inuit Art.  The collection will either go into storage or be broken up and perhaps leave Canada.  It is difficult to imagine any Canadian arts institute  in today’s climate having the budget to acquire or display it properly.  A sad commentary.


On this day in 1836: The formation of the London Working Men’s Association gives rise to the Chartist Movement.

The Art of the North – IV

As well as displaying its own collection the Museum of Inuit Art (MIA) had a long tradition of highlighting, through special exhibitions, the works of individual artists and artists’ collectives from the North. I was fortunate that on my last visit they were hosting works by ceramic artists from the Kangirqlinik Centre arranged by the Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet).

Ceramics? Not something that is immediately associated with the North! Stone and ivory carving –yes! Print making – certainly! But ceramics? What are the odds of there being both the material and the medium for the creation and firing of clay in the frozen North?

Well in 1962 someone at the Department of Northern Affairs and Resources decided that pottery would be just the thing to replace the recently closed nickel mine at what was then Rankin Inlet. Based on the spurious notion that ceramics were a “ancient lost art” of the Inuit (shards of pottery had been found in the Far North West) the officials at the Industrial Division of the Department decided it was what was needed to jump start the economy and compete with the successful carving and print making popular inroad in other Northern communities.

Claude Grenier, and his wife Cecile were sent up to Rankin to set up a ceramic studio and arts centre. Grenier taught the techniques but allowed the artists to go their own way with design and form. As so often happens what followed was a wide difference between what the Southern “experts” paternally felt should be done, what was “best” for the Inuit and the will and desires of the People themselves. The story of the struggle to find a real Inuit voice and the bureaucratic failure of that first attempt is told in From A Different Mould from Uphere Magazine.

The Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet).

Though government support of the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project dried up, the creative urge of the people involved did not. In 1979 Jim and Sue Shirley, two American artists, came to Kivalliq and began to work with the local artists. Eight years later they founded the Matchbox Gallery as a cross-cultural workshop dedicated to serving as a display, production, and training centre. Though the artists in the collective work in printmaking, painting, carving and jewellery making the predominant creative medium at the Gallery is ceramics.

Most of the major artists from the Kangirqlinik Centre were represented in what I thought was a truly fascinating exhibition of an art form which I had never associated with the North.

Here are a few of the works that I found remarkable. (Left click for a closer look and again where there are multiple pictures a left click will lead to a slideshow.  A click on an artist’s name will take you to their biography.)


Yvo Samgushak (1942-2013)
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Pot with Female Figures 2006


Roger Aksadjuak
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Hunter’s Last Journey


Jack Nuviyak and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Polar Bear Cubs


Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
A Man Saving His Brother


Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Message from the Afterlife



Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Giving Thanks


John Kurok and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Man Holding Bird

Though the article on the original Rankin project talks of an electric kiln I was told by one of the docents at the MIA that the method used at the Kangirqlinik Centre is akin to the centuries old pit firing.  This ancient way of firing – used for centuries by pottery makers in Japan, Africa and many Nomadic cultures – has been adapted for the conditions of the North; the permafrost precludes a dug pit so oil drums are packed sawdust and the unfired pieces embedded in it.  Unfortunately I could not find anything that demonstrates drum firing but this short video gives an idea of the process.


On this day in 1899: American Temperance crusader Carrie Nation begins her campaign of vandalizing alcohol-serving establishments by destroying the inventory in a saloon in Kiowa, Kansas.

The Art of the North – III

This beautiful stone carving by Pootoogook Jaw was in a corner waiting to be set up to be seen to better advantage so I was unable to get a complete picture. Most Inuit carvings have to be seen from all angles to get the full effect.  (A left click will bring you to a slide show of Hunter.)


A master carver, Pootoogook Jaw is second of four sons who have carried on the family tradition, begun by their father Joe Jaw, of sculpting the stone of the North to capture the story of the Inuit.   As with many Inuit artists he learned his craft and the stories of his people as a child watching his father and mother Mialia, also a respected carver, at work. And as with many sculptors the type of stone he works in will often dictate the style of the carving; here the lines are simple and uncomplicated.

The caption on the description of this piece listed Jaws’ community as Kinngniat however it is actually Kinngiat (Cape Dorset) or High Moutain in Inuktitut.  Kinngiat is reputed to be the most artistic community in Canada – over 22% of the population are involved in the arts as painters, print makers and carvers.

This is one of the 1000 works in the MIA collection who’s fate is currently unknown.  Hopefully another museum will acquire it and put it on display.

On this day in 1935:  One thousand unemployed Canadian workers board freight cars in Vancouver, British Columbia, beginning a protest trek to Ottawa.