Liquid Frontiers: East West Influences


This third chapter from the series of exhibitions called Liquid Frontiers and Entangled Worlds is part of a composite research programme taking place at MAO between 2023 and 2024, which seeks to analyse the artistic trajectories and cultural dynamics that have characterised exchange between Asia and Europe over the centuries and East West influences. Eurasian Traditions highlights the critical role of Asia and the Mediterranean as a fulcrum of cross-cultural interaction and as site of connection, negotiation and constant re-emergence.

This exploration of cultural translation, transposition, and interpretation is done through a selection of objects from West, Central, and East Asia. These objects raise questions about material and immaterial circulation, ways of transforming meaning and use between Asia and Europe across two thousand years of history.

Far from wanting to be an exhaustive selection of East West influences, the objects selected that offer alternatives to the euro-centric paradigm of artistic excellence. They reassert the critical role played by Central Asia in the global transmission of ideas and creation. The Mediterranean Sea played a pivotal role in this cross-cultural phenomenon, as an intermediate space and creator of boundaries but also as a phenomenal catalyst of exploration and contact: a liquid frontier where continents converge and artistic expressions and cultural phenomena are constantly reinvented.

The Sogdians

The exhibition is divided into thematic sections with a special focus on colour: blue, red and gold; and materiality: ceramics, fabrics, metalwork, paper and pigments. As well as ceramics, on show are silks from the ancient region of Sogdiana, in Central Asia, blue and white ceramics produced between the Persian Gulf and China, a selection of Tartar clothes made of silk and gold in the 13th century during the Mongol period between Iran and China, that were prized by the European mediaeval aristocracy and the clergy, rare examples of tiraz (Egypt, 10th century), textiles embroidered with inscriptions highlighting the importance of calligraphy in the Islamic world, and a series of zoomorphic metal incense burners (Iran, 9th to 13th centuries), reaffirming the centrality of essences in Mediaeval Islamic societies.

The project exploring East West Influences draws on numerous loans from major Italian collections and institutions, reflecting the presence in Italy of a shared multicultural history: alongside objects from Central Asia in the MAO collection there are rarely seen textiles, ceramics and miniatures from the Fondazione Bruschettini per l’Arte Islamica e Asiatica, Khorassan metalwork from the Aron Collection and important loans from the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza, the church of San Domenico, Perugia, the Museo delle Civiltà di Roma, the Galleria Sabauda/Musei Reali and the Palazzo Madama, Turin.

In addition, as has become customary at MAO, a booklet with in-depth articles on the main subjects of the exhibition is distributed free of charge. With texts by the curatorial team and contributions from Yuka Kadoi, Maria Ludovica Rosati, and Mohammad Salemy, the publication is an indispensable tool to better understand the content of the exhibition and is a fascinating read.

Early Traders of the Silk Road

The exhibition begins with the culture and nomadic habits of the early traders of the Silk Road. Nicoletta Fazio and Laura Vigo write in the catalogue about these ancient traders of the Silk Road, who roamed between the ancient areas of Iran and China and the northern regions of India. The authors set the scene for the exhibition by explaining ‘By the end of the 5th century, the secret of sericulture finally leaked out of China, allowing Iranian and Central Asian craftsmen to produce their own silk textiles, and opening the way for Sogdian merchants to export them to the west and east’.

Popularised by Central Asian silk weavers, the roundel motif had become fashionable amongst the Chinese court and elites. By the 580s at the latest, this motif had been translated into different formats and artistic media, which can be seen in the Sui-dynasty ceramic ewer with the bird spout on view in the exhibition, and the later, 13th-century silk fragment from Central Asia, also on show in the exhibition.

Central Asian Silk Weavers

The authors continue, ‘Roundels and medallions framing animal subjects were originally infused with ancient Iranian concepts from Zoroastrian religion and ideology, charged with a strong symbolism. Birds holding pearl necklaces in their beaks stood for the bird Varagan searching for light in the ocean; the winged horse represented the young fire god Apam Napat ‘born of the waters’; the ram symbolised the majestic power and glory of Kwarnah (the divine light); and the composite creature of a winged dog with lion’s claws, the mythical simurgh, mediator between heaven and earth. Framed by beaded or leafy medallions, these creatures peacefully conquered Eurasia, enthralling the mind and shaping the taste of urban elites and the fashionable set.

When these silks with animal figures in medallions were traded outside their con- text of origin, their symbolism was let fall; the motif was translated by Sogdian traders and craftsmen and adapted successfully to local consumers, specifically for its exotic nature. Translated by multiple hands into different artistic languages, this decorative motif stood the test of time. It was successfully replicated up to the 14th century in the luxurious cloth-of-gold silk textiles for the elites of Mongol-dominated Iran and coveted by the aristocracy of mediaeval Europe, demonstrating the ever- lasting appeal of ancient Central Asian symbols far beyond their original socio-cultural context of usage and circulation.

Laura Vigo also notes that ‘Sogdians had a thing for wine’. Surviving wall paintings and bas-reliefs show banquet scenes where goblets and ewers are an integral element of a complex mise-en- scene. She writes, ‘Grape wine was the favourite alcoholic beverage and known for its indisputable inebriating qualities. Presented as a gift, payment or tribute to guests and political figures, it was also vital in Zoroastrian libation rituals. Persian sources mention that ewers with a spout in the shape of a cockerel head, known as “wine cocks”, were used in Zoroastrian ceremonies already by the 6th century BC in the Achaemenid Empire. Since then, the image of the bird, king of the spiritual world, has always been central in Zoroastrian divinatory belief. Unfortunately, the association between these peculiar ewers and wine rests solely on epigraphic sources, for lack of material evidence’.

Wine Drinking in China during the Sui and Tang dynasties

Wine drinking in China during the Sui and Tang dynasties was already widespread among soldiers and commoners, who could hardly afford silver goblets. Here, Chinese ingenuity came to the rescue, producing knockoffs in clay, a more economic, readily available material. All the known ewers in China, from between the 6th and 9th centuries, are glazed earthenware.

More often than not, these vases were not utilitarian, as the spout was closed and could not be used to pour liquids – these objects were often found in funerary contexts. However, a large ewer with a phoenix-head spout found in the Belitung shipwreck of an Arab dhow, which had departed from China in the 9th century, seems to suggest that similar vessels were also prized exotic objects in Iraq, during the Abbasid Caliphate. Interestingly, unlike the Chinese, who translated Sogdian forms and motifs, it seems that in Iraq this shape was never reinterpreted to satisfy local tastes.

In a related chapter exploring East West influences, Nicoletta Fazio writes about the rise in popularity of Chinese ceramics and their spread in the West in the chapter entitled ‘Waves of Cobalt Ceramics Between ‘Abbasid Iraq and Tang China’, in which she explains, ‘The craze for everything Chinese among the ‘Abbasid urban elites was singled out by the writer al-Tha‘alibi, who notes that they “used to call every delicate or curiously made vessel and such like, whatever its real origin, Chinese, because finely-made things are a specialty of China”.

The Maritime Silk Road

Chinese pottery was massively exported by boat from southern China to the ports of Siraf, Suhar, Muscat, and Basra on ‘Abbasid territory, across the Maritime Silk Road. The discovery of large shipwrecks off the coast of Belitung (circa 826) and Cirebon (late 9th/10th century) in Southeast Asian waters indicates the sheer scale of this trade, highlighting the political and commercial interests between ‘Abbasid Baghdad and Tang Chang’an’.

Fazio continues, ‘Baghdad became a treasure-trove of Chinese rarities, boosting the economy and inspiring artisans. To cater to ‘Abbasid clientele and capitalise on the success of Chinese pottery (mostly produced in the kilns of Gongxian in Henan and Xing and Ding in Hebei in northern China), Iraqi potters replicated its appearance, reproducing shapes and using a white glaze containing lead and tin on an earthen- ware biscuit to imitate the characteristic sheen of Chinese ceramics. The white surfaces and minimalist shapes offered a fertile ground to the Iraqi potters, and they started decorating bowls, plates, and vessels with stylized motifs and fine Arabic calligraphy in cobalt blue paint and soft touches of copper green that appealed to West Asian buyers.

We cannot, however, assume that the development of this kind of ceramics was the work of Iraqi potters alone, unless employed in the workshops serving the caliphal courts of Baghdad and Samarra. Rather, we should imagine a dynamic dialogue between supply and demand, with Arab and Persian merchants acting as middlemen, connecting communities of makers and customers between the Gulf and southern China. Potters were likely active across Iraq and might have been inspired by the high-end ceramic production for the ‘Abbasid elites’.

The Spread of Chinese Ceramics

Laura Vigo considers a different theme on the influential spread of Chinese ceramics in her chapter ‘Of Pilgrims and Moons’, writing ‘The migration of shapes and motifs from one medium to another became particularly momentous in China during the reign of the Yongle emperor (r 1402-1424) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The desire for ‘foreign’ objects and their adaptation was the result of increased trade and diplomatic connections, especially with the Timurid court in Central Asia. The porcelain flask from the Palazzo Madama collection reflects this artistic and cultural entanglement, as the material result of increased curiosity between these distant, albeit close, lands and their people. In the early 15th century, when this flask was made, the land routes that had been paved centuries earlier by the Sogdians were still connecting China and Central Asia (especially the Timurids) and were used to trade Islamic metal- work for porcelain’.

In this exhibition exploring East West influences, a Ming-dynasty moon flask from Jingdezhen, China, shows this merging of cultures and taste. Potters in China, reacted to the demand and the changes in the taste of foreign buyers and manufactured foreign-looking ceramics for domestic consumption, too, bringing influences from Central Asia, and further west, back home. Exoticism and material desire went both ways, as the flask shows.

According to Vigo, the geometric layout of the decoration and its eight-pointed starburst motif on the flask are drawn from Mamluk and Timurid metalwork and lustreware. The author says, ‘These foreign clues were cleverly incorporated into traditional Chinese emblems and flower scroll bands. The flask’s shape on the other hand goes back to Near Eastern Middle Bronze age pottery vessels mimicking animal-skin gourdes. It also uncannily recalls military canteen and the unglazed pilgrim flasks used in western and central Asia, after the advent of Islam. Some of these flasks were also associated with the collection of holy water from the well of Zamzam within the Masjid al-Haram, Mecca’.

Regardless of where exactly it was produced, MAO’s unglazed earthenware flask provides an indirect inspiration for the porcelain Yongle-period flask. Unglazed flasks such as this were portable objects, used for the transportation of cool water on long journeys, during the 13th and 14th centuries, from Syria to Uzbekistan. Quite common and mass-produced, this distinctive shape made its way to Europe during the Crusades.

Investigating the Migration of Ideas and Technqiues

Investigating the migration of ideas, forms, techniques and symbols in an open, inclusive dialogue, the exhibition highlights the osmotic reciprocity between continents and seas, and creates new narratives for visual and material culture that are specific and relative rather than universalising and generic. This scientific approach also reflects the sensory perception of materiality: the way these objects were perceived and desired for their visual allure and unique chromatic effects gold and blue in particular – or for their reflecting, gleaming or transparent surfaces. This unusual approach to East West influences and to explore the vast ocean of cross-cultural influences, geopolitics, the dynamics of trade and migration of ideas allows the visitor to ponder the ancient conundrum of cultures and borders – something which is just as relevant today.

Liquid Frontiers and Entangled Worlds, exploring the material culture of East West influences, until 1 September, 2024, MAO Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin,