The Silk Road at the Brooklyn Museum

The “Silk Road” has been a hot topic in recent years, thanks in part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting reintroduction of independent Central Asian countries to the rest of the world. The phrase conjures up different images for different people, ranging from silk textiles, Bactrian camels, Marco Polo, and China, to Mongolian throat singers and polo matches, to celebrities motorcycling across Mongolia and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. But most, if not all, of these images are driven by the idea that cultures can and do cross boundaries of space and time, connecting different regions and periods together in creative and important waysAt the Brooklyn Museum, “Silk Road Fever” has been ongoing in the second-floor galleries, which include and connect the arts of Asia and the Islamic world. A corner space situated between the permanent galleries of the arts of China and the Islamic world provided the ideal location for an installation of “Silk Road” art. I use quotes here because the more appropriate term for the Silk Road or Route would be Silk Roads (or Routes), as it included several land routes between China and Venice. And, if I were to be completely honest, the current display includes works that could have traveled between East and West by land or by sea. The title for the exhibition therefore draws on the association of the Silk Route with cultural transmission; the works displayed emphasize the many cross-cultural connections between China and the Islamic world in the form of decorative motifs and subject matter, artistic techniques, and objects produced for trade or other forms of exchange. My personal favorite of the works included in this exhibition was made in a part of China that was connected to the Islamic world through maritime trade rather than overland routes.


Traveling Coffer, ca. 1250. Lacquer over leather, bamboo, wood, metal mounts, 17 1/4 x 28 3/8 x 15 in. (43.8 x 72.1 x 38.1cm). Brooklyn Museum, 1996.68.

That object (1996.68), pictured here, is a lacquer painted, tooled, and gilded traveling coffer that belongs to the Asian art collection. It might seem a little odd that a curator specializing in the arts of the Islamic world would choose a Chinese work as her favorite, but I love this piece because it contains so many visual and technical features shared between the arts of China, Iran, and Central Asia-possibly even Tibet. Medallions containing real and mythical animals, as well as floral and vegetal motifs appear in a series of panels framing each section of the object and cornered by various cloud collar forms. The central medallion at front depicts a landscape with a fantastical lion chasing a brocaded ball, a common motif in Chinese art, but which reached Iran and other Islamic lands probably through the movement of textiles carrying the same motif. Many of these animals carry auspicious meanings in China, related to wishes such as longevity and prosperity; sometimes the meanings traveled westward, especially when Mongol rule in Iran under the Ilhkanids (1256-1353) and in China under the Yuan (1271-1368) connected the two regions more directly. In fact, radiocarbon dating tells us the coffer was produced in the mid-thirteenth century, which corresponds to the Mongol invasions in China and the subsequent formation of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. In other cases, motifs had existed in both contexts and could symbolize different things; the confronted phoenixes appearing in the central medallion of the coffer’s lid have long histories in both China, where the phoenix is called fenghuang, and in Iran, where it is known as simurgh.


Traveling Coffer (detail), ca. 1250. Lacquer over leather, bamboo, wood, metal mounts, 17 1/4 x 28 3/8 x 15 in. (43.8 x 72.1 x 38.1cm). Brooklyn Museum, 1996.68.

The remaining surface of the object is densely decorated with foliage or geometric patterns using the techniques of qiangjin (“engraved gold”) and giangcai (“engraved color”) developed under the Song. In this technique, gold leaf or powder and pigmented lacquer are added to lines engraved into the lacquered ground. Lacquer objects played an increasingly significant role in the artistic exchanges between China and Iran during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and carving techniques used in Chinese lacquer were translated into exquisitely carved woodwork in Iran. What is fascinating about the Brooklyn Museum coffer is that it represents a Chinese decorative technique and even individual Chinese motifs, but its overall decorative composition is much more closely connected to the decorative tradition of Iranian manuscripts and bookbindings, which inspired much of the art and architecture of the Islamic world. Some scholars have even linked works like this to lacquerware recovered from Tibet. These multiple cultural associations are not unusual given the connections the Mongols enjoyed as a result of their vast territorial expansion as well as their support of Tibetan Buddhism.

So who would have made such an object and what would its function have been? The first question is an easy one to answer, since an inscription in Chinese characters under the flap of the front lid reveals who made this trunk and where:  “Made by the Ou family of Wenzhou, Xinhe Street, Anning Ward.” Wenzhou in Zhejiang province was a center for lacquer production since the preceding Song dynasty (960-1279) was in power. A description written in 1147 of the Northern Song capital at Kaifeng even mentions lacquer transported approximately 600 miles specifically from Wenzhou. As the name of this family is not a common Chinese name, it is possible that the Ou family originated in Central Asia, and perhaps that they were Muslim artists living and working in Wenzhou; Muslim communities are certainly known to have been formed in China after the advent of Islam in the seventh century. As for the coffer’s function, we can only guess; the wealth of auspicious motifs on its surface suggests a wedding trunk as one possibility. If you have a better idea, however, I would love to hear it!

The Silk Route between China and the Islamic World is on view until the end of May 2009; it will return as a long-term installation in September 2009. Please come and see the several other beautiful and interesting works included in the exhibition!