Art and Cultural Exchange along the Silk Road (Ackland Art Museum, UNC)

I headed over to the Ackland this morning to check out a newish installation called Art and Cultural Exchange along the Silk Road in order to write an assignment for my spring General Anthropology course. There were some nice pieces in the exhibit, but coming from an academic background that involved a ton of courses in the art history of the Mediterranean world, I left feeling just as underinformed about Indian and Chinese art as when I came in.

Since the title of the exhibit involves the Silk Road, I assumed that there would be a geographical breadth to the presentation of the objects with temporal specificity, but it was temporally and geographically broad. That set the overly-thematic tone for the rest of the exhibit. One interesting idea that was presented, for example, is the contrast between portable art (art that circulates among people) and immobile art (people who circulate to make a pilgrimage to the art) - but after a mention of this in one of the blurbs, the topic didn't seem to come up again. One artifact's blurb mentioned Manichaeism but didn't link this to cultural exchange, religious syncretism, object circulation, etc. There were a lot of opportunities, even with the few pieces in the installation, to explicitly connect ideas with objects and to show that both objects and people circulated in the past, but these connections weren't made.

There were aspects of the exhibit that made me think, though. The first section covered the Mediterranean and Asia in the first couple centuries AD: the Roman Empire, India, and China. Particularly interesting about the objects was the different purpose of all of them. The Roman objects that were on display were all utilitarian: glass vials for transport of perfume, etc. The Chinese objects were all from tombs: ritual or commemorative objects, such as replicas of houses and horses. And the Indian objects were all of a religious nature: votives, statues, and temple decorations. It made me wonder whether stereotypes about these three places led the museum staff to choose the pieces they did, or whether these stereotypes exist because these are the kinds of objects we find. For example, do Americans respond to the kind of Chinese art that comes out of graves (ritualized, intact, etc.), or is it that most of the examples of ancient Chinese art are found in graves? Do we think of the Romans as a utilitarian people whose art can be seen in their artifice? Are we more inclined to see art in everyday objects of the Romans while keeping the Chinese and Indians at a distance as an Eastern artistic tradition ruled by religion?

Second, I learned a bit about the history of the color blue, at least as it was used in art. Chinese porcelain, much of which has a distinctive blue used in its design, actually achieved this color through imported Persian cobalt. The exchange of this material led to a completely innovative ceramic style that is now quintessentially Chinese. Afghanistan has produced lapis lazuli for over 6,000 years; the stone was crushed and used as a paint. I'd never thought twice about the fact that the Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing a blue cloak, but according to the exhibit notes, because ultramarine had to be made from imported lapis lazuli, this blue shade was often used to represent a person of high status. It made me wonder if blue = high status has wormed its way into our culture as blue = male and helps explain why blue is so often chosen as a person's favorite color. (Purple was the high-status color for the Romans, so our blue-is-best mentality has to have its origins somewhere else.)

The Ackland's Silk Road exhibit runs through June 5, 2011. Check it out. It's convenient to campus and free of charge.


EmilyBowles said…
Thanks for visiting the Ackland, Kristina! You may also be interested in one of our upcoming exhibitions: "The Oldest Paintings in America: Utah's Rock Art Photographed by Goodloe Suttler" (

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