Asian cultures new and old reflected in Traces of Words

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      When Fuyubi Nakamura describes the ideas behind Traces of Words, it’s possible to envision wisps of spoken language, floating briefly in the air and then disappearing, like smoke. Or, perhaps, not disappearing but preserved for a time in written form. “The reason I use the word traces for the title is that I wanted to make the connection between oral traditions and written language,” says Nakamura, MOA’s curator, Asia. “Many Asian written cultures, just like any other written language, originate in oral traditions. If you think of Islam, the Qur’an was spoken to begin with. Later, the words were written to convey the message. Likewise, Sanskrit was also from a strong oral traditional culture.”

      Subtitled Art and Calligraphy From Asia, the exhibition is both contemporary (in MOA’s Audain Gallery) and historical (in the Multiversity Galleries), surveying calligraphic and language-based works ranging in origin from North Africa to Thailand. Nakamura points out treasures from MOA’s vast (but rarely seen) Asian collection: in addition to calligraphy scrolls and ink rubbings, there’s a 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay brick with cuneiform inscriptions; a 2,000-year-old bronze mirror from China cast with an ornamental seal script; a 19th-century Qur’an from Iran; a prayer wheel from Tibet; a woodblock print from Nepal; and palm-leaf manuscripts from India and Sri Lanka.

      A vellum-and-ink leaf from a ninth-century Qur’an manuscript in Kufic script, possibly from Iraq, Iran, or Syria.

      Nakamura also points out displays of historical objects related to the practice of calligraphy in China and Japan—ink blocks, brushes, seals, water droppers, and an amusing Japanese woodblock print of a group of attentive cats taking a calligraphy lesson. As well, there are objects here that demonstrate the fusion of cultures and the spread of Islam across Asia, such as a 19th-century incense set made in southern China. The cloisonné objects are decorated, Nakamura says, with Arabic script executed in the style of Chinese calligraphy. “Muslim people travelled from the Middle East along the trade routes to East Asia and Southeast Asia,” she says, then adds, “Different kinds of traces.”

      Two rare, historic works of Islamic calligraphy, on loan from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, are on display in the Audain Gallery. Otherwise, that big exhibition space is dedicated to five contemporary Asian artists who employ calligraphy across many media, from painting, drawing, and sculpture to installation, interactive video, and graffiti. “We are exploring the powerful duality that emerges when the written word becomes a medium or canvas,” Nakamura says.

      Phaptawan Suwannakudt, a classically trained Thai artist based in Australia, creates exquisite miniature paintings that include Buddhist texts in Thai script. As with many immigrant artists, her words and images—Australian houses, Asian elephants, Buddhist deities—grapple with questions of home and identity. In the big and impressive book that accompanies the exhibition, Suwannakudt writes, “I use the language to which I am emotionally connected as a vehicle to make sense of this unfamiliar place in which I live and to create a space for me to fit in.”

      Afghan artist Shamsia Hassani spray-paints graffiti on the decaying and war-damaged buildings of Kabul, where she lives and teaches. If conditions of conflict make it too dangerous for her to create art in the streets, she paints her imagery over photographic prints of buildings. Her graffiti usually focuses on Afghan women, some wearing burqas, others wearing hijabs, combined with calligraphy in her native Dari. “Most of the shapes and images are drawn from my own mental alphabet,” she writes in her statement. “Some of the words are there just to be seen, not to be spoken or read.”

      The 2011 interactive digital installation What a Loving and Beautiful World, with calligraphy by Sisyu and sound by Hideaki Takahashi.
      Courtesy of the artists and Pace Gallery

      Book of Ashes, a mixed-media installation by Tibetan artist Nortse, mourns the destruction of Buddhist art and manuscripts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Japanese artist Kimura Tsubasa creates extraordinary, floor-to-ceiling installations of abstracted calligraphy, executed in Sumi ink on faille fabric. And the Tokyo-based interdisciplinary group teamLab has produced an interactive, 360-degree, computer-generated installation in a large, darkened room, with an accompanying electronic soundtrack. Shadows cast by visitors as they move through the space cause the Chinese characters, projected on the walls, to transform into images of the things those characters represent. Nakamura demonstrates: a character for butterfly becomes a crowd of fluttering butterflies, and the butterflies in turn affect other characters and generate other images in this continuously evolving new world. “It’s very interactive and immersive,” Nakamura says. It keeps changing, she adds, just as languages change and evolve. Just as the traces of words shift and shimmer in the air, then disappear—or not.

      Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy From Asia is on display at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC from Thursday (May 11) to October 9. Related Asian materials from the UBC Library Collections are featured in a satellite exhibition at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre on campus.