Sackler Gallery’s ‘Chigusa and the Art of Tea’ shows how an ordinary jar became a ceremonial star

Chigusa, like Prince or Sting, only needs a single name. (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)
Chigusa, like Prince or Sting, only needs a
single name. (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

Who will revere your coffee mug 700 years from now? No one, that’s who.

That’s not the case with Chigusa, a tea jar crafted by an unknown artisan in 13th- or 14th-century China and used in Japanese tea ceremonies in the 16th century. The extra-special ceramic vessel, which held loose tea, makes its U.S. debut at the Sackler Gallery’s “Chigusa and the Art of Tea” exhibit.

The 16.5-inch-tall Chigusa owes much of its fame to Japanese “tea men,” guys so into tea that, if they lived today, would be Instagramming every sip. They detailed every aspect of tea ceremonies in their diaries, including centerpieces, flooring and the jars that held the tea.

That’s how scholars know so much about Chigusa: “People in a small room, drinking tea, being shown someone’s jar and making notes about it,” says Louise Cort, the Sackler’s curator of ceramics.

Chigusa has no mystical tea-holding properties or leaf-related superpowers, nor is it the only tea jar to have its own name. (Said name means “thousand grasses” or “myriad things.”) Chinese jars of its ilk were considered prettier and better at holding tea than jars made in Japan, Cort says. By the time Chigusa debuted on the Japanese tea scene, prestigious past owners had upped its status as well.

Once the tea men got their hands on Chigusa, they rhapsodized about it in their diaries.

“One noted that the glaze on this jar is quite even in tonality,” Cort says. “One said the texture reminded him of a certain type of wood grain, so that’s bringing connoisseurship of another material into play.”

On the bottom of Chigusa are the signatures of four lucky owners written in ink, along with bumps in the clay mentioned in the diaries. These features confirm that the jar on display is indeed Chigusa.

“We have lots of things where we can say ‘This belonged to the Duke of Somebody,’ ” Cort says. “What we don’t have is what the Duke of Somebody thought about this thing when he had it. We know exactly what several people looking at this regular jar 500 years ago thought about it.”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat. through July 27; 202-633-488. (Smithsonian)

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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