After extensive renovations, the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art — comprising the Freer and Sackler galleries — reopens this weekend with a two-day “IlluminAsia” festival and a range of new and revamped exhibits.
The intimate Freer Gallery of Art was the Smithsonian’s first art museum when it opened in 1923 to house the collection of Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, with a unique commitment to highlighting the dialogue between Asian and American art. While it was closed for the past 19 months for renovations, curators re-envisioned the permanent installations — featuring works from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and East Asia — to make them more accessible to contemporary museumgoers.
“Instead of it just being, ‘Here are these great masterpieces, and we’re going to tell you in a very bland, institutional voice all of these factoids about them,’ each curator came up with a big idea,” says Lee Glazer, the Freer and Sackler’s curator of American art.
For example, South Asian art is now presented under the heading “Body Image,” which brings together bronze sculptures of Hindu gods; Buddhist and Jain works; and painted portraits of Mughal emperors.
The adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — which closed in July for less major changes — reopens with four new temporary exhibits, including “Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia,” which shows how Buddhist teachings are expressed through diverse art forms, and “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt.”
“It’s one museum but two very different experiences, because in the Sackler, it’s going to be very immersive, very intense — a lot of new media is being introduced,” Glazer says.
The Buddhism exhibit, for example, features the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, where visitors can view nearly 250 objects without labels or glass cases disrupting the mood; an app for the shrine will allow visitors to bring the meditative experience home with them.
Kicking it all off is “IlluminAsia,” a multisensory indoor/outdoor extravaganza Saturday evening and Sunday that was organized in partnership with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Performers include the Yo-Yo Ma-founded Silkroad Ensemble; Red Baraat, a funky Indian wedding band based in Brooklyn; Washington Samulnori, a local Korean percussion troupe; and a variety of traditional dancers.
An outdoor Asian market will offer food for purchase from such local favorites as Tiger Fork, Himitsu and Dorjee Momo, plus cooking demonstrations by both international and D.C.-based chefs.
A highlight of Saturday night is “A Perfect Harmony,” a specially commissioned animated work that will be projected four times on the facade of the Freer. The 12-minute piece weaves together the story of Freer and a whirlwind tour of Asian art and architecture.
“It manages to be informative and at the same time it’s as spectacular as a fireworks display,” says Tommy Wide, the museum’s assistant director of special projects. “It’s like if a fireworks display could tell a story.”
Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; “IlluminAsia” festival: Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., free; “A Perfect Harmony”: Sat., 8, 9:15, 10:30 p.m. & midnight, free.
A few highlights from the new exhibits:
Bust of the Goddess Sakhmet
This sculpture, on display in the Sackler exhibit “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” portrays the lion-headed Egyptian goddess of war. In one legend, she was sent by her father, the sun god Re, to punish mankind for failing to worship him, and her rage was so fierce she nearly destroyed humanity. Re was only able to stop her by getting her drunk on beer that had been dyed red to look like blood — an episode that her devotees celebrated with regular, alcohol-fueled parties at her temples.
Hoofed animal with dragon interlace
This bronze creature is one of a set of four that together formed the base of an ancient Chinese serving vessel — possibly used for diplomatic dinners — dating to around 500 to 400 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty. Its siblings belong to museums in London, San Francisco and Kyoto. The Freer Gallery’s piece was previously in storage, but it’s now on display in the newly renovated museum.
The Historical Buddha
This statue, from 14th-century Tibet, is part of the Sackler Gallery exhibit “Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia.” As with many depictions of the historical Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment, this Buddha is touching the earth with his right hand — a movement that symbolizes his victory over the cycle of suffering — while his left hand is in a meditation position. The long earlobes — stretched by the heavy, precious earrings the Buddha wore back when he was a prince — remind viewers that he began his life as royalty and then rejected material wealth.
Wine container with geometric patterns
This foot-tall wine container was made of bronze with silver inlays in China around 350-300 B.C. In fashion at the time: symmetrical designs with strong diagonals, rather than religious or mythic motifs, possibly reflecting increasing secularization. The piece has been brought out of storage and put on display in the newly renovated Freer Gallery.
In this Sackler installation by contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta, you can walk among 30 gleaming bronze towers, some as tall as 15 feet, that are connected by cotton thread. The spires are reminiscent of the ones that are placed on religious buildings in India and topped with a cross, crescent or other religious symbol. Gupta’s towers, which lack these signifiers, emphasize similarities among religions, and the threads that cross between them may reference the interconnected nature of humankind.