Before Instagram, Memorializing Asia’s Most Traveled Roads

From Moroccan postcards to Japanese scrolls, the Sackler Gallery explores five centuries of travel around the Asian continent

Another series by Singh in the exhibition documents life along the Ganges River. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Katsushika Hokusai created this print of a Japanese travel scene from a woodblock. Freer and Sackler Galleries
Utagawa Hiroshige depicted rest stops along the Tokaido road, which not unlike contemporary ones, offered lodging and refreshments. Freer Gallery of Art
"The Traveler's Eye: Scenes from Asia," at the Sackler Gallery through May 2015, features more than 100 mementos from travels around the Asian continent. This postcard is from early-20th-century China. Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Indian photographer Raghubir Singh's series featuring the iconic Ambassador car are among the most contemporary works in the exhibition, from the 1960s to 1990s. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Perhaps most relatable in the exhibition are the 72 postcards. This one, from Turkey, dates to the early 20th century. Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
A photographer accompanied Charles L. Freer on his travels through China. Charles L. Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
German scholar, adventurer and archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld documented his travels through archaeological renderings. Here, one completed in Samarra, Iraq between 1911 and 1913. Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Not unlike contemporary motorways, Japan's Tokaido road had rest stops. Freer Gallery of Art
One of the exhibition's older items is this work from Japan, dating to 1534. Freer Gallery of Art
The curators say that the older works, like this 17th-century travel scene, should be in dialogue with the more contemporary exhibition items. Freer Gallery of Art
Here, Travelers in the Springtime Mountains, traditionally attributed to Qui Ying of China's Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. Freer Gallery of Art
Charles Freer kept extensive records of his travels through China in the early 20th century. Here, his annotated map. Freer Gallery of Art
During his travels through China around 1910, Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, collected stones. Freer and Sackler Galleries
Here, Breaking Waves and Autumn Winds from early-16th-century China. Freer Gallery of Art

For a country moving forward, what better symbol than the Ambassador car? Officially called the Hindustan Ambassador, the vehicle first went into production in India in the late 1950s, after the nation gained independence. The car's nickname was the King of Indian Roads, but in Raghubir Singh’s photographs, it’s a car of the people. One picture shows chickens in the trunk of a black Ambassador with a white top in Kashmir. In another image, a factory worker rests between shifts at an Ambassador factory in West Bengal.

Despite the car’s significance in national history, Singh’s photographs exist within the larger history of movement around the Asian continent. In "The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia," opening tomorrow, November 22, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, curators placed Singh’s work across from a scroll and woodblock prints from Japan. And among the items in adjoining rooms are rocks from China and archeological sketches done in Iraq. Curator Debra Diamond says the more than 100 travel mementos spanning 500 years are meant to be in dialogue with each other. “These are all different ways of remembering and recording the experience of travel or being in other places,” Diamond says.

At a time when Google Maps takes people around the world in an instant, certain sections of the exhibition depict travel in a bygone era. The Ambassador car, for example, went out of production this year. Even the 72 postcards, perhaps the most relatable objects on display, seem charmingly old fashioned in the digital age, when they tend to get relegated to museum gift shops. "There’s a continuity with present day travel, but this is also very much of a moment," Diamond says.

"Back in the day, in all of those places there would have been big racks of postcards for sale on the street," says Nancy Micklewright, who curated the postcards. "Not any more."

It's certain older items in the exhibition that actually seem most contemporary. Japanese artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai each depict the Tokaido road, a major route that linked Japan’s two largest cities. Like contemporary motorways, the Tokaido had rest stops where trekkers could find refreshments and lodging, which provide the settings for Hiroshige’s prints.

Hiroshige’s work—which captivated western artists such as Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler—depicts an insider’s perspective. But elsewhere in the exhibition, the perspective is from the outside. German adventurer and archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld recorded his travels near Baghdad by sketching the ruins of Samarra. Charles Lang Freer, the founder and namesake of the Freer Gallery of Art, collected rocks in China and documented his experiences with annotated maps and detailed notes.

Ann Yonemura, curator of Japanese art and one of seven people behind the exhibition, says that "Scenes of Asia" provides "an opportunity to sample" the experiences within each of the countries represented. In addition to the places already mentioned, items in the exhibition come from the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Morocco, Syria and Algeria. The exhibition should raise questions for the modern-day traveler, Yonemura says. "How do we remember the places that we’ve seen? How do we memorialize them?"

"The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia" is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through May 31, 2015.

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