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?"