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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Compare: What Can Images of Foreigners Tell Us About the People That Make Them?

Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)

Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)
Artist / Origin: Kano School, Japan
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 17th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Ink, color, and gold on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 60 ¼ in. (153 cm.), W: 130 ½ in. (331 cm).
Location: The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Freer Gallery or Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures
Artist / Origin: Edo artist, Court of Benin, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date: 15th–16th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Ivory
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 7 ½ in. (19.1 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Photo by Max Yawney

What can images of foreigners tell us about the people that make them?

Many cultures have looked to artistic representation as a means of learning about foreigners, coming to terms with the presence of outsiders in their own societies, and defining their relationships with people different from themselves. Sometimes this has resulted in costume books like those produced by Venetians in the Islamic world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Other times, it has led to the depiction of foreigners in decorative arts or narrative scenes. In their art, both the Japanese painter of the namban screen and the creator of the Benin saltcellar made representational decisions that illuminate the way they perceived the European merchants who had become constant fixtures in their communities.

Questions to Consider

  • One of these pieces was created for a local audience, the other for a foreign patron. Can you tell which is which just by looking? What knowledge guides your assessment? What assumptions do you make?
  • Although we might think of these two pieces as recording observations of foreigners, both rely on subjective decisions made by the artist. What features of the foreigners represented seem important to each respective artist? What does this suggest about the artist’s own interests, values, or concerns?
  • Today, we often learn about foreign people and cultures through photographs. What do you think the benefits of visual representation are in this case? What might be the negative repercussions of so-called “ethnographic” images?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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