Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Chinese Bird at an Afghan Picnic: Chinese Art in Afghanistan

At twenty-three, I was in the enviable/unenviable (depending on your view) position of helping to get a Timurid tile project up and running in Afghanistan.  The idea was that if the old tile-making traditions (as seen adorning such masterpieces of Islamic architecture as the Masjid Jami’ mosques in Herat and Samarqand) were supported, then Afghan craftsmen could restore their own buildings, tiles could become a source of revenue by being sold abroad, and Afghanistan could once more become a proud centre for tile-making.  Months of agonizing experimentation later, even with the help of a master tile-maker from Mazar-i Sharif, we were still little closer to perfecting the art.  It was a lot harder than it looked.
    This picture on the left is also Timurid.  It is called ‘A Prince Seated in a Garden’, and is from Iran or Central Asia.  It was made c.1425-50 (following Lentz and Lowry 1989), during the height of the Timurid dynasty’s power in Central Asia.  To someone interested in cultural borrowings, hybrids, fusions, it is a real gem.  The bird at the top of the picture is an image borrowed from the Chinese bird-and-flower painting tradition (花鳥畫)  and then implanted into a typically Timurid scene of the picnic.  This type of mixing was not uncommon; the Timurids were struck with the same kind of fever for all things Chinese which was to hit Europe in the 19th century.  To the Timurids, China was a symbol of excellence and beauty in the arts, and Timurid artists were always keen to adapt (or simply copy) Chinese designs into their own visual vocabulary. 

The picture above is a good example of the fruitful results such borrowings could produce.  The fusion of Chinese and Timurid motifs creates room for the artist’s bold experimentation with perspective and scale.  It is as if the viewer is hidden in a tree somewhere, looking down on this happy scene below.  Although both motifs are extremely conventional, when the two are put together it makes something startlingly new. 

I’ll be giving a talk on the Timurids at the British Museum this Saturday 25th at 1.15pm.  It’s free, so do come along!


  1. it would be interesting to reseach on the impact of Chinese "mountain-water" paiting tradition on India in the Mougal empire.

  2. There is a well established tradition of the impact of Chinese art on Persian-Islamic art.