Media only: James Gordon, 202.633.0520; Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: July 1–September 4, 2006
Media Preview: Wednesday, June 28, 2006, 10 a.m.

April 24, 2006
“Facing East: Portraits from Asia,” on view July 1 through September 4 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, explores how portraits expressed identity in Asia and the Near East. Paintings, sculpture, and photographs of Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese empresses, Japanese actors and a host of other subjects, reveal the unique ways that the self was understood, represented, and projected in Asian art.

The exhibition includes approximately 70 masterpieces from the collections of Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, Islamic and Ancient Near Eastern art at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art. A number of the works from the Sackler and Freer galleries will be on view for the first time.

Popular and academic surveys of portraiture deny that Asia had a portrait tradition. “Facing East” reveals rich and diverse Asian conceptions of portraiture through thought-provoking, cross-cultural juxtapositions of portraits in thematic groupings. These portraits not only provide an entrée into Asian cultures, but also lay bare many of the mechanisms and conceptions of the self that inform western portraiture.

This exhibition celebrates the reopening of its sister museum, the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition has three main sections: “Portraits and Memory,” “Likeness and Identity,” and “Projecting Identity” and three sub-sections: “Collective Identities,” “Gendered Identities,” and “Sacred Identities.”

“Portraits and Memory” explores how the universal desire to remember those who are absent informs artworks ranging from ancient Yemeni tomb sculpture to 20th-century photography.

“Likeness and Identity” addresses the representational practices that convey identity in Asian portraiture. It examines how different cultures employ very different styles to represent subjects. These portraits range from ones that record appearance to those that express social identities transcending mere lifetimes. A variety of portrait conventions, such as the Japanese tradition of focusing upon unusual or irregular features to immediately and forcibly convey the identity of a subject to the viewer, or the meanings associated with profile representations, are examined. Portraits in this section range from a penetrating self-portrait by the Chinese master Chaing-Dai Chen, to elegant yet casual drawings of acquaintances by the Persian master Riza Abbasi, to a tiny and beautifully observed workshop drawing of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a young prince.

The third and most comprehensive section of the exhibition, “Projecting Identity,” focuses on the myriad personas that are projected through Asian portraiture. It considers how portraits were vehicles for artists and the patrons of portraiture to protect culturally valued identities. Thematic groupings, which include explorations of royal, collective, gendered and sacred identities, reveal both distinct cultural traditions as well as shared practices that emerged from millennia of cultural exchange and trade within Asia and with Europe.

This section also features paintings and sculptures of rulers who chose to proclaim worldly power or semi-divine status through portraiture and scroll paintings of Chinese bureaucrats who, in contrast to kings, opted for their representation as lovers of nature. This section includes an exquisite 13th-century painting of Prince Shotoku, who helped establish Buddhism in Japan, as well as a painting that for many years was worshipped as an image of the prince.

“Collective Identities” reveals how group portraits can commemorate—or establish—personal or social bonds, from the family to the school or the military. The section includes a charming and delicately tinted Japanese photograph of child acrobats and monumental Chinese ancestor portraits of a husband and wife. It also includes the exhibition’s only loan work, an installation by the contemporary Korean artist Do-Ho Suh entitled “Who Am We?” that explicitly addresses the tension between the individual and the collective identity.

“Gender Identities” features portraits of historical women, ranging from images of women as objects of desire to those that project women as powerful controllers of their own destinies. Two photographs staged by the Dowager Empress Cixi for example reveal that politically powerful women could and did appropriate modes of representation usually reserved for men.

“Sacred Identities” reveals how portraits created for sacred spaces or rituals can serve as conduits between human lives and the divine world. In contrast, portraits of holy men made for secular spaces convey religious devotion or sectarian affiliation as an aspect of human identity.

“Facing East: Portraits from Asia” is organized by Debra Diamond, associate curator for south and Southeast Asian Art, and coordinating curator of contemporary Asian art, at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Diamond was joined on this exhibition by curators Massumeh Farhad (Islamic art), Ann Yonemura (Japanese art), Ann Gunter (Ancient Near East art) and Jan Stuart (Chinese art).

The exhibition will be accompanied by several engaging public programs including a symposium on portraiture on Saturday, July 15, as well as Asian dance and theatre performances, films and gallery talks. For more information visit

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Ave. S.W. and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are both on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the exhibitions section of the galleries’ website:

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