Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation
Dec. 4, 2004–July 17, 2005 

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Public only: 202.633.1000
Media Preview: Tuesday, November 30 at 9 a.m. R.S.V.P. (202) 633-0519

November 5, 2004
By the late ninth century, the city of Basra in Iraq was a flourishing port at the hub of a vital ceramics industry that made radically innovative and lasting contributions to the history of world ceramics. “Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation,” on view at the Sackler Gallery from Dec. 4 through July 17, 2005, describes these technological and aesthetic innovations, as well as the symbiotic effect of maritime trade on the ceramic traditions of both the Islamic world and China.

The first exhibition to focus on these accomplishments, “Iraq and China” gives timely emphasis to this important artistic development in ninth-century Iraq. The approximately 60 ceramic and glass objects, stucco, textiles, works on paper and coins on view include early Iraqi blue and white and lusterware plates, bowls, jars and tiles culled from the Freer Gallery of Art as well as from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Khalili Collection (London), the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Berlin) and other public and private collections. A related installation by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, “Traveler: Reflection” is on view in the Sackler Pavilion.

Long before the European voyages of discovery, Arab and Persian seafarers successfully mastered the long ocean crossing from the Persian Gulf to China. Muslim merchants established themselves in Chinese ports and, upon their return, supplied Near Eastern markets with luxury Chinese goods such as raw silk, silk brocades and tea. Imported Chinese ceramics were particularly admired in Iraq for the shiny white surfaces and hard bodies that were produced from locally available clays.

As the essential raw materials for making Chinese porcelain were unavailable in Iraq, potters devised an ingenious technological innovation to cover their finely potted yellow clay vessels with a tin glaze that became opaque after firing. Unlike the Chinese models, which were left unadorned, Iraqi potters decorated their wares with bold geometric and stylized vegetal designs in cobalt blue. Bowls also were inscribed with calligraphic renderings of anonymous blessings, while in some cases the potters proudly added their names across the surface. Following the success of their blue-on-white wares, Iraqi potters began to experiment with pigments borrowed from the Islamic glass industry. Luster mixtures of copper and silver oxides were painted onto the previously fired glaze then fixed in a second firing, producing an innovative “true luster” with astonishing iridescent metallic effects.

Workshop secrecy delayed the dissemination of these techniques until after the 10th century when the Abbasid Empire began to disintegrate politically and potters migrated to other parts of the Islamic world. Luster-painted ceramics were produced in Egypt and Iran; the technique spread to Islamic Spain in the early 14th century and thereafter gave rise to the great 16th-century Maiolica tradition in Renaissance Italy, which in turn inspired Portuguese and French faience and 19th-century English Minton Majolica wares. In China, 14th-century experiments with cobalt blue from the Islamic world proved triumphant and led to the production of Yuan and Ming blue-and-white porcelain, which also influenced European ceramic production including Dutch Delft, Danish Royal Copenhagen Porcelain faience and English blue-and-white wares.

The outstanding works on view include the following:

  • A large jar, painted in luster with a pair of birds and mysteriously clad figures; both the shape and decoration of this jar are highly unusual and confirm the sophistication of 9th-century Iraqi potters
  • A series of signed bowls painted in cobalt blue, the earliest known signed objects from the Islamic world, suggesting the important status of potters and their craft in ninth-century Iraq; the use of writing as a principal decorative device, which appears for the first time on these vessels, became one of the most distinct characteristics of the portable luxury arts of the Islamic world
  • A green, glazed sweet-meal dish with compartments intended for sweetmeats, condiments or for preparing cosmetics, and a long inscription around the edge, naming the potter Abi Nasr the Basran in Egypt
  • A unique luster-glazed bowl from Egypt, one of the most remarkable stain-glass objects to have survived from the early Islamic period; its entire surface has been covered with a copper-rich, purple-blue film before the designs were added, which could only have been achieved by at least two firings at a low temperature after the shape of the bowl had been determined

A scholarly volume on the development of Iraqi pottery by the exhibition’s curator, Jessica Hallett, is planned in conjunction with the exhibition. Part of the Freer Occasional Papers series, the publication includes technical and scientific analyses, diagrams and reproductions of the objects in the exhibition, as well as other related pieces.

Iraq & China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation is supported in part by the Barakat Foundation with indirect support from the U.S. Department of State through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. 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. Public tours are offered daily, except Wednesdays and public holidays and are subject to docent availability. 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 special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ website at