The National Museum of Asian Art has announced its 2023 recipients of the Freer Medal, a lifetime achievement award that honors individuals who have substantially contributed to the understanding of the arts of Asia throughout their career. This year, the institution’s centennial, the honor will go to Vidya Dehejia, the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor Emerita of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, and Gülru Necipoğlu, the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University’s History of Art and Architecture Department. They will be honored for their lifetime work in South Asian art and arts of the Islamic world, respectively. The medal will be presented to Dehejia April 28 and to Necipoğlu Oct. 27. (Editor’s note: The event on April 28 has been postponed.)
Named after the museum’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, the Freer Medal has been awarded 14 times since its inception in 1956. This is the first time that a scholar of South Asian and another of Middle Eastern descent will receive the award. Only two other women have previously received the Freer Medal: It was awarded to Dame Jessica Rawson, professor of Chinese art and archaeology at the University of Oxford, in 2017 and to Stella Kramrisch, Czech art historian and leading specialist on South Asian art, in 1985.
“The Freer Medal is an important way in which our museum encourages and exemplifies excellence in Asian art scholarship,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Asian Art. “We are pleased to recognize the enormous contributions that these scholars have made to their fields. It is long overdue that women of Middle Eastern and Asian heritages receive the Freer Medal. The museum congratulates Vidya Dehejia and Gülru Necipoğlu on this award during the landmark occasion of our centennial.”
About the 2023 Recipients
Dehejia’s groundbreaking research spans millennia of art and history, from ancient Buddhist rock-cut architecture to colonial-period photography. Her work on widely ranging topics, including visual narrative, gender, the meaning of the unfinished, medieval yogini temples, Chola bronzes and artistic production during the British Raj, have staked out new fields of inquiry for the interpretation of Asian art, while her translations of Tamil poetry and Sanskrit texts have set a standard for art historical rigor. At Columbia University, as professor of South Asian art history from 1982 to 2003 and as the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art from 2003 to 2021, Dehejia taught and shaped a generation of scholars. She also served as the director for the Southern Asian Institute at Columbia University (2003–2008) and was the acting director, deputy director, chief curator and curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1994–2002), where she was responsible for several highly innovative exhibitions and scholarly catalogs.
Dehejia holds a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and doctorate from Cambridge University and a Bachelor of Arts from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay University. Highlights from her impressive list of publications include Devi, The Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art (1999), India through the Lens: Photography 1840–1911 (2000), The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India (2002), The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art (2009), The Unfinished: Stone Carvers at Work on the Indian Subcontinent with Peter Rockwell (2015) and The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Chola Bronzes from South India, c. 855–1280 (2021), based on her A.W. Mellon lectures in 2016.
The recipient of many prestigious national and international awards, Dehejia received the Padma Bhushan Award in 2012 from the president of India for exceptional contributions to art and education, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2009–2012) and she was the 65th A.W. Mellon Lecturer in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in 2016.
Necipoğlu earned her doctorate from Harvard University in 1986 and has served there as the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture since 1993. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University and a Master of Arts from Harvard University. Necipoğlu specializes in the arts and architecture of the pre-modern Islamic lands, with a focus on the Mediterranean world and the cross-cultural and artistic exchanges between the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires in the 16th and 17th centuries. Grounded in rigorous archival research, her multi-disciplinary studies have addressed the aesthetic interconnections of Byzantium and Renaissance Europe, pre-modern architectural practices and the role and function of ornament in the Islamic world and beyond, offering new and highly original perspectives on the arts and architecture of the region. Throughout her illustrious career, Necipoğlu has also trained and mentored numerous students, who have continued to transform the field.
Since 1993, Necipoğlu has also served as editor of Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World and its supplements, the pre-eminent publication in the field, which has transformed the study of the arts and architecture of the Islamic world. Her own publications comprise studies in monumental architecture to intricate designs on portable objects and have changed the understanding of the arts of the Islamic world. They include Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: The Topkapı Palace (1991), The Topkapı Scroll–Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (1995), The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire (2005, 2011), Treasures of Knowledge: An Inventory of the Ottoman Palace Library (1502/3–1503/4)” (2 vols, 2019, coeditors Cemal Kafadar and Cornell H. Fleischer), The Arts of Ornamental Geometry: A Persian Compendium on Similar and Complementary Interlocking Figures (2017), A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, in the Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Art History (coeditor F. Barry Flood, 2017) and Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local (coeditor Alina Payne, 2016).
In recognition of her distinguished scholarly career, Necipoğlu is an elected member of the British Academy, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio in Vicenza, Italy.
Previous recipients of the Freer Medal are Rawson (2017; Chinese art); John Rosenfield (2012; East Asian art), James Cahill (2010; Chinese art), Oleg Grabar (2001; Islamic art), Sherman E. Lee (1998; Asian art), Alexander Soper (1990; Chinese art), Kramrisch (1985; South Asian art), Max Loehr (1983; Chinese art), Roman Ghirshman (1974; Ancient Near Eastern art), Laurence Sickman (1973; Japanese art), Tanaka Ichimatsu (1973; Japanese art), Yashiro Yukio (1965; Chinese and Japanese art), Ernst Kühnel (1960; Islamic art) and Osvald Sirén (1956; Chinese art).
About Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen our collective understanding of Asia and the world. Home to more than 45,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American works, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the United States, Asia and the Middle East.
Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.