Once upon a time long, long ago when the tiger smoked a pipe… This familiar phrase, used at the beginning of Korean children’s stories, is represented literally on this jar in underglaze cobalt. The tiger-and-magpie theme is a popular motif in Korean folk painting. In the past, Koreans believed that tigers embodied the spirit of mountains and possessed the power to ward off all evil and harm, and that magpieswere harbingers of good news. Porcelain wares with underglaze-cobalt decoration began to be produced in Korea during the fifteenth century, with imported cobalt from West Asia through China.

Bridal robe (hwalot)

The “flower robe” was a wedding robe worn by brides at the court and in the gentry class during the Joseon dynasty. This one was made by a contemporary textile artist in the traditional style of red silk with blue lining, colors that symbolize yin and yang, feminine and masculine, and light and dark in East Asian cosmology. It is embroidered with auspicious motifs of flora and fauna, including lotus and peony. The lotus symbolizes purity, rebirth, longevity, and good fortune, and the peony represents wealth and honor, while two birds allude to conjugal bliss. A bird with chicks symbolizes many offspring. The embroidered phrase on the back of the robe reads: “The union of two families is the root of myriad happiness.”

Blossoming plum

Jeong Tae-o’s eight-panel screen shows plum trees with blossoming flowers. Each panel contains an independent composition in which an old tree trunk has produced slender new branches with delicate blossoms. Only the second panel shows slender branches jutting out in the opposite direction. Plum blossoms sprout on fresh thin branches that have grown from the older branches. Jeong Tae-o (active 1800s), whose pen name was U-eum and who was also known as Jeong Tae-gyu, was famous for his plum paintings.

The blossoming plum is traditionally associated with other plants in symbolic combinations: the grouping known as the Three Friends of Winter (Sehan samu) consists of the blossoming plum, the pine, and bamboo; and the Four Virtuous Gentlemen (Sagunja) group consists of the blossoming plum, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo. Because plum flowers blossom even before the snow melts, they are thought of as harbingers of happy times.

Wrapping cloth (bojagi)

“Bojagi” is a general term for all wrapping cloths in Korea. Most bojagi were made with specific people and functions in mind, like when mothers crafted bojagi for their daughters before weddings. Bojagi were viewed more as craft pieces than artwork, and it is only in recent decades that the aesthetic value of bojagi was rediscovered. By sewing together small, used cloth of various shapes and skillfully juxtaposing vibrant colors, the unknown makers of these bojagi created an exciting design akin to modern abstract art.

Depending on its function, design, structure, and user, bojagi can have other names. For example, bojagi made for covering a table is called “sang bo” (“sang” means table, and “bo” is an abbreviation of bojagi). Because the bojagi on display are patchworks of cloth remnants, they are “jogak bo” (“jogak” means small pieces). Different names apply to various patchwork designs, as well as suggest those meant for royalty and for ordinary people.


Letters from the Thai alphabet are loosely pinned together to form an outline of the Buddha. These letters, cut from industrial mesh, form Buddhist sayings that Jakkai Siributr, a practicing Buddhist, chants daily. Amulets depicting the Buddha, respected monks, and kings hang from the text. Amulets are charms blessed by monks and given to worshippers at temples, often worn on the body as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings. As Jakkai has observed in Thailand, amulets blessed by monks believed to possess magic powers have become talismans that are being worshipped by people so that good fortune, prosperity, and safety will come their way. Jakkai views the use of amulets for luck and instant gratification as a perversion of their intended function as inspiration to devotees. He notes that the absent Buddha, present only in outline, represents the disappearance of Buddhism’s true principles.

Jakkai Siributr works primarily in the textile medium. His fascination with textiles and embroidery began as a child in Bangkok, and he went on to study textile design in college and graduate school in the United States before returning to live and work in Thailand. His meticulously handmade tapestry and installation works make statements about religious, social, and political issues in contemporary Thailand. His art is preoccupied with the interaction of Buddhism and materialism in modern life and with the everyday popular culture of Thailand.

Bowl with Arabic inscription

This bowl represents a high point in epigraphic ware production under the Persian Samanid dynasty (819-1005). The elaborate kufic version of the Arabic script is embellished with knotted interlaces and leafy flourishes that show off the artisan’s skill. A sharp instrument was used to achieve the crisp edges of the slipware-painted script. The decoration of this bowl consists of an Arabic proverb that may be translated as, “Surely knowledge is the noblest of the innumerable virtues and manliness is the most intricate of lineages.” This proverb is also found on wares now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran. Inscriptions on other bowls and dishes discuss the delights of eating, and it has been suggested that reading the inscriptions may have provided a form of entertainment. In cosmopolitan Samanid society this might have been the case.

The conical bowl form with straight, flaring sides and a flat base is a practical one and seems to derive, as do many Islamic ceramic forms, from a more expensive metal prototype in silver.

Bowl with splashed and incised decoration

This earthenware bowl is covered by an off-white slip and decorated with splashes of green, dark brown, and ochre colors derived respectively from copper, manganese, and iron oxides run into a transparent lead glaze. Islamic splashed wares were found in Samarra (Iraq) in the ninth century, and recent evidence indicates they were made in Basra (Iraq). They were found throughout the eastern Islamic world by the tenth century. This bowl is related to ones from Nishapur in northeastern Iran. The incised and glazed decorations are unrelated to one another; they demonstrate complexity of design, which is a common feature of Islamic art. Although this bowl may seem to resemble Chinese Tang dynasty (619-906) “three-color” (sancai) ware, the relationship between Chinese and Islamic splashed wares is unclear and still being debated. The Tang ware shapes are different; they were manufactured earlier and were mainly used for funerary purposes and not for export.

Seated bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Padmapani, Holder of the Lotus, is a form of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion. Surrounded by a flaming aureole, Padmapani is seated on a lotus throne with one leg extended. Residing in his crown is his spiritual father, the buddha Amitabha. The antelope skin on Padmapani’s shoulder shows that he is an ascetic, and the lotus in his left hand is a sign of his pure and universal compassion.

The modeling of the body, with its well-defined muscles, curved nose, large eyes inlaid with silver, and prominent chin are typical of this period of Kashmiri art. This style strongly influenced the art of western Tibet.

A King of Hell

This painting offers an interpretation of Buddhist conceptions of death and reincarnation. It depicts one of ten kings of hell who serves under the deity of the afterlife. In the teachings of some forms of Buddhism, it is said that when people die, their souls must appear before each of the ten kings of hell to have their lives reviewed. This judgment determines the fate of the dead. Some are sent to a cold or hot hell. Others are reborn as a deity, a human, an animal, a demon, or a ghost.

Base for a water pipe

The central plateau region of southern India, called the Deccan, was home to several Islamic dynasties whose patronage supported the development of distinctive art forms and styles. This water pipe (huqqa) base represents a type of inlaid metal ware known as bidri, after the Deccani city of Bidar, where the production technique is said to have been practiced since the fifteenth century. Bidri water pipe bases were probably first produced shortly after tobacco was introduced into the Deccan by Portuguese traders in the late sixteenth century.

Architecture, landscapes, and animals are almost never found on bidri ware. Most examples depict floral designs. The pavilions decorating this water pipe base recall chini khanas, or “china rooms,” popular architectural features during the Mughal period in north India (1526-1858). Their multiple niches were used to display objects such as Chinese porcelains, which were highly prized at South Asian courts.