Global Exchange

Global Exchange

Resource sets bring together selected works from VMFA’s collections that relate to popular themes and topics. Suggested inquiry-based activities paired with each object can be used in the galleries or classroom to promote discovery, critical thinking, and authentic engagement with art. Sets also link to videos and additional resources for classroom extensions and curricular connections.

Collection:
African Art, Ancient Art, Decorative Arts after 1890, East Asian Art, Egyptian Art, European Art, Pre-Columbian Art, South Asian Art
Culture/Region:
Africa, America, China, East Asia, Egypt, Europe, Greece, India, Rome, South Asia
Subject Area:
Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Classroom Resource, Resource Set

Global Exchange

Image Gallery

Relief Pithos (Storage Container)
Fayum Portrait of a Woman
Seated Buddha
Bactrian Camel
Mirror with Grape Design
Qero
Still Life
Drop-Front Secretary
Howdah
Dwa (Official’s Stool)

Introduction

Groups of people around the world have exchanged goods, knowledge, and ideas for centuries. Conflict and cooperation, economic pressures and political alliances, as well as conquest, migration, and trade have all resulted in rich cultural interchange. Use this resource set to explore how art can illustrate various ways in which technologies, forms, images, symbols, and concepts are adopted, adapted, and/or reinterpreted by communities across the globe.

Relief Pithos (Storage Container)

Relief Pithos (Storage Container)

ca. 675 B.C. , Greek (Cretan)

Medium: terracotta

Accession ID: 79.147

Geography often plays a significant role in cultural exchange. This was particularly true in ancient times in the areas near the Mediterranean Sea. For example, although ancient Greece had a few ri ...

Geography often plays a significant role in cultural exchange. This was particularly true in ancient times in the areas near the Mediterranean Sea. For example, although ancient Greece had a few rivers, they were smaller than great rivers like the Nile—and most of the land in mainland Greece was mountainous with relatively poor soil. What the Greeks did have were numerous peninsulas with good harbors and easy access to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, so many Greeks became seafaring traders who founded colonies along the coastlines and on the islands of the Mediterranean. Wine, olives—and pottery—were exchanged for items such as grain, wood, and precious metals. As goods were exchanged, so were artistic designs, technologies, and stories.

This large amphora, or storage jar, comes from Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. Almost five feet tall, this decorated vessel is more than 2600 years old. The decorations include alternating knobs and rosettes at the base of the neck and rosettes stamped on the lip. Molds and stamps, which were used in making this amphora, were technological conventions found in Near Eastern and Egyptian art. These ornamentations, as well as the vertical bands on the body, also resemble patterns found on late Assyrian reliefs.

The mythological creatures in the band near the top are sphinxes. The concept of the sphinx, which has the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman, originated in ancient Egypt. The Greeks later incorporated this Egyptian monster into their own works of art and mythology. Ancient Greek sources relate a story about a sphinx who plagued the Greek city of Thebes. She would allow no one into the city who could not solve her famous riddle: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” According to the story, Oedipus, who later became the king of Thebes, solved the riddle. He answered that it was man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.

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Fayum Portrait of a Woman

Fayum Portrait of a Woman

late 3rd-4th century A.D. , Roman (Egypt)

Medium: encaustic on wood panel

Accession ID: 55.4

Conquests change the cultural practices of both the conquered people and their conquerors. The history of Egypt provides numerous examples of this type of exchange, including the impact of Alexande ...

Conquests change the cultural practices of both the conquered people and their conquerors. The history of Egypt provides numerous examples of this type of exchange, including the impact of Alexander the Great’s occupation of the country in 332 B.C. Following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., one of his Macedonian generals became the ruler of Egypt as Ptolemy I Soter. The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for the next 300 years, blending Greek and Egyptian customs.

As Roman power became the dominant force in the Mediterranean, Roman influences also enriched cultural practices in Egypt, For example, the ancient custom of mummification began to undergo modifications after the Romans occupied Egypt in 30 B.C. During the first three centuries of Roman Egypt, the dead who were fortunate enough to afford mummification were also honored with painted portraits. These portraits are called Fayum masks, after the Egyptian site where the first examples were found. There, on high ground, safely away from where the Nile flooded every year, the Greeks and Hellenized people of the region buried their dead. Merging Egyptian funerary practices with Greco-Roman portraiture, these panels were placed over the faces of the mummies instead of the masks used earlier in Egypt, This example was painted using the encaustic technique, in which pigment was added to heated beeswax and applied to a wooden panel.

The subjects of Fayum portraits include Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Ethiopians, a diverse assortment of ethnic backgrounds typical of the population of Roman Egypt at that time. This portrait beautifully captures the luminous eyes of a Roman Egyptian woman, an appropriate emphasis since the eyes were considered windows to the next life. She wears a rose-colored dress and a mantle (a sleeveless garment worn over the shoulders) edged with a broad, dark stripe, all marks of a fashionably dressed upper-class woman in Roman Egypt.

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Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha

2nd-3rd century , Indian

Medium: dark gray schist

Accession ID: 2002.556

Religious ideas and imagery are often modified by global interactions. Buddhism, which originated in ancient India (present-day Nepal), underwent significant changes over the centuries. Its basic t ...

Religious ideas and imagery are often modified by global interactions. Buddhism, which originated in ancient India (present-day Nepal), underwent significant changes over the centuries. Its basic teachings are attributed to the Buddha, a great teacher whose birth name was Siddhartha Gautama (traditional dates: 563–483 B.C.) Few, if any, sculptures of the Buddha date back to Siddhartha’s lifetime. Before the late 1st century B.C., the Buddha was not represented in human form by Indian artists, probably for fear that he might be worshiped as a divinity. Early Buddhists regarded Buddha not as a god, but as a gifted mortal who taught a powerful spiritual message. As time passed, however, Buddhists began to think of him not as a mortal teacher, but as a god-like being worthy of adoration and worship. This devotion led to representations of the Buddha in an accessible human form. Gandharan Buddhas, like this one, are among the earliest known Buddha images in human form created in Asia.

As artists began to represent the Buddha in human form, information derived from Buddhist scriptures, artistic influences that arose from the invasions of Alexander the Great, and contact with Silk Road kingdoms all contributed to the appearance of early sculptures. Buddhist scriptures describe 32 marks (lakshanas) that were thought to distinguish the Buddha from other people. One or more of these characteristics usually appear when the Buddha is depicted. On this sculpture, for example, he has the ushnisha, a fleshy bump (here shaped like a bun) on the top of his head that stands for superhuman wisdom. Another mark, depicted as a raised circle, is the urna, a whorl, or tuft, of hair between his eyebrows that symbolizes extraordinary insight. The draperies of his outer garment, which cascade from his palm and spread over the plinth below him, as well as the folds of his toga-like robes reveal Greek and Roman influences on the art of Gandhara. Buddha images in this style, which combines Asian and Hellenistic elements, was one of India's most significant artistic exports, providing the earliest models for a long tradition of imagery in Central and East Asia.

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Bactrian Camel

Bactrian Camel

7th century , Chinese

Medium: Earthenware with white glaze

Accession ID: 51.12.2

Beginning around the 3rd century B.C., a web of trade routes linked China with parts of Central Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Europe, and South Asia. This network was later called the Silk Road ...

Beginning around the 3rd century B.C., a web of trade routes linked China with parts of Central Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Europe, and South Asia. This network was later called the Silk Road because silk was one of the most desired products that traveled from East to West. As goods were exchanged over these routes, technological knowledge, philosophical ideas, and artistic practices were also carried to distant places. Westbound camel caravans carried luxury items, including silk, precious tea, and ceramics, from Chang’an (present-day Xian, China) to Central Asia, and then traveled either south to India or farther west to the Mediterranean coasts. Various locations along the trade routes also had goods that might be traded. For example, Kashgar offered pack animals, dried fruit, herbs, and tea. Merchants in Ferghana, famous for its horses, also dealt in rugs, copper, and dried fruit and nuts. East-bound traders brought treasured glass, rare wool, exotic spices, and gold and silver vessels to China.

The best pack animals for many sections of the Silk Road were sturdy Bactrian camels, capable of carrying a great deal of weight over rough terrain, while enduring the extreme conditions of the Gobi desert, where it could be very hot during the day and very cold at night. This glazed earthenware sculpture represents one of these two-humped camels, which were so prized that they became a popular subject for Tang dynasty funerary sculptures. The ancient Chinese believed in a life after death, so they buried their dead with things they thought would be needed in the afterlife. This Bactrian camel, loaded with trade goods, was likely found in the tomb of an affluent and important person—no doubt placed there to help the deceased grow rich through trade in the afterlife.

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Mirror with Grape Design

Mirror with Grape Design

7th - 8th century , Chinese

Medium: Bronze with gold overlay

Accession ID: 2000.11

In eras when a powerful dynasty ruled China, the ancient trade routes later known as the Silk Road were safer for travelers, which encouraged the expansion of trade. In the early years of the Tang ...

In eras when a powerful dynasty ruled China, the ancient trade routes later known as the Silk Road were safer for travelers, which encouraged the expansion of trade. In the early years of the Tang dynasty (618–907), military campaigns extended the Chinese empire to the north and west and established Tang control of the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road. The resulting growth in trade fueled an expanding Chinese economy and accelerated cultural exchanges between China and the West. Goods coming from China included tea, ceramics, rhubarb, paper, lacquer, gunpowder, and bamboo. Heading in the other direction, merchants traded gold, glass, various glazes, and grapevines.

This Chinese mirror back was produced during the Tang dynasty. Made of bronze coated with gold, the surface is adorned with five lions surrounded by birds and grapevines. One lion is crouching in the center of the mirror, while the other four are arranged around him in lively poses. Lions and grapevines, which are not native to China, were introduced into Chinese culture by Silk Road traders around the 2nd century BCE. Artistic ornamentation featuring lions and grapes, however, did not become popular in Chinese works of art until after the 5th and 6th centuries, when Buddhist influences began to arrive in China—also by way of the Silk Road.

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Qero

Qero

17th century , Colonial Inca

Medium: wood with polychrome pigments

Accession ID: 59.28.12

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, truly global trade routes were established. New shipbuilding technology, improved navigational tools, and increasingly reliable maps motivated enterprising expl ...

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, truly global trade routes were established. New shipbuilding technology, improved navigational tools, and increasingly reliable maps motivated enterprising explorers to attempt long-distance ocean travel. The Spanish, with easy access to the Atlantic, were among the first European nations to grow wealthy through conquests in the Americas.

During the century before the arrival of Spanish conquerors, the Inca people of Peru had established the largest and most powerful pre-Columbian empire in America with an estimated population of about 10 million people. A bloody war of succession and a deadly outbreak of disease, likely of European origin, greatly weakened the empire shortly before the empire fell to Spain. In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor and seized power. Inca resistance continued in parts of the empire until 1572, but the Spanish ultimately consolidated their authority—and began their efforts to convert their new subjects to Roman Catholicism.

European styles soon influenced Inca aesthetic traditions. This drinking vessel, or qero in the Inca language Quechua, was carved and decorated by Inca artisans in the central highlands of Peru during the colonial period. Qeros were used during communal religious festivals to hold the maize beer called chicha. They were made in identical pairs so that two individuals could drink together. The beaker shape of the qero can be traced back to some of the earliest cultures in Peru—thousands of years before the Inca—but this 17th-century vessel incorporates Spanish elements into its traditional design. The figures—hunters and animals—are drawn from European styles of figure painting, while the geometric stepped pattern of the central band is distinctly Inca.

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Still Life

Still Life

ca. 1640-50 , Dutch

Medium: oil on canvas

Accession ID: 61.15

In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch enjoyed a golden age of prosperity during which they were the richest and most successful maritime power in the world. Their ships transported goods f ...

In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch enjoyed a golden age of prosperity during which they were the richest and most successful maritime power in the world. Their ships transported goods from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. They traveled throughout the Americas, to Africa, and beyond. Dutch investors in joint-stock companies grew wealthy through international trading monopolies, especially the ones established in India and Japan.

Affluent Dutch merchants and professionals of the Dutch Golden Age commissioned thousands of paintings as a consumer economy developed in the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic was Protestant, so most citizens did not decorate their churches with large religious paintings because the use of paintings for devotion was considered idolatrous. Instead, they adorned their homes with portraits, landscapes—and still lifes, which became particularly popular after 1640.

The Dutch painter Jan De Heem is famous for his still-lifes, including this sumptuous canvas painted in Antwerp (present-day Belgium) where De Heem moved in 1636. The expensive fruits, vegetables, and flowers in his composition are from distant places across the world, assembled to show the wealth and sophistication of the Netherlands. Like many still-life painters of the time, De Heem often included some form of animal life in his work, such as the exotic African gray parrot in this painting.

Despite its opulence, this still life also contains hints that would have reminded viewers that worldly wealth cannot overcome death and judgment. The beautifully detailed watch in the golden case in this painting implied that worldly pleasures were fleeting and best enjoyed in moderation.

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Drop-Front Secretary

Drop-Front Secretary

ca. 1780 , Indian

Medium: sandalwood, veneered with incised ivory panels filled with black lac; silver and brass pulls, brass hinges

Accession ID: 2001.231a-b

The English East India Company was chartered in 1600. Its original purpose was to create strong trading relationships with India by establishing English enclaves at Surat, Madras, Bombay, and Calcu ...

The English East India Company was chartered in 1600. Its original purpose was to create strong trading relationships with India by establishing English enclaves at Surat, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, but the company eventually became the chief mechanism of English imperialism in India. Similar companies were founded by the Dutch in 1602 and the French in 1664.

As the volume of trade with Europe increased, Indian craftsmen began to produce goods designed specifically for foreign markets. This drop-front secretary, made in Vizagapatam, belongs to a body of elaborately detailed work intended for the Western market. Clad in pale ivory inscribed with narrative imagery, it blends an English form with Indian materials and patterns derived from local textiles and Western prints.

Although objects like this secretary were associated with grand households in India and England, this piece traveled to America. In March 1784, the frigate United States, owned by the American merchant Thomas Willing, sailed from Philadelphia and headed for China. Along the way, it was rerouted to Pondicherry, India. Among its returning cargo was this delicate secretary, subsequently given to Willing’s daughter, Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing Bingham.

Anne was the wife of William Bingham, a wealthy merchant, banker, and politician. Their home, Mansion House, was the grandest in Philadelphia and a favorite gathering place of the local elite. Guests considered the secretary a “curiosity,” but also evidence of the Binghams’ sophisticated taste, reflecting the expanding boundaries of American commerce. Halfway around the globe, the governor of Madras entertained guests amid an entire suite of Vizagapatam work, which was subsequently purchased by King George III of England.

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Howdah

Howdah

ca. 1896-1917 , Indian

Medium: silver, gilded silver, wood, velvet, glass, paint

Accession ID: 2004.17a-b

The British first established trading centers in India in 1600, when the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into The East Indies, subsequently known as the East India Company, was ...

The British first established trading centers in India in 1600, when the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into The East Indies, subsequently known as the East India Company, was granted a royal charter. Until the mid-19th century, the East India Company acted for English colonial interests, rather than the British government, although the authority of the company was gradually limited by the English Parliament. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the United Kingdom assumed direct rule in India.

The era of British crown rule in India (1858–1947) was known as the Raj. During these years, Indian rulers were recognized as “princes” by the British and allowed to maintain order in their own small states. This spectacular object is a howdah, a throne-like saddle placed on the back of an elephant. Opulent silver-clad howdahs were popular with the princes who ruled during the Raj. Seated high atop an elephant on a mobile throne was the grandest—and safest—way a ruler could move through the throngs during public processions marking coronations, royal birthdays, and other dynastic events. The ruler sat in the front section of the howdah, while attendants in the smaller section at the back held parasols, chauri (wisks), and other royal regalia. State howdahs were often outrageously showy works of art intended to overwhelm, delight, and entertain.

The ornamentation on this howdah unites Western and Indian motifs. The carefully worked silver features four large leogryphs (lion-like creatures): the two at the front of the howdah battle with a mythical beast and a ferocious fish; the two at the back are shown standing in full roar. Ornate, highly Westernized floral decorations (sprays, creepers, and scrolls) fill the howdah's front, back, and side panels. The front panel features a coat of arms with a monogrammed cartouche (the monogram is not decipherable) flanked by two rampant lions and crowned by a human-faced sun. The symbolism of this heraldic device derives from examples of European coats-of-arms.

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Dwa (Official’s Stool)

Dwa (Official’s Stool)

19th-20th century , Akan

Medium: wood, brass

Accession ID: 2007.1

Once called the Gold Coast, the modern-day country of Ghana, is located on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. This area has long been known for the abundant resources of gold that spurred the develop ...

Once called the Gold Coast, the modern-day country of Ghana, is located on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. This area has long been known for the abundant resources of gold that spurred the development of regional and international trade in European firearms, luxury goods, gold, and slaves. The Akan, the largest ethnic group in Ghana today, dominated gold mining and the gold trade between the 15th and 19th centuries.

This Akan official’s stool is made of wood covered in brass sheeting decorated with intricate hammered designs. The imagery of the decorations suggest that the stool belonged to a high-ranking court official or royalty. The stool’s upward curving seat ultimately derives from the original Golden Stool—the Sika Dwa Kofi or “the Friday-born Golden Stool”—of the Asante kingdom. Their Golden Stool, which is traced to the beginning of the 18th century, is venerated as the central symbol of the Akan people.

The support of the stool is shaped to represent a powder keg and two rifles, perhaps symbolizing the military strength made possible by European firearms, which were exchanged for gold—and captured, enslaved Africans. Flanked by bands of geometric patterns and two pairs of crossed swords, the central field of the seat depicts three captives being led away by captors, whose brimmed hats suggest they are European. Two birds perch on the seat of the stool. Each bird touches its tail with an egg. The egg is a symbol of the future; the tail is a symbol of the past. This image is called “Sankofa,” which means “return and get it.” The juxtaposition of the scene showing the captives and sankofa birds with the powder keg and rifles may suggest that a ruler needs to wield force to guarantee safety. However, given the subtlety of Akan proverbs and symbols, the message may also be that guns and gun powder, in addition to making regional domination possible, were also the source of grief not to be forgotten.

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