The opportunity to bring Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China, 3rd–6th Centuries to the Honolulu Museum of Art has been especially exciting to me on a personal level. I focused on the Six Dynasties during my days in graduate school, and have always found it to be one of the most remarkable and fascinating periods in all of world history. However, chances to work on the Six Dynasties in the museum world are rare, and over time my interests largely shifted to different subjects. So, for me this exhibition has been somewhat of a homecoming to an earlier time in my own life when I was first discovering the wonders of Chinese art as a student.
With a wealth of previously unpublished and understudied artworks in the exhibition, I knew from the start that Art in a Time of Chaos would be filled with exciting new insights. However, I did not at all expect that one of these insights would come not from my graduate studies on the Six Dynasties, but rather from a more recent project that on the surface could not have seemed more unrelated to medieval China. Last year, I had the chance to work with Hamid Rahmanian on an exhibition of the spectacular illustrations he made for an innovative new edition of the Shahnameh, the greatest literary classic of Persian culture. The exhibition was primarily about the way in which he transformed traditional Persian miniature paintings into a new style of digital art, but it also was a great opportunity to become familiar with the stories in the Shahnameh, something I had always wanted to do.
I never imagined that the Shahnameh would have a direct connection to anything I would ever do in traditional Chinese art. Imagine my surprise, then, when we unpacked a crate with a silver plate from Sassanian Persia that had been discovered in a tomb in northern China, where it had been imported as a luxury good sometime in the 6th century. Of course, I knew that the plate would be in the exhibition, and had seen thumbnail photos of it from the checklist, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond being an example of trade between China and Central Asia during the time. However, when I saw the plate in person for the first time, I immediately recognized the subject as being the boar hunt from the Shahnameh, one of the episodes from the epic’s most famous love story about Bizhan and Manizheh. Bizhan is sent by the Persian king to kill wild boars in a border region near an enemy kingdom, where he falls in love with a princess, who then drugs and kidnaps him, resulting in endless exciting twists and turns (and a lot of the most lovely poetry ever written)…
Although the plate was discovered in 1981, to my knowledge the scene had never before been identified, and it was a moment of discovery indeed to find exceptionally early evidence of a story from the Shahnameh in, of all places, a Six Dynasties Chinese tomb!