Seeing the Light in Dallas

Need another reason to go to Dallas, besides the Texas barbeque and jalapeño cornbread?  The exhibition Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art after its debut at the Focus-Abengoa Foundation in Seville, Spain.

As Shangri La’s Collections Manager, I recently couriered three objects to Dallas for inclusion in the exhibition, which opened on March 30 and runs through June 29. “Nur” is the Arabic word for light, and the exhibition, which explores its multiple meanings, is organized into two major sections: one focusing on artistic techniques that enhance the effect of light, and the second focusing on scientific fields related to light or enlightenment. In addition to manuscripts, ceramics, and inlaid metalwork, among other objects, there are scientific instruments, including sundials, astrolabes, and anatomical instruments, which clearly illustrate the Islamic world’s hand in the European Renaissance.

Spanning more than ten centuries, the exhibition features 150 rarely seen objects from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. DDFIA’s loan consists of the following trio:

Incense Burner
Incense Burner
Northern India, probably late nineteenth century
Jade; gold, silver, gemstones
Overall: 4 x 4 9/16 in. (10.2 x 11.5cm), 41.15a-c
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2010.)


Iran, Safavid, sixteenth or seventeenth century, no later than 1656
Copper alloy; cast, engraved, inlaid with black composition, traces of gilding
Overall: 17 1/2 x 8 3/4 in. (44.5 x 22.2cm), 54.112
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2005.)



Turban Ornament in the Form of a Bird
Turban Ornament in the Form of a Bird
India (Jaipur), 19th century
Enameled gold, gemstones
Overall: 4 1/2 x 3 x 1 1/2 in. (11.4 x 7.6 x 3.8cm), 44.43a-b
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2007.)

As for that jet set crowd of couriers, there’s an endearing parental air that each courier inevitably conveys toward the artwork they’ve been entrusted to safely deliver.  At international exhibitions such as this, couriers with varying degrees of jet lag hover, inspect, and in spare moments, coo over each other’s objects, which helps soothe the jangled nerves of a long journey and the unspoken hope that the next crate opened will be in as good shape as the last.

On the day of Shangri La’s object installation, I was delighted to meet two couriers from the Furusuyya Foundation in Liechtenstein delivering a veritable trove of goodies and a courier from Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid, Spain whose darling lustreware candlestick in the form of a horse and rider stole a few hearts.

Manises (Valencia, Spain), 1651-1725
Tin-glazed earthenware, molded, luster-painted
25.2 x. 23.5 x 12 cm
Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas, Madrid
Lending museum objects is kind of like arranging a playdate for your objects. It’s exciting to get to see familiar objects in a new context and strangely gratifying to see them displayed alongside works of art from other institutions—like watching your kids having fun at the playground or pups romping at a dog park, but, more formal (everyone’s wearing gloves after all), no sudden moves, and a lot less mud.

The days leading up to an exhibition opening are periods of intense activity. They are the culmination of months and even years of planning. Gallery spaces are cluttered with people, pneumatic lifts, crates, supply carts, ladders and display cases in transit.  Registrars, in this case, DMA’s Patty Tainter, Associate Registrar, Exhibitions,  orchestrated the arrival of the artworks, carefully staggering the dates of multiple couriers’ itineraries and lining up the staff needed to efficiently open crates, carry out condition reporting, and installation. Curators, in this case, Dr. Sabiha al Khemir, DMA’s senior advisor for Islamic art, have the final say on the object arrangement before the case can be sealed. With each crate being unpacked there’s a collective air of expectancy akin  to a gift being opened; the relief that another object made it safe and sound, palpable. The objects in their custom-carved tyvek and ethafoam cavities, rest contentedly, endearingly familiar and blasé like a chortling baby in a crib oblivious to the surrounding commotion of installation activities.

patty condition reporting

DMA’s Associate Registrar, Exhibitions, Patty Tainter conducts a condition report of an incoming loan

There were many cases yet to be filled with treasures on that day, with the opening day still being two weeks out, but among my favorites was this trio of beauties from the British Museum. It’s all about the display. The dramatic lightbox effect for this willowy group of rosewater sprinklers calls to mind a glamorous trio of 1960s  Motown girl group singers. Meet the Supremes!

Three Swan-necked Bottles
Three Swan-necked Bottles
Persia, 1779-1925, Qajar
Glass, dip-molded, blown
Green: H. (max.) 35 cm, Diam. (max.) 11 cm
Blue: H. (max.) 38.5 cm, Diam. (max.) 10.5 cm
White: H. (max.) 37.5 cm, Diam. (max.) 11 cm
The British Museum, London
[1877,0116.43, 1877,0116.44, 1895,0322.4]
Dallas Museum of Art is one to watch. It is soon to receive one of the world’s leading private collections of Islamic Art, the rarely exhibited Keir Collection, which will make DMA’s Islamic art holdings the third largest in North America (after the Met and Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Galleries). The Keir Collection is slated to arrive at DMA as a long-term loan beginning in May 2014. Go Dallas!

P.S. When you’re in Dallas, don’t forget to try a po boy. I hopped a free trolley ride across from the DMA to find mine. You’ll see the light at first bite.

po boys

This Summer at Aphrodisias: A Roman City


The partial reconstruction of a ceremonial street decorated with high relief sculpture in an architectural setting. The unfinished project will be completed in 2013. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

A little after four in the morning, the silence is broken by the sound of drummers passing nearby, waking the faithful early to eat before beginning the day’s fast. It is Ramadan in south west Turkey. I arrived at the New York University archaeological excavations at Aphrodisias on the ninth of July and the wake-up sequence has started with drummers since the twentieth. The drummers wake the dogs, who howl to each other until the call to prayer echoes across the landscape a little after five, as Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ begins to light the sky. Going back to sleep is hopeless, and so begins another day on an active archaeological site.

Aphrodisias is a well preserved, medium-sized Roman city, known for its wealth of sculpture and extravagantly decorated buildings. To learn more about the site, visit the New York University website. This season marks my twentieth year of participation in the project. Future participation will depend on the work load at Shangri La, but it is likely that this will be my last full season—making for a wistful, nostalgic six weeks.

Quinn Ferris and Volkan Sevinç cleaning an inscription on the shattered marble floor of the Civil Basilica for photography. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

I am the senior field conservator at Aphrodisias, and my primary responsibility is for the care of artifacts from the moment of discovery—through the process of cleaning and stabilization—to a new life in the on-site museum or in a long-term storage depot. I have two student interns this season, Quinn Ferris from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts conservation training program and Volkan Sevinç from Ankara University’s Vocational Training School conservation program. While waiting for newly excavated finds to appear, they patiently nibble away at our backlog of over a thousand coins from previous seasons, which were waiting to be cleaned, and boxes of Late Roman glass tessera wall mosaics.

The season begins somewhat slowly. Archaeologists have opened two big excavations, one in a long decorative pool that was the centerpiece of a colonnaded stoa in the center of the city, known as the South Agora, and another series of trenches along what might be called Aphrodisias’s “Broadway,” a central street connecting the theater with the sacred area near the Temple of Aphrodite. The superimposed layers of soil in both excavations begin with a thick layer of Medieval mud that yields few artifacts of note.

The Hadrianic Bath in 2010 at the end of the season. This year’s work is taking place in the center rooms of the complex, under the limestone arches. (Photo: Ian Cartwright for N.Y.U Aphrodisias Excavations.)

Meanwhile, in addition to looking after recently excavated material, I work with my colleague Trevor Proudfoot, of Cliveden Conservation Workshop, Maidenhead, England, to stabilize and preserve larger structures and their decorative features in situ. Since 2008 we have been working in a large bath building, built during the time of Hadrian (AD 117–138). This season, in addition to relaying shattered floors and revetments, we clear debris from a collapsed hypocaust, an under-floor heating system. Although previously excavated, tons of soil, broken mortar and stones, and other debris remain; with our shade nets up and a long ramp in place, the work resembles a mining operation.

Kent Severson at the start of clearing operations in the hypocaust of the Hadrianic Bath. (Photo: Trevor Proudfoot.)
Excavator Austen Di Pinto (New York University Institute of Fine Arts) measuring the location of one of the Roman portrait statues just before lifting from the trench. (Photo: Ian Cartwright.)

Things don’t heat up in the excavations until August 13, with the discovery of two life-size Roman portrait sculptures that had been used as footing for a Medieval wall. It takes an entire day for me and a team of workmen to extricate them, but by the 16th they are lifted by crane and transported to our workshop for cleaning. The sculptures are deposited, one face up and one face down, at an elevation where rising and falling groundwater leaves behind a hard grey crust. The Late Antique portrait of a very stout man that was face up cannot easily be cleaned in the short time left to us on site, but the High Imperial portrait that was face down cleans up beautifully, revealing exquisite carving and traces of a high polish.

With the end of Ramadan on the 19th of August, the 2012 excavations at Aphrodisias come to an exciting end. Upon hearing that it might be my last full season for some time, my friends and colleagues conspire to throw a surprise dinner and dance party in my honor before we all leave to return to the real world. Saying “so long” to the local workmen with whom I have labored for so many years breaks my heart, but the warmth expressed by my teammates provides necessary closure. Although I will miss archaeological field work dearly, I look forward to the days ahead at Shangri La.