Westerner on a Camel
Unlike other equestrian statues, this figure is uniquely sculpted in such a way that he is caught while dismounting his camel, mid-movement. The camel is also sculpted with his mouth open to bray, further freezing a moment in time. Why did the artist choose to depict this exact moment? You can interpret this as a deliberate choice illustrating the Sogdian merchant as mobile, or on-the-go. The Sogdians were far from being static or immovable. We are left to ponder, “Where might he be going next?” or “Who is he about to greet as he leaves his camel?”
Signifying this man as a Sogdian is his facial hair and pointed felt cap. From the Chinese perspective, Westerners were generalized as having full beards and foreign dress, like seen on this figure. Another depiction of Sogdian dress can be seen in this Sogdian Dancer. Camels were used to carry goods along the Silk Road and one of their advantages was the ability to travel long distances in the desert without water. Camel statues resting, with merchants atop, carrying goods, and accompanied by musicians are common tomb attendants dating to the Tang dynasty.
Due to the fact that these various camel figurines were always found in tombs, it is quite possible the specific attributes attest to the family or persons buried. Why depict a Sogdian on a tomb figurine? The cohabitating and cultural exchange between Chinese and Westerners was a part of everyday life and also illustrates how the Chinese viewed their world beyond their own borders. Tomb figurines were also important to the Chinese because they believed their spirits had another life after death and so they were accompanied by whatever they may need. Having more goods and tomb figurines with you as you were buried was a sign of your wealth and status in society.
This well-preserved camel statue is a prime example of the Sancai ceramic technique invented during Tang Dynasty China (618-907 CE). China during the Tang Dynasty embraced many foreign influences and consolidated its power to become the cultural center of Asia. With their cosmopolitan success also came rich artistic traditions. Sancai, or three color, earthenware was comprised of colors achieved by mixing metal oxides to a lead glaze. Copper oxidized into a green, iron was used for amber and browns, and cobalt oxide resulted in blue hues. A cream or clear glaze was also used in combination with the oxides to create the Sancai color palette. Once the clay was sculpted into shape and thoroughly dried, only then could the glazed be applied. If you look closely on this camel’s body you can see a wood-like texture. The tendency of glazes to run together, explains why Sancai pottery looks like color was splashed on. The dripping aesthetic creates an energetic, textured surface for your eyes to explore.
Art Institute of Chicago. “Camel and Rider” Accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/32532. (SF)
China Online Museum. “Tang Dynasty Ceramics.” Accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/ceramics-tang.php. (SF)
Hsu, Eileen Hsiang-ling. “Green, Amber, and Cream: The Forgotten Art of "liuli" Glazed Ceramics in Ming China.”.Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University Vol.71/72 (2012): 36–57. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2105/stable/24416385. (SF)
Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
Sincai (three-color) glazed ceramic