A new exhibition titled Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia opened to huge fanfare at the Museum of Anthropology earlier this month. Curated by Dr. Fuyubi Nakamura, the exhibition explores the significance of written forms and calligraphic art in numerous cultures across Asia in successive eras, from ancient times up to our digital age. 

“All creatures leave traces of themselves as they move through life; but words, whether spoken, written, imagined, or visualized are traces unique to humans,” Dr. Nakamura said in a press release. The exhibition’s major theme emerges when those structured, physically realized written traces are composed with extra human creativity to relay additional meaning beyond the words themselves. 

The enormous diversity of pieces is split into two adjacent galleries. The older artifacts from the museum’s Asian Collection are found in a corner of the Multiversity Galleries next to the heart of the exhibition in the Audain Gallery. These include Sumerian stamped brick cuneiform inscriptions, Sinhala palm leaf Buddhist manuscripts, a Chinese scroll from Dr. Sun Yat-sen and woodblock prints from the Himalayas.

The contemporary calligraphy and art are on display in the Audain Gallery, which features multimedia displays, original works on paper and wood, as well as reproduced images created by six artists and teams from Afghanistan, Tibet, Thailand, and Japan. Next to the artworks in question are biographies of the artists and explanations of their work, which describe how the written scripts form a duality with the presentation of the art pieces to grapple with issues of identity or strife. 

For example, to evoke memories of conflict during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the Tibetan artist Nortse’s piece Book of Ashes contains burned manuscripts spread across the floor of the gallery atop piles of sand, “the ultimate destination/home of the destroyed books.”

In an annex within the gallery lies the marvellously executed, interactive computer-generated space by Tokyo’s teamLAB. Light music plays in the dark room while formless scenes play out on the walls, disturbed only by peacefully drifting logographic Chinese characters. Go ahead and touch one of these symbols – such as the character for mountain (Shān山) – and see a beautiful topographic landscape play out in front of you. Touching multiple characters in succession creates a reactive scene where birds might fly across those mountains or away from a raging fire.

In all of these ways the viewer need not be literate in any Asian language or script present to fully appreciate the exhibition (indeed, one artist’s work is intentionally illegible). 

“Viewing and feeling these works is like listening to songs in a foreign language we may not understand,” Dr. Nakamura said, implying that there is more to the expression of calligraphy and writing in general than the written words alone. 

Completing the exhibition are two several hundred year old artefacts and a beautifully animated projection depicting several styles of Arabic script, loaned from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Prince Amyn Aga Khan, noted supporter of Islamic art and younger brother of the current Imam of Nizari Ismailism, The Aga Khan IV, opened the exhibition on May 11 to hundreds of eager visitors.

Expressing his desire for continuing collaboration, he noted his hope that the Aga Khan Museum and the Museum of Anthropology can together “bring to students and the general public unique insights [and] new perspectives on the dialogue of cultures that have since all time characterized different peoples.” This dialogue, he notes, is “silent, musical, literary, [and] what binds us all together in a common cultural heritage” much like the interconnected writing systems of the world themselves. 

Overall, Traces of Words gives an excellent sense of the diversity of written expressions from the world’s largest and most populated continent. From ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary Japan, from porcelain to projectors, this exhibition is sure to remain etched in memories of its visitors.

Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy From Asia is open until October 9. A satellite exhibition on the main floor of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is on display until May 31. Visit the Museum of Anthropology website for tour times and Japanese, Persian, and Tibetan calligraphy workshops. The museum is free for UBC students, staff, and faculty to visit.