After Harrowing Rescue, Timbuktu Manuscripts to Go on View in Brussels by Rebecca Rothfeld on December 18, 2014

Sixteen original 15th and 16th century Malian manuscripts will go on display Friday at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, The Art Newspaper reported. The exhibition, titled Timbuktu Renaissance, has an exceptional backstory: the precious manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu in the wake of the city’s 2012 takeover at the hands of Islamist rebels.

When the insurgents threatened to destroy libraries and other cultural artifacts they regarded as sacrilegious, Timbuktu Renaissance curator Abdel Kader Haidara organized a clandestine effort to convey Timbuktu’s wealth of historical documents to the Malian capitol of Bamako. Local families helped Haidara export over 350,000 manuscripts, sneaking the contraband out of Timbuktu in vegetable wagons and canoes.

The personal risk to Haidara and his helpers was great. Timbuktu’s extremist regime often favored violent punishment, chopping off the hands of thieves as a warning to other would-be transgressors. Haidara’s nephew, a 25-year-old curator named Touré, narrowly escaped such brutal punishments when the police force caught him with a trunk of manuscripts. Haidara, a refugee in Bamako at the time, orchestrated Touré’s escape from afar. Haidra’s contacts in Timbuktu attested that Touré was a curator with a right to move the manuscripts, and the young man was released. This was not the only such incident — curators and librarians were often stopped and searched by extremist police officers, and once a boat full of books on the Niger River was held hostage by bandits, according to National Geographic.

But Haidara prevailed, and he was rewarded for his efforts with the 2014 Germany Africa Prize. His collection attests to Mali’s rich intellectual history: Timbuktu Renaissance, organized with help from the Ministry of Culture in Mali and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, highlights the nation’s scientific, political, and legal achievements. Western scholars often ignore sub-Saharan Africa’s intellectual legacy, believing it takes no written form — but the manuscripts to be displayed in the exhibition, and the rest of the collection preserved by Haidara, are a testament to the continent’s written heritage.

Timbuktu Renaissance will be on view at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (Rue Ravenstein 23, Brussels, Belgium) December 19–February 22, 2015.

Tagged as: Mali, Malian manuscripts, Timbuktu


A Lost Purple Pigment, Where Quantum Physics and the Terracotta Warriors Collide by Allison Meier on December 17, 2014

The connection between contemporary quantum physics and China’s ancient Terracotta Warriors is a lost pigment called Han purple. The vibrant hue appeared in the Zhou dynasty and faded out sometime near 220 AD; art didn’t see a purple as vivid until 19th-century manufacturing.

Han purple has strange properties, particularly at low temperature points. Back in 2006, researchers at Stanford, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Institute for Solid State Physics described this phenomenon as a “Flatland.” When exposed to extremely low temperatures, magnetic waves going through the pigment lose their third dimension. Recently Esther Inglis-Arkell at io9 returned to this research, explaining:

At higher temperatures, it propagates like a regular wave, traveling in three dimensions. Get under one degree Kelvin, and it no longer has a vertical component. It propagates in two dimensions only.

This fluctuating state of matter, likely caused by the pigment’s diversely layered barium copper silicate structure, isn’t seen often. We’ve examined obsolete pigments at Hyperallergic before, whether a brown made of actual mummies or poisonous arsenic greens. Han purple is one of the first known synthetic pigments, and its rarity made it a powerful color.

This is where the Terracotta Warriors come in, as the Qin dynasty funerary army retains traces of the color (although its hues largely oxidized after exhumation). Some have speculated that the purple came via the Silk Road, with information from Egypt and its famous blue traveling the distance; however, at Symmetry, a particle physics online magazine, Lori Ann White writes: “Researchers discovered that Chinese pigment-makers used lead to lower the melting point of the barium in Han Purple, a step not taken in the production of Egyptian Blue.” She goes on to say that glass makers “in ancient China may have stumbled on Han Purple while trying to develop a jade-like glass, a process that also involved lead.”

The peculiar Han purple, sourced from a byproduct and with its two-dimensional properties, may also have a brand new technological purpose: some scientists are looking to the research on it to help inform the process of building quantum computers.

Tagged as: art and science, art history, China, Terracotta Warriors


The Terracotta Warriors in China (photo by Kevin Poh/Flickr)
The Terracotta Warriors in China (photo by Kevin Poh/Flickr)