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The Adventures of Hamza

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media preview: Tuesday, June 25, 9 a.m. — noon. Call 202.357.4880 ext. 218 to attend

This summer the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) will be home to a major exhibition of Mughal arts of the book. "The Adventures of Hamza," on view from June 26 to Sept. 29, presents 61 folios from a vividly illustrated, action-filled adventure, commissioned by the teen-age- Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) in India. Begun around 1557 and completed 15 years later, the Hamzanama (Story of Hamza) is one of the most unusual and important manuscripts made during the Mughal dynasty (1526–1858) and represents a crucial turning point in the development of Indian painting.

The Hamzanama is a popular collection of dramatic stories based loosely on the exploits of Hamza, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who traveled the world spreading the teachings of Islam. Neither historical nor doctrinal in substance, the stories were born of the tradition of Persian oral literature that entertained audiences around nomadic campfires and in urban coffee houses with elaborate tales of fantastic derring-do. The huge paintings that together compose Akbar's Hamzanama were apparently held up to illustrate dramatic oral presentations by court storytellers. The stories describe heroes bravely confronting a host of formidable and menacing giants, sorcerers, demons and dragons, while other characters were depicted using more guile than force to rescue princes or maneuver their hapless foes into comical predicaments. Painted on cotton, the manuscript originally contained 1,400 roughly 2-foot-high unbound illustrations and accompanying text.

The Mughal Empire was founded in northern India in 1526 by Babur (r. 1526–1530), a descendant of Timur (ca. 1370–1405), the Turko-Mongol conqueror of Iran. After a temporary exile in Iran, Babur's son Humayun, (r. 1530–1540, 1555–1556) returned to India, bringing several leading Persian artists, including Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdul-Samad, each of whom at one time directed the large workshop of Persian-born and Indian-bred artists who created Akbar's Hamzanama. Mughal manuscript painting flourished during this period, developing a distinct style in which artists integrated the dynamism and boldness of Indian painting tradition with the fine draftsmanship and meticulous application of color characteristic of 16th-century Persian manuscripts.

During subsequent centuries of plunder and neglect, Akbar's Hamzanama became so widely scattered that some of the paintings were found during the late 19th century covering windows of a tea house in Kashmir while one was more recently discovered in a garage in Maine. Fortunately, about 200 folios are known to have survived. This exhibition for the first time brings together some of the finest paintings of the Hamzanama drawn from more than 20 collections throughout the world. These include a core group of 28 paintings from the MAK-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna, the principal lender to the exhibition, whose superb holdings have never been exhibited in the United States.

This exhibition is made possible by generous grants from Juliet and Lee Folger/The Folger Fund and The Starr Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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