Silk Road Conversations with Petya Andreeva (Art Historian)

Silk Road Interviews are inspired by Silk Road Week, an annual event conceived by Chinese Museums Association, International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), and China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The theme for #SilkRoadWeek 2020 is “The Silk Roads: Mutual Learning for Future Collaboration.” We thank IN ZHEJIANG, our media partner in China (on Facebook).

Name : Petya Andreeva | Country : United States (active), Bulgaria (native) | Years Active : 3, Since 2019, Assistant Professor of Asian Art and Design History at Parsons School of Design in New York City | Website : The New School (Parson)  

Music Video inspired by the The Story of the Weeping Camel (Mongolian: Ингэн нулимс, Ingen nulims, Tears of the Camel) directed and written by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. The German-Mongolian docudrama was Mongolia’s submission for the 2004 Academy Award Best Foreign Film category.

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?

I am an art historian studying ornament in ancient China and Central Eurasia. I study mobility and its implications for art production and circulation in the interconnected ancient world. During seasonal migrations and forced re-settlements, humans have continuously come across new ecosystems, brimming with unfamiliar flora and fauna. I research the ways in which early Eurasian nomads visualized, re-enacted or embellished their shifting natural environs (particularly animal species) through their personal adornments such as belt buckles, plaques, torques, headdresses, horse trappings. I am equally fascinated by the concept of “portable luxury”, the transport of precious goods on one’s body, horse or camel-back, and their subsequent display in one’s final resting place. Such shifts in natural and constructed environments always change the meanings of these objects and mark the biographies of their owners in more ways than we realize.  

Q – What inspired you to become an art historian?

I came to the United States with the intention of pursuing a BA in Political Science, but during my first year at Colby College, I discovered the benefits of being immersed in a liberal arts curriculum. I took a course in Asian art as a core requirement and thus felt incredibly inspired and motivated to continue my education in East Asian Studies and Art History, largely under the guidance of my Asian art professor Dr. Weitz and the rest of the East Asia department. Stimulated by my teachers‘support, by junior year, I already knew that I wished to give the same level of support to other students in the future, hence my aspiration to have a career in higher education.

Q – Why did you choose this particular field (of research)?

I now consider my research highly interdisciplinary and trans-regional but this was not always the case. At the start of my doctoral journey, I wanted to focus on a narrow research area and take a more traditional research path, one closely aligned with the academic canon. Under the incredible guidance of my advisor Dr. Nancy Steinhardt, I decided to broaden my interests and discovered the immense potential of Central Eurasian studies. Now I work mostly on the prehistory of the Silk Routes, a period marked by the intense commercial and cultural activities across the Eurasian steppe belt. I choose to focus on the material and visual cultures of non-sedentary communities, as I find that pastoral nomads have continuously lived on the “outskirts” of art-historical scholarship, rarely placed at the center of scholarly inquiries and historiographies. Challenging and revisiting the canon is an integral step in decolonizing art-historical scholarship, curriculum and curatorial practices, and I have thus joined recent efforts to place overlooked-communities and marginalized histories in the art-history textbooks. I find this period and subject particularly crucial, as the Eurasian steppe routes and nomadic peoples served as a catalyst of major formative processes developing along the Silk Routes.

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

This is a hard choice, but I would have to go with the gold treasures found in modern-day Kazakhstan, particularly the “Golden Man” of Issyk. This refers to a burial of an Iron-Age nomadic chieftain, whose body was found covered in 400 golden plaques of superb design and craftsmanship. A close contender would be a gold headdress topped by a turquoise bird excavated from Aluchaideng in modern-day Inner Mongolia.

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

It must have been during my freshman-year Asian art survey course. I have always had a “love-hate” relationship with the term. Coined by a German explorer in the 19th century, this recent term carries colonial undertones, which in turn bring about a multitude of methodological problems. Pre-modern Eurasian societies never attached a particular name to this complex network of maritime and terrestrial routes, which are better served by a plural noun (routes or roads vs. road). I do find, however, that in some contexts, the already widely-familiar term “Silk Road” retains a certain degree of usefulness, as it does the main job of indicating the extremely inter-connected nature of the ancient world to a wider audience which may already be familiar with the silk trade. It should be noted that silk was only one of the many crucial items circulated across those routes.

Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?

I find nothing to be as soul-soothing as a trip in the Gobi Desert. Additionally, my research trips to Dunhuang, Turfan, Urumqi, and Xi’an in China and several sites in Kazakhstan and Mongolia were particularly unforgettable.

Golden Man (Zolotoy Chelovek), National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, 5th -3rd c BCE
Samarqand, Uzbekistan, courtesy Uzbekistan Travel

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?

I am greatly looking forward to visiting Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. In the future, I hope to become more familiar with the Southern Silk Route and visit ancient sites in South Asia.  

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study?

I would love to study Persian in the future.

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

My biggest yet most enjoyable challenge has always been making the (global) ancient world relevant and interesting to undergraduate students, particularly those who take my classes as part of the curriculum requirements. I am a professor at Parsons School of Design, and so the majority of my students are designers, architects and artists. I try my best to translate my historical research into tools which they would find beneficial and stimulating in their own work. I think it is a myth that students always gravitate toward “modern” and “contemporary” art and culture. My recent experience has shown that this is in fact no longer the case, particularly in the field of art history and artistic research. There is a tangible “hunger” for the long bygone, and there is a real need to view globalization in a larger historical framework, particularly in light of the challenges our world is facing at present. More and more students realize this and show intellectual curiosity toward ancient studies and non-Western art.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

Being able to do fieldwork in every single city within the Afro-Eurasian Routes (alas impossible in one lifetime).

Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?

Peter the Great. His fascination with nomadic art and Russia’s southern periphery sparked major excavations of nomadic art. His famed Siberian collection of nomadic treasures is now housed in the Gold Room of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, one of my favorite museums and a must-see for anybody interested in the art of the Silk Routes.

Nomads’ Gold. On the “Siberian Collection” of Peter I, courtesy SCFH (Science First Hand)

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

The Story of the Weeping Camel.

Q – What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?

I am very fond of Tuvan throat-singing and other musical traditions of the diverse communities in South Siberia.

Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?

My research is highly dependent on fieldwork in Central Eurasia. I look forward to a time when I can resume my travels safely. So far, remote teaching has presented me with the challenge of disseminating my highly-visual materials and resources, via a tiny computer screen, and simultaneously retain their integrity and usefulness to students. At these unprecedented times, unlimited access to Silk Road initiatives and online resources is invaluable, and I hope more and more cultural institutions will make their materials accessible. During the pandemic, I worked on my upcoming book on images of fantastic fauna transmitted along the Eurasian steppe; as I finish this project, I plan to move toward exploring alternative trade routes, particularly the Black Sea trade network which became increasingly significant toward the end of the Mongol empire.  

Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?

The Ikat and other textile patterning techniques employed in the making of Central Asian textiles have their pre-modern antecedents. Felt textiles, particularly shyrdak carpets produced by Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities, also have a long history traceable across the Silk Roads. Interestingly, many of the deer-like patterns found on such textiles echo the patterns of Iron-Age felt textiles found in nomadic tombs in Central and North Asia.