Celebrating a Century – Part Two

On Saturday, I wrote about the Featured Exhibits on the Newark Museum’s Main Floor, which are currently being presented as part of the Tibetan Collection Centennial Celebrations until the end of December. Today, without any further ado, I present my account of the Ongoing Exhibits to be found past the breezeway currently displaying the Tibetan and Mongolian Pots of Silver and Gold and on the Third Floor of the North Wing of the Museum. Aside from the new exhibits on the floor, a number of the old exhibits have been revamped or their items reorganized, so there is still a lot to see even for those already familiar with the Museum’s collection.

The Contents of the Third Floor

The North Wing is home to all of the Ongoing Exhibits for the Asian Art
collections. The galleries for the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese Art exhibits surround the Atrium, while the Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Tibetan galleries extend along the large extension of the Wing in that order. For this trip, due to time and purpose, I was forced to skip the East Asian galleries and restrict my visit to those South Asian and Tibetan galleries, which more than filled up our day. While it would be utterly impossible (and probably rather tedious in this format) for me to describe all the magnificent items on display, I will try to at least provide some impressions of the exhibits as a whole, looking particularly at their cohesiveness, their successes, and a handful of specific items that stood out, at least to me, as especially impressive.

Ongoing Exhibits

I. Southeast and South Asian Art Galleries

Past the beautifully rendered centerpiece stone statue of Shiva’s mount Nanda and numerous detailed bronzes of the goddess Durga, one finds the Ongoing Exhibit called Influences of the Indic World: India and Nepal.  While I will not dwell on the pieces here, there are two Nepalese statues that I will mention not only because they relate to my personal research, but because they stand out to me for very different reasons – one due to its complexity, the other due to its simplicity. The first is an intricate sixteenth-century statue of the Tantric Buddha Samvara embracing his consort Vajravarahi. For those unfamiliar with Tantric Buddhism, it is a term even the greatest of scholars have difficulty defining. Suffice to say, ‘Tantra’ is used to designate a particular matrix of ritual practices and religious ideas that can be traced at least to early eighth century India. The term can be applied to a number of religions that call upon this heritage, including the sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Returning to the statue, it is rather tall and made of a copper alloy with detail work in gold and semi-precious stones, and the smaller Vajravarahi (a female Buddha in her own right) is a separately created piece that interlocks fluidly with the larger, multi-headed and multi-armed figure of Samvara. Vajravarahi holds her own ritual implements of the vajra-handled chopper, or crescent-shaped flaying knife (Tib. gri gug / Skt. kartri), and skull bowl (Tib. thod pa / Skt. kapala) in her hands, while each of Samvara’s hands are equipped with different accoutrements and weapons, including what is obviously the skin of an elephant spread out like a cape behind his back. The second statue, dating to the fourteenth century, is much smaller and again depicts the Buddha Vajravarahi. This time she appears alone in what is appropriately called the ‘dancer’s pose’ (ardhaparyankasana), in which the figure’s weight is supported by the toes of the left leg bent at the knee, while the right foot is drawn up close to the left thigh. The name of the pose itself is certainly appropriate, as my friend, before I said anything about the statue’s iconography, commented that it looked like she might be dancing. She carries the skull bowl as most Tantric Buddhist deities do in one hand, and in the other, rather than the chopper, she carries a simple vajra. What is unique about this piece is that, despite the fact that she appears to be missing what would have been a complete set of separately-made adornments and jewelry that would have covered her body, she as incredibly well-rendered and correct anatomy, giving her naked form a very realistic and feminine appearance. While both pieces are undoubtedly extraordinary, I have to admit that their particular interest to me betrays my own personal bias, as these deities, and Vajaravarahi specifically, featured prominently in the background research for my M.A. Thesis (about which I may at some point write an entry). Nevertheless, both pieces are extraordinary in their artisans’ attention to detail.

II. Chapel of the Masters & Chapel of Fierce Protectors

Travelling past the South Asian gallery, one finds that the exhibits of the Tibetan Collection fill the remaining hall and the six or so rooms that branch from it.  The Chapel of the Masters and the Chapel of Fierce Protectors, mirroring the functions of similar small buildings or rooms in the construction of Tibetan Buddhist temples, flank the consecrated Tibetan Buddhist Altar on either side. While the Chapel of the Masters (the first room on the right) appears mostly unchanged from my visit a year ago, the Chapel of Fierce Protectors on the other side of the altar has been reinstalled to better display these types of ferocious deities and their related functions in ritual practice, as well as to act as more of a counter-point to its sister chapel. The former contains some very beautiful thangkas and statues of various teachers revered by each of the sects and accurately explains the devotion to lamas in the religion. This will certainly be of interest to those who study lineage holders or who are unacquainted with these basics of the religion. Due to my own interests in subjects that I’m sure the average museum visitor would find gruesome or transgressive in nature, I was particularly drawn to the latter instead. While many deities known as Dharma Protectors (Tib. Chos kyong / Skt. Dharmapala) can  appear as passive, beatific figures, those featured in this exhibit are wrathful and ugly in appearance. Whereas it is often said that some only take on these visages as a form of skillful means (a Buddhist term that refers to an enlightened being’s particular method of teaching, in this case to frighten one out of dualistic thinking or to scare away the demons of negative thought and emotion), many fierce protectors are taught to be violent spirit-deities and demons only bound to protect the religion and its followers through strict oaths and the magical strength of powerful Buddhist adepts. Images of these wrathful deities – such as the detailed yab-yum statue of the fully-enlightened Yamantaka (Tib. Gshin rje gshed / Rdor rje ‘jigs byed) or the dark thangkas of the Geluk protectress Penden Lhamo (Dpal ldan lha mo) – fill this room alongside a variety of ritual implements and accoutrements used by practitioners to alternatively call upon their powers or keep them placated and under control. This includes a striking display of items used to create effigies for attraction and purification rituals, as well as a display of life-size implements often seen in the hands of deities, such several triangular ritual daggers  known as phurba (Tib. phur ba / Skt. kilaya), an actual alms-giving bowl made from a human skull, and a large, intricately carved chopper.  There is also a small triangular iron lock box that is used to both imprison harmful spirits and burn away negativities, which is described as rare to be found in such a collection. Furthermore, featured on the wall beside this glass display was something quite amazing – a nearly complete and wearable set of bone ornaments (rus rgyen) dating to the fifteenth century, consisting of a crown, chest piece, apron, and armlets of carved bone beads and amulets (missing only the earrings and anklets). These ornaments are often seen on depictions of fierce or tantric deities (such as Vajravarahi), and would have been worn for certain rites and ritual occasions. I could go on even longer on the astonishing finds of this gallery, but for those that are perhaps less enthused about such deities and practices, I will move on.

III. Tibetan Buddhist Altar

Between these two Chapels is situated the impressively large Tibetan Buddhist Altar, recently re-consecrated by His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, during the opening celebrations in March. His Holiness originally consecrated the altar in 1990 when he visited the site specifically for that purpose, and according to the Visitor’s Guide, the current altar has a long history, and even contains portions of a previous altar that was consecrated in 1935. The brightly painted walls, as would be expected of a typical temple, are hung with a variety of thangkas, and either side of the offering table are fitted with modular shelves, each holding a rather large individual Tibetan manuscript. These are called pechas (dpe cha), and they consist of loose-leaf pages held between two cover plates and wrapped in cloth for protection (as is currently pictured in the header image above). The cover plates of a pecha can be wood or metal, simple and flat or elaborately carved and inlaid, and today often simple cardboard or cardstock is used. The walls outside the altar display several rather large and delicately ornamented examples of these covers, and they depict scenes from the pages of the religious texts that were once held within them. The history behind the altar and its construction is fascinating, and the location is a must-see for anyone visiting the museum, particularly for children (and adults) who have had little in the way of an introduction to Tibetan or Buddhist cultures.

IV. From the Sacred Realm: Paradises and Pure Lands

Also outside the altar room is an exhibit that does not appear to have been changed much. It displays various depictions of the many peaceful deities of Himalayan Buddhism and their associated abodes, called Pure Lands or Buddha Realms. Unlike traditional heavenly realms of Buddhist cosmology, into which any individual with good enough karma could be reborn temporarily before continuing on through samsara, a Pure Land is a paradise created by a Buddha so that his (or less frequently her) followers may end their suffering and be reborn there by performing certain acts of devotion. The gallery contains numerous thangkas and statues, including images of the popular Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land Sukhavati, who has a large cult following not only in Tibet but throughout East Asia as well.

V. ABC’s of Iconography: The Body, Speech and Mind of Buddhist Art

Following the hallway further, one finds an exhibit I found not only to be creatively structured but particularly engaging as well. Recently reorganized around the traditional Buddhist categories of Body, Speech, and Mind, this informative installation attempts to explain various aspects of iconography and symbolism seen throughout the art of the collection. Speech and Mind are addressed simply but succinctly – the first through the use of mantra recitation and prayer wheels by members of all levels of Tibetan society, and the second by showcasing the stupa (Tib. chos rten), a type of multi-tiered reliquary, as a physical representation of the Buddha and the enlightened mind. The most detailed aspect of the exhibit, however, is that of the Body, which consists of two side-by-side displays that explain, through the use of labeled line drawings, laminated placards, and a game of matching using real artifacts and statues within the display case, the symbolism, facial expressions, and body language in the iconographies of peaceful and wrathful deities. While the items on display were interesting in and of themselves, the interactive, educational quality of the exhibit stood out to me as especially innovated, and I appreciate the effort put into it by its designers.

VI. Tiaras to Toe Rings, Asian Ornaments

The last two side rooms contain completely new Ongoing Exhibits introduced to the gallery. Tiaras to Toe Rings, as the title suggests, presents a variety of jewelry, decorative pieces, and even everyday accoutrements that would have adorned the bodies of Himalayan peoples from all walks of life. Items from Tibet are emphasized, such as several large examples of women’s headwear decorated in pieces of coral, turquoise, gold, and other expensive materials. The photos of women wearing these tiaras seemed almost necessary in order to understand the beautifully complicated way the pieces would have been interwoven into the long hair of their wearers. Not to be outdone by the elaborate collections of women’s accoutrements, another case featured a large collection of individually smaller (but still quite detailed)  ornaments worn by both civil officials and everyday workers, such as golden earrings, bejeweled flint and tinder boxes, and finials representing one’s rank and occupation. The exhibit also holds a huge collection of gau amulets of all sizes, each different from the next. These wearable boxes can contain rolled prayers, medicine pills, bits of soil or mandala sand, or anything else considered auspicious or sacred, and have been worn as a means of protection from negative forces for centuries. As in many cultures, the particular style of ornamentation one wears designates his or her socio-economic station and cultural affiliations, and the information provided with these pieces more than capably demonstrates this phenomenon within the Tibetan, Nepalese, and Mongolian regions.

VII. Red Luster: Lacquer & Leatherworks of Asia

The final new Ongoing Exhibit contains a striking collection that compares and contrasts the various red lacquer and faux-lacquer methods used by East Asian, Southeast Asian, and Central Asian artisans for centuries. The variety of pieces, including pens, writing desks, large chests and small boxes, display not only the popularity of this technique but the durability it lent to its objects. From water-resistant leathers to fire-resistant woods, this collection and the way in which it is displayed is aesthetically pleasing and culturally informative, following the influences of one technique throughout all of Asia and a significant portion of its history. While all its pieces are beautiful, I was of course drawn to the early fifteenth century varnished red book covers that once contained a copy of the Kanjur (Bka’ ‘gyur), the Tibetan Buddhist canon of sutras. These are made of sandalwood, lacquered with incised gold, and decorated with the eight auspicious symbols.

VIII. Tibet Information Zone

The last stop in a tour of the Tibetan galleries of the North Wing is a fully interactive alcove equipped to teach younger visitors about the culture and practices of Tibet. The wall is painted in a colorful, playful mural of rolling hills, happy yaks, and smiling Tibetan figures, and with an interesting documentary on ritual celebrations playing to the side, children can dress themselves in traditional Tibetan garments, pour imaginary butter tea, or play in the small replica of a traditional tent. There are also a pile of children’s books on the subject at hand, including an activity book produced by the Museum and Snow Lion Publications called Explore Tibet. I liked it enough that, along with several black and white postcards, I bought a copy of this book upon our obligatory visit to the Museum Shop.  While I bought it with my friends’ small child in mind, I will admit that it is adorable enough that I just may just keep it for myself.

In Summation

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my second visit to the Newark Museum’s Tibetan exhibits, and I have little in the way of criticism. I am only further impressed by the creative ways found to display the beautiful collection of artifacts. My only regret is that I was once again not able to visit any of the other areas of the Museum, but hopefully I will rectify that on a future trip. While New York City certainly has its amazing museums and impressive collections, if you are in the area and interested in Himalayan art or subject matters I highly suggest a visit. In any case, I hope that you enjoyed my account of the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions, and that you will join me on my next venture, wherever that may be. For more information on these and the other exciting exhibits and events at the Newark Museum, visit their official website at www.newarkmuseum.org.

Tashi delek!

Footnote: I am aware that I am missing the diacritics needed in the Sanskrit words and names used in the above entry – I apologize that I have not yet figured out how to provide these accurately through the WordPress program. If anyone knows how to make these work, please feel free to send me an email or leave a comment, and I would certainly appreciate the assistance. 

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About Kristen R.

Amateur home cook and preservationist with a love of event planning and a background in Tibetan Buddhist studies. View all posts by Kristen R.

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