Category Archives: Exhibition Openings

Openings, Endings, and Updates for October 2011

Perhaps in accordance with the end of spring and the ushering in of the fall, there are quite a few more endings in October than there are openings. Visit what you can before they are gone, and let me know what you think if you make it out. Despite all the closings, October is also full of a number of special events – including lectures, book signings, and performances – so it should be a busy month indeed if you plan on seeing it all!

 Openings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: While technically opening in September and not October, I must have missed this exhibit beginning this Wednesday called “Wonder of the Age”: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900 (September 28, 2011 – January 8, 2012). Accompanied by a catalogue co-written by John Guy and Jorrit Britschgi, this major loan exhibition will feature “some 220 works selected according to identifiable hands and named artists…dispel[ling] the notion of anonymity in Indian art.” For more information on this beautiful collection, see: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/wonder-of-the-age–master-painters-of-india-11001900. May I also take this opportunity to note that the new design of the Met’s website is beautifully intuitive and comprehensive – they really did an amazing job!

 Rubin Museum of Art: Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits of Tibet (October 21, 2011 – March 5, 2012) opens towards the end of October, presenting portraits of founding masters and important teachers within the Buddhist traditions, primarily in the India-inspired Sharri style of painting. It is the first in a series of exhibitions exploring particular Tibetan painting styles, and according to the official website, “will clarify some of the confusion and correct misidentifications previously posited by Western scholars.” The exhibit is accompanied by a full-color catalog by its curator, David Jackson, who will also hold a special members-only key talk and preview the night before its opening, Thursday, October 20th at 6 pm. For more information on this new and potentially enlightening display, take a look at its official announcement: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1309.

 Endings

Asia Society Museum: The extraordinary exhibition, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, ends Sunday, October 30. If you have not already seen the contents of this much-anticipated collection of early Buddhist artifacts, I urge you to make it out to the Museum before it is gone. A lot of work was put into getting these pieces to America from their home institutions, and it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to see them. Be sure to read my brief review of the exhibit and its accompanying lecture by Christian Luczanits if you haven’t already (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/buddhas-and-bodhisattvas-from-pakistan-to-new-york/), and for more information, see its official website (http://asiasociety.org/arts/asia-society-museum/current-exhibitions/buddhist-heritage-pakistan-art-gandhara).

 Brooklyn Museum: Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior (June 24, 2011 – October 2, 2011) ends as soon as next week. Proclaimed as the first major museum exhibit to feature this deity, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Indian art and religious practice (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/vishnu/).

The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art: The current exhibit, Artist Tashi Dhargyal and the Menris Tradition of Thangka Art, ends on October 9, 2011. Sadly, no further information is provided regarding this display and its contents on the Museum’s official website: http://www.tibetanmuseum.org/calendar.htm.

Newark Museum: While part of the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions, the small but particularly beautiful display, Pots of Silver and Gold (March 5, 2011 – October 30, 2011), will be removed at the end of October. While not grand enough to make a special trip, if you planned on making a visit to the Newark Museum this coming month, be sure to take a peek! See the first segment of my entry on the Centennial Exhibitions for more information (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/celebrating-a-century-part-one/), as well as the official description on their context and fabrication (http://www.newarkmuseum.org/potssilvergold.html).

Rubin Museum of Art: The exhibition Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, having opened in July 1st of this year, will be closing on Monday, October 24, 2011. For more information on this cross-cultural exhibit, see the official website and press release here: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1061.

 One-Time Events

 American Museum of Natural History: While not at all related to anything particularly pertaining to Asian art, artifacts, or traditions, I had to mention the 16th Annual Halloween Celebration at AMNH, where (for $10 for non-members and $9 for members) children can trick-or-treat in costume, participate in arts and crafts, and carve pumpkins throughout the halls of this inspirational and historic Museum. The event takes place on Halloween itself (October 31, 2011) from 4 pm to 7 pm. For more information, see: http://www.amnh.org/calendar/event/16th-Annual-Halloween-Celebration/

 Rubin Museum of Art: As always, the Rubin Museum of Art is hosting a number of exciting events next month for a variety of audiences (including a number of live musical performances), and I will only mention a small sampling –check out the website’s official calendar for more events than these:

This coming Friday and Saturday evenings the Museum will be featuring Public Rehearsals of The Vimalakirti Sutra with Peter Sellars, Kate Valk, & Michael Schumacher at 7 pm. This work-in-progress is meant to accompany the newly-opened exhibition Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012). Tickets are $25 for non-members, $22.50 for members (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1318).

Additionally, on Wednesday, October 12, author Dana Micucci will be holding a Reading and Signing of her new travel memoir, Sojourns of the Soul: One Woman’s Journey around the World and into Her Truth, at 6 pm (http://www.rma2.org/events/load/1386), followed by the New York Film Premiere of the documentary Light of the Valley: The 15th Renovation of Swayambhu at 7pm (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1359).

The weekend of October 21-23 promises a three-day Traditional Thankga Painting Workshop with Carmen Mensink. Registration is required and all materials are included for $175 for non-members, $150 for members. Sign-up soon if you are interested, as spaces for these workshops often fill up fast (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1393).

The last event I will mention is the one I am most excited to see. Andrew Quintman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, will be leading a discussion along with several other professors and professional authors entitled From Urdu Epic and Tibetan Sorcerers to Today: Fantasy in Tibetan and World Literature. Dr. Quintman specializes in the Buddhist traditions of Tibet and the Himalayas, and he currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 26 at 7 pm and costs $12 for non-members, $10.80 for members. Tickets also include a 6:15 pm tour of Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012) (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1385).

The Tibet House: On Thursday, October 6 at 7 pm, the Tibet House will be hosting a Book Launch and Signing for Yangzom Brauen’s new book, Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom. This emotional memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of Tibetan women, covering almost one hundred years of Tibetan history and looks to be a moving and inspirational read. Admission to this event is free for all (http://www.tibethouse.us/programs/view/581693/4).

Tashi Delek!

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Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from Pakistan to New York

I’ve never had much experience driving in cities.  I didn’t own my own car when I lived in Philadelphia while studying for my undergraduate degree, and despite being the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, where I went to graduate school, isn’t really a major metropolitan area. I’m certainly not a bad driver – I’ve driven hundreds of miles up and down the east coast with no difficulty and my driving record is nearly spotless – but I feel nervous thinking about driving into unfamiliar places with heavy traffic. I think I get this from my parents – like me, my mother just hasn’t had the experience, while my father has just never liked congestion or cities very much. This being said, when I realized driving into NYC to see Christian Luczanits’ lecture at the Asia Society Museum was far faster and less complicated than taking public transit from my new apartment, I knew this was going to be a somewhat nerve-wracking, albeit enlightening, experience. While Gandharan art is not my usual focus, I was particularly interested in hearing Dr. Luczanits’ presentation not only because I know very little on the subject, but because he is a scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies as well as the current curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. I have often credited the Rubin Museum as my first encounter with Himalayan art and the reason I began to study Buddhism, so anyone or anything related to the institution holds an instant interest for me. A lot of work went into bringing this Exhibition to the United States, so it would be rather ridiculous to let a little fear of the unknown stop me from seeing it. Encouraged by my boyfriend, I set out for what Google Maps plotted as a half an hour drive at four in the afternoon, planning to arrive at the Asia Society Museum by five-thirty, when the Gandharan Buddhist galleries, normally closed on Mondays, would open for event ticket holders. I should have realized, it being September 12 and all, that there would be more than an hour’s worth of congestion going to and from the city, but I hadn’t counted on half the Lincoln Tunnel being closed off to through traffic.  Needless to say, by the time I finally made my way to the Museum it was already after six, and the lecture itself started at six-thirty. Having no time to search for street parking, I found an outrageously priced parking garage (with an incredibly kind attendant at least), and marched myself into the Museum, got my reserved ticket, and was grateful I at least had ten minutes to take a look at the critically acclaimed and much anticipated ancient Pakistani art before Dr. Luczanits spoke on the subject. Regretfully, this means that I do not have a fully comprehensive analysis of the pieces to present to you, but I can say without a doubt that the exhibit is made up of exquisitely detailed pieces accompanied by well-thought out and comprehensive written descriptions. There are, as always, a few pieces that stood out in particular.

The Exhibition: The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara

The Exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Classical Connections, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and Narratives and Architectural Context. In the first section, to quote the accompanying materials, “Gandharan art is exhibited alongside select works from India and the Roman world to highlight the stylistic and iconographic links and distinctions between these cultures.” In a number of examples, Gandharan deities are depicted in dress that is distinctly Eastern or Western in appearance. In other cases, such as the examples of Corinthian-style columns, Classical Western motifs are seamlessly melded with Buddhist imagery, as in the image below.

Figure capital with Seated Buddha, 2nd–3rd century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

The second section showcases numerous representations of enlightened beings from within the Buddhist pantheon. The Buddha himself is represented both abstractly, as in the second/third century C.E. schist Footprint of the Buddha, or anthropomorphically, alone or surrounded by an entourage. Images of other bodhisattvas, most prominently Maitreya, also feature in this section. These images drastically differ from those of Shakyamuni Buddha, maintaining intricately-carved long curling locks and distinctly masculine features.

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya, 3rd–4th century CE, Shist (Lahore Museum)

The stupa features as an important monument and architectural feature throughout the ancient Buddhist world and this is no different in Gandharan art. While Indian stupas were often encircled by a “fence” containing images of the historical Buddha’s past lives as told in the Jataka tales, Gandharan stupas super-imposed narrative images upon the monuments themselves, and typically told the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s life in great detail instead. Examples of these narrative images fill the last section of the exhibit, and once again demonstrate a blending of religious cultures in their portrayal of classic Buddhist scenes.

Having toured the exhibit, spending less time reading about the images as I would have liked, I descended the stairs in time to take a seat for the lecture to follow.

Changing Conceptions: Gandharan Art and Buddhism:

A Lecture with Dr. Christian Luczanits

After a gracious introduction by the Asia Society Museum’s John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Adrian Prosser, Christian Luczanits took the stage to present on the changing conceptions of the Buddha from a mortal man based in history to one of many supramundane beings in Gandharan art and how this movement influenced the development of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia. Beginning with an explanation of the discovery of Gandharan Buddhist pieces as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth by British officials in Pakistan, Dr. Luczanits gave an introduction on the history of Buddhism in northern India, what is known about its move west, and the various types of images to be found and preserved in this and similar collections. In addition to familiar images of a reflective or meditative Buddha complete with hair knot, Dr. Luczanits noted three particular images of bodhisattvas, or buddhas-to-be, coming from this region: 1) a turban-wearing Siddhartha Gautama from before his enlightenment, who’s clothing and iconography epitomize the warrior kshatriya caste of India; 2) a long-haired and royally adorned brahmin bodhisattva recognized as the next Buddha to come, Maitreya; and 3) another turban-wearing bodhisattva holding a wreath, believed by some to be Avalokiteshvara.  Without paraphrasing his entire argument, Dr. Luczanits explained how the introduction of buddha-fields and multiple supramundane bodhisattvas and buddhas signified the presence of a shift in doctrinal focus within the religious practices of Gandhara to that which has become commonplace in Mahayana Buddhist teachings in East Asia. While much still remains unknown about the actual cult practices and specific doctrines followed by Buddhists in Gandhara during the first centuries of the Common Era, the presence of innovation and sophistication within the art of the area is impossible to ignore.

Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise, 4th century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

Conclusions

Having taught an introductory course on Buddhist history in which the doctrinal evolution of Buddhism played a large part, I was particularly surprised to learn that images of celestial bodhisattvas could be found as far as Pakistan even as early as these beautifully detailed images have been dated. I truly enjoyed listening to Dr. Luczanits’ speak, and it has prompted me to look further into this little-studied area of Buddhist history (as any good lecture should always do).  As to the Exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, which is the first of its kind in the United States in the last fifty years and continues to run until October 30, the selection of artifacts is astonishing. I absolutely recommend you visit before the collection is returned to its home museums abroad.

For more information on this Exhibition, please visit its detailed and informative official website (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/). You can also purchase the fully-illustrated catalogue for the collection, published through the Asia Society in association with the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, Germany, including essays by Christian Luczanits and Michael Jansen (http://asiastore.org/buddhist-heritage-of-pakistan.html).


Openings, Endings, & Updates for September 2011

My apologies, first, for being somewhat absent since my last post, and for the continued quiet that is sure to continue over the next week or so. I am currently moving into a new apartment and this has absorbed most of my time and energy this month. Nevertheless, I thought it would be prudent to begin what I hope will become a monthly feature of this blog – a summary of some of the local openings, endings, and one-time events coming up in the following month. Most of these I have already tweeted (or re-tweeted) at some point or another as they have come up, but here I will provide them for ease of viewing. Without further ado, I shall begin:

Openings

Rubin Museum of Art: The new exhibit on Himalayan narrative traditions called Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myths in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012) opens next month and is curated by Elena Pakhoutova.  For an official summary, see http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1223.

Tibet House: Tibetan Contemporary Art: Tantric Vision in Modern Self-Expression (September 14, 2011 – November 15, 2011) opens up in place of the current exhibition next month, aiming to engage the viewer with “a powerful new genre” of Tibetan artistic expression. An Opening Reception will be held September 14, 2011, 6:00 – 8:00 pm. The official announcement can be found here: http://www.tibethouse.us/art-gallery/upcoming-exhibitions.

Closings

Newark Museum: I seem to have made a mistake in the showing dates for the Special Exhibitions at the Newark Museum – while one area of the website says they are running until the end of the year, the individual announcements list different, earlier dates. That being the case, Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary ended this past weekend, as I recently tweeted. However, Pots of Silver and Gold, which contains some fine pieces of Tibetan and Mongolian craftsmanship, will continue until October 30, 2011. I apologize for my mistake. See my July entry on the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions for information on the collections (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/celebrating-a-century-part-one/).

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Porcelain for the Emperor: Chinese Ceramics of the Kangxi Reign (1662-1722) opened a year ago and ends this coming September 5, 2011.  For a full description, see: http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/553.html.

Rubin Museum of Art: Both Patterns of Life: The Art of Tibetan Carpets (April 8, 2011 – August 22, 2011) and Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi (May 13, 2011 – September 19, 2011) are ending soon, the former before the end of the month! Take a look at both before they are gone. For further information, see http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/989 and http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/955, respectively.

Tibet House: Containing photographs highlighting the life and work of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama and His People, which opened on July 5, 2011, will close on September 7, 2011.  The photos are featured in an upcoming book by Don Farber (http://www.tibethouse.us/art-gallery/current-exhibition).

One-Time Events

Asia Society: The acclaimed exhibit, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, runs until the end of the October, but the Asia Society will be holding a related lecture by Christian Luczanits, a leading scholar of Gandharan art, on Monday, September 12 at 6:30 pm. Seating is limited and tickets are available at a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 6:00 pm (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/related-events/).

Rubin Museum of Art: The New York Premiere of the new documentary, “In the Shadow of Buddha,” will be held Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $12.00 for non-members, and a post-screening discussion will be held with the filmmaker, Heather Kessinger, and Prof. Kim Gutschow, author of Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. For this and other events, see: http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1319.


Art and Avatars in Brooklyn

I just found out that the Brooklyn Museum is hosting a one-day workshop called “Mehindi, the Art of Henna” on Saturday, August 13, 2011 from 2-5 pm with practitioner Sandy Patangay. A materials fee and registration are required for participation, so if you can make it, check out the official calender of events for more information: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/calendar/event/4404 

Even if you are not able to make the workshop (like me), be sure to check out the Museum’s current exhibition of South Asian art, “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior,” which started this summer and will end on October 2, 2011. The exhibit proposes to examine Vishnu in three sections: 1) in his primary form; 2) as his numerous avatars, or manifestations, and; 3) as an object of worship and ritual practice. While I haven’t had a chance to make it out there just yet, the official website boasts a presentation of one-hundred-and-seventy Indian paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects from within the Vaishnava tradition ranging from the fourth through twentieth centuries, and those pictured on the website are quite beautiful. This definitely looks like a must-see for anyone fascinated by South Asian art and religion, and I’ll be interested in seeing how this highly popular deity is presented by the staff of the Brooklyn Museum!

For further information, see the exhibit’s official description on the Brooklyn Museum’s website (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/vishnu/) and the related blog entry by the Brooklyn Museum’s Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, Joan Cummins (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2011/08/02/the-original-avatars-an-introduction-to-vishnu%e2%80%99s-earthly-manifestations/).


Politics, Drama, & Pakistani Buddhist Art

Asia Society’s Gandharan Buddhist Art Exhibition originally slated to open in March finally re-scheduled to open on August 9! Jane Perlez describes the drama in her New York Times article, and talks about the importance of the collection and the problems that arose due to the breakdown in American-Pakistani relations in recent months.

“The early August opening of the show was guaranteed only when two planes loaded with the precious cargo, one from Lahore, the other from Karachi, landed in New York last week. The chances that Americans can go to Pakistan to see Gandhara art — either in the museums or at open-air archaeological sites around Peshawarc, the northwest city where the civilization was centered — are very slim, Ms. Chiu said, making her feel all the luckier to have gotten the works here for the show’s three-month run.” – Perlez

Read her whole article for yourself here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/arts/design/asia-society-show-on-buddhist-art-from-pakistan-is-to-open.html?_r=1&ref=arts

Update: The Asia Society has posted their official announcement for the opening of the exhibit, entitled “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara.” The collection will be shown from August 9, 2011 – October 30, 2011 and will feature pieces ranging from the first century B.C.E. through the fifth century C.E.  For more information see: http://asiasociety.org/arts/asia-society-museum/future-exhibitions/buddhist-heritage-pakistan-art-gandhara


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. 


Celebrating a Century – Part One

As I mentioned in my first entry, this last Wednesday (July 20, 2011) I was finally able to make a trip over to the Newark Museum to see the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions that have been on display since March. Due to the number of exhibitions I visited and for ease of  reading, I will break this visit into two posts rather than one long one, starting  with the featured exhibits on the Main Floor in the first part, and ascending to the ongoing Tibetan exhibits on the third floor of the North Wing in the second.

As some background, in celebration of the Centennial marking one hundred years since the Newark Museum’s Tibetan Collection began in 1911, a number of events have taken place beginning with a Losar (Lo gsar), or Tibetan New Year celebration, and the opening of a temporary exhibit – Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary – on Saturday, March 5, 2011. This has been followed by a number of Tibetan-themed events, including a Tibetan Bazaar, the painting of a sand mandala, a lecture series, and even a visit from His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (1935 – Present), who served as the keynote speaker at the Newark Peace Education Summit  (May 13-15, 2011). While in Newark, His Holiness also re-consecrated the permanently installed Tibetan Buddhist Altar situated on the third floor of the North Wing of the Museum. Quite disappointingly, I was not able to attend any of these events personally, but instead could only follow them vicariously as they coincided precisely with the period of time in which I was preparing to and actually moving from my apartment in Florida back to my home in New Jersey. As such, while programs and classes continue for the rest of the year, I missed the primary celebrations. Nevertheless, I knew had to visit the Museum as soon as I was able, as the Centennial as a whole prompted a number of new exhibits as well as some reorganization of the permanent Tibetan exhibitions. I’d been the Museum during the early spring of 2010, and I was excited to see how the Museum staff could have improved on what I already found to be an astonishing presentation. Having perused the website, I knew I had at least eight exhibits to see specifically related to the Centennial. So, with a friend in tow who knew her way around museums but not much about the Himalayas in particular (and who was nice enough to put up with my one-tracked mind, occasionally faulty memory, and consistent spouting of facts and opinions), I was finally able to visit for myself.

Featured Exhibits

 I. Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary

This featured exhibit of the collection is installed on the first floor of the Main Building in a side room to your right if you are standing with your back to the Garden Entrance. It consists of a set of fifteen narrative thangkas (thang ka) displaying the complete hagiography of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism (this is also the sect to which His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, belongs). The walls are painted a beautiful shade of maroon that directly compliments the royal blue embroidered silk framing the images hung upon them, and causes the room to sit in stark contrast to the white-washed walls of the rest of the Engelhard Court area. A thangka, for those unacquainted, is a particular kind of Tibetan icon consisting of a painting or an embroidery mounted on a colorful, often multi-layered rectangle of various textiles (usually embroidered silk). It hangs from wooden road, and is draped with silk covers and banners. While thangkas are most commonly seen as depicting a particular deity or saint as the central figure, they can also be used to show other things, such as visual representations of teachings (like thangkas of the Wheel of Life), groups of figures, and other religious ideas. This set was part of the 1911 founding collection around which the celebrations are revolving, and their conservation by the museums took place over a nine-month period (The Newark Museum describes this conservation in detail on their website: http://www.newarkmuseum.org/conservationoverview.html).

What was probably my favorite part of this exhibit was the way in which it was complimented with informational materials.  Tucked unobtrusively in two places along the walls between the images were plexiglass bins holding laminated placards for each of the individually numbered thangkas.  On one side, a copy of the image is broken down into its individual parts and scenes, while on the other, each scene is described in a cohesive narrative form. There was even one bound book of the placards that you could take from image to image, that, if starting from one and working to fifteen, allows you to read an entire hagiography of revered teacher. It really made looking at each image far more engaging, and we spent quite a lot of time going from one to the other looking up individual scenes or characters that jumped out to us as interesting or unique.

II. Tibetan Photography Collection

Displayed on the walls outside of the room containing the Tsongkhapa exhibit is a small but fascinating collection of photos said to have been taken between 1905 and 1949. Not listed on the website or in the Museum brochures, it was something of a nice surprise. The black and white images consist mostly of portraits of Tibetan people (described as Nobles & Nomads in scrolling text on the wall) in various styles of traditional garb and adornments, but also show several scenes of everyday life prior to Tibet’s  incorporation into the People’s Republic of China. Not much accompanies the photos in terms of identifiers (perhaps due to their age and a lack of recordation on the photographers’ parts), but they are beautiful nonetheless.

III. Pots of Silver and Gold 

Along the corridor that connects the Main Building of the Museum to the North Wing (the half of the complex which conveniently houses the Asian Art exhibits) is another newly installed display of Tibetan and Mongolian artifacts from what appears to be the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Tucked behind the glass are a gorgeous collection of tea pots, pitchers, cups and similar items made from various materials and decorated with intricate flourishes in silver and gold, such as motifs of lotuses, the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, and, most strikingly, dragon and makara-headed spouts and handles. This small collection spoke to both the tea lover in me and my own personal fascination with intricately crafted everyday items, not to mention my
interest in anything with a spirit-deity or animal-like creature involved.  I particularly liked that, along with a description of the items, the Museum provided some background into the traditional diet associated with these pieces, giving a brief description of home-made barley beer (chang), butter tea (bod ja), and tsampa (a type of dough ball eaten raw), among others. This was a nice touch regarding Tibetan and Mongolian food culture that those uninitiated might find interesting (For more information on this exhibit, see: http://www.newarkmuseum.org/potssilvergold.html).

Both of these Featured Exhibits on the Main Floor (and I imagine the photography exhibit as well) will continue to be on display through December 31, 2011, and if you are in the area I strongly suggest you go take a look for yourself before they end.

In my next entry, I will continue with a discussion of the ongoing Tibetan exhibits on the Third Floor, which consist of the permanent children’s exhibit and the Tibetan Buddhist Altar, the recently revamped Chapel of the Masters, Chapel of the Fierce Protectors, and From the Sacred Realm: Paradises and Pure Lands, as well as the newly installed ABC’s of Iconography: The Body, Speech and Mind of Buddhist Art, Tiaras to Toe Rings: Asian Ornaments, and Red Luster: Lacquer & Leatherworks of Asia.

Tashi delek!

—-

On a side note:

A team of scientists led by the Museum’s Provost of Science Mike Novacek and the Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell have headed to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert to examine a particularly rich fossil bed that has produced hundreds of animal fossils from the Cretaceous period. You can follow their expedition as team member and Museum researcher Jonah Choiniere shares updates to be tweeted by @AMNH with the hashtag #GobiExpedition (http://www.amnh.org/news).