Category Archives: First-Hand Accounts

Impressive Collections, Inspiring Speakers

As I’ve previously mentioned here and through my Twitter account, this past weekend the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the Third Annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium: Exhibiting India’s Art in the 21st Century (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011), a three-day event focusing on, as the title suggests, South Asian and Himalayan collections and the work that goes into presenting their contents to a museum audience. While I was only fortunate enough to be present for Saturday’s lecture series, the event began on Friday with an introduction by Director Timothy Rub and the University of Pennsylvania’s W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies, Michael W. Meister, and a tour of the collections with the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Darielle Mason. This evening conveniently coincided with the Museum’s weekly Art After Five event, which I am told was South Asian-themed for the occasion. The Symposium continued with a five-lecture series and a dinner for weekend ticket holders on Saturday, and roundtable working sessions and a closing public talk by Yael Rice, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, on Sunday. Not only an informative intellectual endeavor, Dr. Meister and Dr. Mason hoped to use this opportunity to generate and debate new ideas to put into practice during the impending reinterpretation and reinstallation of the Museum’s acclaimed permanent South Asian galleries, which I’m sure will be an exciting and daunting endeavor for all involved.

Returning to this past Saturday, this was far from my first visit to the PMA or its famous South Asian Pillared Temple Hall. I lived in Philly for four years while studying for my undergraduate degree from Temple University and in that time I often visited museums throughout the city – especially on the annual Museum Day, when a poor college student could get in for free. Despite the years that have passed since that time, I instantly found myself feeling at home upon entering the Museum. I’d forgotten how many hours I’d spent there, particularly in the Asian and Medieval European galleries, gazing at the myriad of icons and artifacts of Buddhism, Tantra, and early Christianity (the three areas upon which my early studies in religion had focused on). Climbing the stairs of the Great Hall, I was awash in thoughts of this formative period of my life, and reminded of how this historic building just seems to feel so different from other places, even other museums of similar size and stature, as if infused with the stories of all the items it contains. Seeing the works I’d always loved so much and walking through the fully immersive “rooms” in which it feels as if you’ve stepped into another place and time reinvigorated me, and I was excited to have had the opportunity and incentive to return to a place I’d forgotten had meant so much to me.

Such nostalgia aside, I would find further inspiration from the numerous speakers that afternoon. The morning began with a lecture entitled Expanding the Canon: Garden and Cosmos, where, among other things, I learned about the critically acclaimed exhibition by Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer Gallery and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Oct. 4, 2008 – Jan. 4, 2009 at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, on tour throughout the world afterwards)  and was enticed by her upcoming exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, to open in 2013 (http://www.asia.si.edu/research/curatorial/currentResearch.asp). Not knowing much about modern Asian art personally, the following speaker, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, San Diego Museum of Art’s Curator of Asian Art, introduced me to the amazing work of the Indian artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) in her lecture, Framing Modernity in South Asia, and spoke about the interpretation and use of contemporary South Asian art in the museum setting. Quintanilla helped to organize an exhibit of this artist’s work at the PMA in 2008 (Rhythms of India, June 27, 2008 – Sept. 1, 2008). This would segue nicely to later discussions on whether modern Asian art belonged with other Asian works, or beside the works of its contemporary artists from around the world.

"Sati" (1943) by Nandalal Bose

The talk I found to be the most personally motivating of the morning, however, came from the somewhat self-deprecating and quite personable Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, John Henry Rice. Using examples from his own career both as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and as a curator at the VMFA, his lecture, In the Field and in the Gallery: Clarifying Context through Scholarship and Display, focused on the careful balance a museum professional must strive to maintain between performing his own research in the field and finding ways to display that research and the research of others in an approachable way to a diverse public audience. This has been a very pertinent issue for Dr. Rice, who has tried to take this into account in his recent challenging opportunity to re-design and re-install the South Asian galleries at the VMFA into its new monumental building – an endeavor that from all accounts appears to have been a great success (http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Collections/SouthAsian/).  

 Following a brief break for lunch and my own whirl-wind tour of the Asian art galleries, most notably including the beautiful Himalayan pieces from The Natacha Rambova Collection of Lamaist Art and the large selection of South Asian stone images, the lectures continued with talks by Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of the Arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, and John E. Cort, Professor of Religion at Denison University and Faculty Consultant for the Denison Museum. Dr. Paul’s presentation, Prisms of Practice: Tibetan Buddhist Altars in Museum Settings, spoke directly to my specific interests and was the original catalyst driving my desire to visit the Symposium in the first place. I was not to be disappointed. Dr. Paul not only gave an account of the history of the consecrated Tibetan Altar at her current institution and the impact it has had on its audience, but compared the purpose of that permanent display to the temporary exhibition of a lay Tibetan altar that she helped to organize as the former Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years prior (Conserving a Tibetan Altar, Dec. 9, 2006 – May 27, 2007). Her talk raised questions regarding the display of sacred items, the use of religious ritual as an educational tool, and the impact said use has on museum visitors, both for those  from within the culture on display and for those who might be considered “outsiders.” Ultimately, Dr. Paul argues, installations, or rather those that create them, should strive to present the various perspectives and practices related to these sacred items to the best that their ability and respective institutional missions allow. As something of a reverse, Dr. Cort, the only member of the panel who is not currently a museum professional, acted somewhat as a devil’s advocate, questioning just how far an institution should go in attempting to display the “original context” of a particular religious image lest it become something of a farce (or, in the case of bathing rituals and so forth, at least broach territory few conservators would allow their items to endure). This, again, featured as a prominent topic in the discussion panel to follow.

 At least for me, the Symposium was more than just a success, but rather something of a catalyst assuring me of what steps I’d most like to take in the coming months in regards to further education and a future career as a museum professional. I more than appreciate the work put into this past weekend by all those involved, and I look forward to future events of similar ilk, where hopefully I can devote more of my resources and time. As to the collections themselves, if you have not visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art I urge you to do so, and if you have, I hope you can visit again soon to be reminded of just what a special place it is. For further information on the history and contents of the Museum’s spectacular Indian and Himalayan Art Collection, see the official website: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/216-423-189.html

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).


Personal Nostalgia Meets Historic Past

Driving into Princeton had always brought back a lot of memories for me. I grew up only thirty minutes away amongst the farmlands of central New Jersey, so in my younger years I came to know, for better or worse, children that attended the Princeton Day School, had family members that had gone to Princeton University, or, as I got older, that frequently visited the small local theater in town. I visited the area myself on occasion, and my fondest memories of my paternal grandparents consisted of semi-regular visits to Conte’s Bar for pepperoni and onion pizzas followed by an ice cream afterwards. The University and the town itself were indelibly (and I think understandably) linked in my young brain, so when I think of one today, I automatically think of the other. As the only University I’d personally ever seen, my idealized image of Princeton became what I thought all colleges and their surrounding towns should be like throughout my grade school and high school years. While my thoughts on the subject have certainly matured and become more realistic, in some ways that image of Princeton remains a paragon in my mind today. This makes my most recent memory of the area seem somewhat fortuitous – it was in Princeton that I first met my M.A. advising professor from Florida State University, who was spending a year their working on his own research. I’d already been accepted to the program by that time, but I remember nervously arranging to meet with the person I’d be working closely with for the next several years of my life, far away from my familiar places and friends and family. I remember getting lost looking for parking, and then hoofing it to the Indian restaurant where he suggested we meet for a buffet lunch. I was anxious about making a good impression and saying the right things, but in the end I had little to worry about. To my personal delight, we managed to hold a conversation all through lunch, then continued over drinks at a nearby coffee shop, and then ended with a home-made gelato from The Bent Spoon. After three hours, I imagined I couldn’t have made too much of a fool out of myself if he was willing to talk with me for so long, and I felt fairly confident my soon-to-be professor was a good match for me and what I wanted to do. I certainly wasn’t wrong in this regard, and I am forever grateful for everything I came to learn from him in the ensuing years of class work, translation, and personal research.

And so, while having nothing to do with the trip itself, it was with all of this weighted, fond, and sometimes bittersweet nostalgia that I visited the Princeton University Art Museum on Thursday (August 4, 2011) in order to see what was on display and what new things I could learn so close to my own hometown.

The Princeton University Art Museum

First off, the entrance of the Museum may be a bit difficult to find for anyone planning to visit who is unfamiliar with the layout of Princeton’s campus. Google Maps (and I assume other mapping sites as well) will actually lead you to the back of the building, not the front, but if you make that mistake its easy enough to follow the walking path up and around until you see a pair of banners that mark the entrance. Distance-wise, if walking from the intersection of Witherspoon and Nassau Street, the Museum is about two to three city blocks into Princeton Campus. Parking, depending on when you go, could be difficult as well since there is no parking allocated to the Museum on campus. I was lucky enough to snag a metered place along Nassau Street (two-hour stay maximum), but there are also public parking garages off Palmer’s Square along Chambers, Hulfish, and Spring streets. Admission to the Museum itself is free, so paying a little for parking seems like a fair trade-off to even a poor post-graduate like me. The immediate entrance leads into the gift shop (which is small but nicely appointed), and then the next set of doors leads into the Museum proper and to the docent’s desk, where you can snag yourself a map.  The Museum isn’t huge – its only two floors and shares the building of McCormick Hall with the University’s Department of Art and Archaeology and the Marquand Library – but its maze-like layout of small rooms allows for one to pretend like they are “discovering” something when they come into a room they hadn’t noticed at first, giving the place a much larger feel than how it first appears. This is added to by the fact that, due to its size, the Museum rotates out its pieces in order to showcase different aspects of its larger collection. Knowing how long I take looking at any given exhibit, I took my map and headed downstairs in order to confront the Museum’s current displays of Asian art.

Lower Galleries

I. Far Eastern Gallery

As I have noted previously, my own specialized knowledge and interests lie primarily in Central and South Asian artifacts and history, Tibetan in particular, so I knew going into this visit that I would be a little bit out of depth due to the Museum’s focus on East Asian art. Any political commentary as to whether Tibet is or is not a part of China aside, academically these areas are often considered quite distinct artistically and culturally and are each part of their own separate yet overlapping scholarly traditions. Therefore, my knowledge of Chinese art is not as expansive as I would like, and my knowledge of Japanese and Korean art – also in the Lower Galleries – is even more limited. That being said, there are still a number of things I can mention regarding the exhibits at hand and how they are presented to the general audience.

When Men and Mountains Meet: China as Land and People (March 5 – September 18, 2011) is the first exhibit I wandered into, to the immediate left of the staircase. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware that this was what it was at first – I didn’t see the explanatory placard until the end of my circuit due to its placement in relation to where I entered the gallery. As described on this placard and on the official website, Curator of Asian Art Cary Y. Liu aims to use this exhibit to showcase the relationship between the land and the people of China, and how this relationship has changed from the magic- and demon-filled times of the past to the modernization of the present. One side of the room is filled with traditional images of mountains and landscapes, many filled with animal-like creatures with whom people of the past had to negotiate their lives. The other focuses on photographic images of man-made structures displaying how, twentieth century, the people of China have overcome the elements of nature through technological advancement. I, of course, with my interests in early history, ritual, and spirit deities, was far more drawn to the contents of the former. This includes what I found to be my favorite piece on display, a set of dark lacquered wooden panels which I eventually read to be from the sides of a disassembled coffin dating to the Chinese Liao Dynasty (907-1125 C.E.). Each of its long sides depict two fierce greenish-black creatures in fluid lunching poses that resemble an anthropomorphic mix of a leopard, a dragon, and a lion due to their spots, fangs, and flowing manes and tails. I was struck by the detail of these creatures and wished the accompanying placard provided more information on its associated imagery. I was also drawn to another demon-related piece in a center display, this one a hand scroll dating to the middle of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) entitled “Searching for Demons on Mount Gaunkau (Gaunkou sou shan tu).” The scroll appears to be incredibly well-preserved; an ink drawing on silk depicting several scenes of different demons being hunted or captured on a mountainous landscape. I was intrigued by the intricacy in the image, and once again wished there had been more background provided about the piece, such as its purpose, its origin, or even more information about the mountain and the myths it was meant to portray. Other subdivided rooms in the Chinese Art Gallery featured peaceful images, such as the featured statue of Guanyin in royal-ease pose (rajalilasana) dating to the Song Dynasty (1127-1279), tomb-related artifacts, such as a large display of delicate, militaristic tomb figurines dating from 220-589 C.E. and a selection of brightly painted tomb guardians from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), and a selection of pots and other items.  The collection of Japanese and Korean objects are located behind the Chinese gallery as well. (For more information on When Men and Mountains Meet, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/events/WhenMenandMountainsMeet/)

II. Southeast Asian Gallery

Somewhat amidst these subdivided rooms is a small corner containing the Museum’s collection of currently featured Southeast Asian artifacts. The pieces, rather than tied together thematically, seem to be some of the “jewels” of the collection, and aside from three large Indian stone statues there are also a few objects of Nepalese, Cambodian, Javanese, and Thai origin. In the center, there are even some exceptionally beautiful Pakistani pieces of Gandharan Buddhist art in stucco, dating from the first through fifth centuries.

Guanyin Seated in Royal-Ease Pose, Princeton University Art Museum (photo: Bruce M. White)

Upper Galleries

While not pertaining to Asian Art, I would be remiss if I did not mention at least two of the current special exhibitions on display through the Fall in the Upper Galleries: Cartographies of Time (June 25 – September 18, 2011) and The Life and Death of Buildings (July 23 – November 6, 2011).  The first looks at how time is graphically represented throughout European and American history, focusing on rare books, manuscripts, and other printed media drawn mostly from the University’s own Department of  Rare Books. As to second, I found it to be especially poignant and thought-provoking. This rather large, special exhibit features images of buildings at various states of their “life-spans”, and looks at the history of civilization though built environments. All and all, both are incredibly fascinating if you have interests in representations of time or in architecture, respectively.

For more information on the Museum’s current exhibitions, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/exhibitions/

Conclusions

As someone unfamiliar with many of the East Asian artifacts and their cultural contexts, I was personally dying for more information on many of the beautiful and interesting pieces within the gallery. Due to the minimalist approach to signage in the Asian art exhibits in particular, I also found it hard to understand why certain pieces were grouped together, and the galleries themselves often seemed to bleed into each other with no clear demarcation. This could be linked to the nature of the galleries, which are rotated on a regular basis to highlight different aspects of the collection, but from an educational standpoint it seemed to pale in comparison to some of the other exhibits featured throughout the Museum in terms of presentation and explanatory information. Ultimately, however, I truly appreciated the beautiful selection of pieces on display at the Museum, and I look forward to future exhibits as they rotate in. I had a pleasant time on my visit, adding a new memory of Princeton to the growing compendium I seem to be collecting, and I ended my day like I have on my previous trips to Princeton – with a crazy-sounding gelato from The Bent Spoon (lavender mascarpone and lemon basil) and a visit to Conte’s for a slice of pizza. If you are able to make it out to the Princeton University Art Museum, I recommend that you do the same and start building up your own memories of this historic and exciting little town.


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).