Tibetan Art Show
By Robert Amos
“The objects of everyday life in the Museum’s collections show many aspects of a culture closely tied to the earth: sturdy tents, compact saddle gear, warm and flexible clothing and durable cooking equipment. Even these “mundane” objects, however, are equally expressive of a close attention to the spiritual rhythms of life.”
Valrae Reynolds, from the catalogue of Treasures of Tibetan Art from The Newark Museum
The people of Tibet live in the high barren land of the Himalayas, where trade routes from Persia, India, China and Russia cross. The people grafted a rich strain of Buddhism to their own elaborate animism in about the 8th century CE. An unparalleled Buddhist theocracy grew up and shaped almost every aspect of life there. The remoteness and longevity of this governance has resulted in a persuasive and distinct culture. The Tibetan people, as technicians of the sacred and the spiritual, are unmatched in our world.
The wonders of Tibetan culture were all but destroyed when Mao and the armies of the People’s Republic of China shelled the holiest temples and monasteries and installed a military goverment in 1959. Out of some 3,000 monastic establishments before 1959, only 300 remain today, and most are maintained as museums rather than as teaching establishments.
The 14th Dalai Lama, a god incarnate and leader of his people, fled in disguise to northern India in 1959, followed by 100,000 Tibetans. This diaspora continues today, and he is the spiritual leader. Communities of expatriates and collections of treasured artifacts have found homes all over the world - including Victoria. The Chinese have been unable to extinguish this profoundly religious tradition. Ironically, in our global village, the Tibetan message is spreading.
The Newark Museum in New Jersey has become the repository of the finest and most complete gathering of Tibetan “material culture” outside Tibet. Extensive groupings were first brought to Newark in 1920 by a highly respected American Christian medical missionary, Albert Shelton. Films made by C. Suydam Cutting, an American “naturalist/explorer” in the 1930’s, in what was then a closed country, provide a fascinating introduction to this “world apart”. Many enlarged period photos provide context for the 50 choice objects sent on tour from Newark.
In their high, cold land the Tibetans were mostly nomadic. All their possessions were carried on horseback, and both their wealth and philosophy are encoded in every object. Gilt and silver saddles rest on woolen carpets worked with motifs and colours rich in symbolic efficacy. The costumes on show are pieced together from the finest materials - silk from India, brocades from China, furs from Russia. Often these are a patchwork of treasured antique swatches. Close study of these textiles reveals a rich history beneath the wear of ages.
Prayer wheel, 19th century Tibet. Silver set with rubies, jade and shell. 23.5 cm long. From the collection of The Newark Museum
Metalwork is more appropriate than ceramics for people on the move. Their pails and powderhorns and containers of many sorts are compact, unbreakable and are the site of elaborate ornamentation. Tent-dwelling nomads carried their treasure on their person and, accordingly, this show presents gorgeous headdresses pavée with pearls and coral, hair ornaments of gold and turquoise, and portable amulet boxes of brass and silver.
The Newark collection is rich in the elements of “popular” Buddhism. Consider the prayer wheels, which are used by Tibetans of every social rank. Prayer wheels generated prayers by hand-power. Rolls of written prayers are sealed in cylinders. With each revolution, prayers are “sent out”. Larger sheels are set out on roofs or in streams with blades turned by wind or water. Giant wheels are set in walls surrounding temples, to be turned by passing pilgrims or monks.
Saddle Cover. From the collection of The Newark Museum
Inevitably, the Newark collections feature accoutrements of the religious life. Monks’ robes demonstrate a reverance for brocades of unbelievably ancient lineage. A conch shell inlaid with silver and coral; a cup and drum made from human skulls; votive plaques molded of clay mixed with the ashes of holy men - each reminds the devotee of the transcience of this world. Exquisite statuary, usually of gilded copper, manifests the theological complexity of this elaborate and orthodox tradition.
Perhaps best known of all Tibetan artifacts are the tangkas, paintings of the enormously complex iconography used by practitioners to help them visualize and internalize the tenets of their practice. In Victoria we are familiar with the superb older paintings from the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. In conjunction with the Newark show a small display of contemporary tangkas by Vancouver artist Kalsang Dawa accompanies the older museum pieces at the Royal British Columbia Provincial Museum. Certainly Dawa’s work is traditional and made for devotion. The richness and precision of this artist’s work is remarkable, and a mysterious multi-hued sparkle seems to emanate from his perfectly fresh and resonant colours.
Though I wish it could be so, we can never return to the days before the Chinese descrtuction of this most spiritually advanced society. But the living example of the Tibetan people, and the material witness of their art, can be an inspiration. Superb needlework, inspired metalwork and painting created with great concentration and without ego - these are worth our careful attention. If on some level spiritual merit is gained, that’s all to the good.
Copyright © 2005Robert Amos
Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B.C.. He can be contacted by e-mail
and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com