San Gabriel Valley Tribune
The most basic tenet of Buddhism is to spend one’s life on a path that leads to enlightenment. Assistant curator Melody Rod-Ari kept this in mind as she designed the exhibit “In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas,” which opens at the Norton Simon Museum Friday.
The exhibit will allow visitors a chance to weave their way through more than 35 sculptures, thangka paintings, ritual objects and other items tracing 1,300 years of the artistic history of India, Nepal and Tibet. The goal is for visitors to come away with a better understanding of the religion.
“It’s an introductory exhibition to Vajrayana Buddhism and the practice and rituals. For me it’s about introducing this esoteric school of Buddhism to people who are interested and the general public,” Rod-Ari said.
Rod-Ari is a specialist in Buddhist art, specifically materials from Southeast Asia, and a practicing Buddhist. Her thoughts on the exhibit are echoed by its chief curator, Carol Togneri.
“We have watched with great excitement the transformation of our special exhibitions galleries as this compelling show has come together with devotional objects both delicate and powerful, small and colossal. And I trust that our own enchantment with such beauty will be mirrored by our visitors’ fascination with this enlightening journey through 13 centuries of Himalayan Buddhist art,” Togneri said.
Rod-Ari believes the show is important because it provides an opportunity to showcase many of the Norton Simon Museum’s Buddhist-related objects, including her favorite, an applique thangka of the future Buddha Maitreya.
“The highlight both visually and historically is the monumental thangka,” Rod-Ari said.
A thangka is a painted or appliqued silk fabric, usually bearing images of deities in the Buddhist religion. This particular piece was commissioned by the Eighth Dalai Lama for his tutor in the 18th century. Very fragile, it is made of silk and, as displayed, hangs more than 22 feet long, so the museum has built a special viewing ramp.
The thangka was produced as a unique applique, which differs from what is commonly considered applique in that instead of pieces of fabric attached to a solid backing, this work is created by cuttings of silk fabric sewn together without a backing, Rod-Ari said. The effect is akin to a “silk mosaic or puzzle,” she added.
“What’s really amazing about this is all the fine lines that you see are made of silk cord, and the silk cord consists of horsehair,” Rod-Ari said.
The cord is created by wrapping two or three strands of horsehair with silk thread. This is then couched to the fabric to create all of the outlines for the figures, flowers and various motifs. Details, like eyes and fingernails, are embroidered.
“It’s amazing. If you’re not a religious person, you might become one when you see this,” Rod-Ari said. “It totally exceeded my expectations. I knew it was important and I knew it was going to be beautiful, but when I saw it for the first time my jaw dropped.”
Almost all of the museum’s painted thangkas will be on display in “In the Land of Snow,” such as one featuring the deity Mahakala, whose name translates to “Great Black One.” Mahakala is a guardian of the dharma or Buddhist faith and is fierce, Rod-Ari said. He wears a garland of severed heads and is armed with a chopper to kill and skin opponents of the faith.
“Within Mahayana Buddhism you have these really specific images, very peaceful, but on the flip side you also have these wrathful images and they have the same function. Their function is to protect the Buddhist faith, to teach you about the tenets of Buddhists and also to help the practitioner see beyond our physical world, to realize that everything before us is just an illusion,” Rod-Ari said. “The truth of the matter is that we have to look beyond the physical to recognize that there is more than our daily rituals and daily lives, and in doing that you reach enlightenment.”
The exhibit also features a mandala from Nepal created in 1648. At its center is a depiction of Chakrasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi in sexual union. For practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism or Tantra Buddhism, these types of images are supposed to remind the viewer of the importance of wisdom, symbolized by Chakrasamvara, and compassion, as represented by Vajravarahi, Rod-Ari said.
“Wisdom comes from understanding the true nature of reality and for Buddhists the reality is that everything is impermanent and illusionary,” Rod-Ari said. “The thought is that with this wisdom comes the bliss of seeing through the delusions and the compassion comes from sharing this bliss with others.”