Tibet Comes to Washington

Contributing editor Jim Conaway has always wanted to visit Tibet. Fortunately, he says, it’s come to him via two exhibits now on display in Washington, D.C.

I once met the Dalai Lama, in the mid-Eighties. I was a reporter for the Washington Post’s Style section and the Dalai Lama was in town drumming up support for Tibet in the face of renewed Chinese suppression. We sat in a big ornate room in the Watergate Hotel with half a dozen red-robed monks, and he spoke eloquently and wittily of his country’s travails. (“China is a minor inconvenience.”) He also had the best belly laugh I ever heard.
     
I wanted to go to Tibet ever after. A magazine assignment to near-by Bhutan fell through. Another, to the headwaters of the Ganges in northeastern India in search of a holy woman was just within sight of Tibet. And another to the Buddhist community in Katmandu was close, but not close enough.

Now Tibet has come to me or, I should say, to Washington, D.C. Tibet can do the same for you if you’ll meet it halfway, at the Sackler Gallery, sister to the Freer Gallery and part of the Smithsonian complex. The two exhibits, both unique and transportingly beautiful, are “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection,” and “Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen” and are literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

The reassembled shrine is the culmination of years of amassing Tibetan religious artifacts, as was done in traditional family shrines in Tibet for centuries, and this is the first time it has ever been seen by the public.

The quality and breadth are staggering. The second exhibit is dense with the work and life of the remarkable 18th century artist, Siku, an influential member of the so-call Encampment movement that survived from the 12th century into the 1800s.

In both cases, the Sackler proves once again that it can brilliantly present art of great religious significance without it seeming either doctrinaire, or sterilely secular. I walked into the shrine and found myself surrounded by what is known as “complete” Buddhas, meaning exquisite pieces complete with accoutrements like earrings and beads in precious metals, all enhanced by convincingly simulated butter lamps. There’s also ainted sculptures, thangkas (scroll paintings on cotton and silk), bells, prayer wheels, and other objects that in total create a palpable force.

Don’t want to make too much of this, but I definitely felt a tingling in the old hair roots and had to back out to get my breath before a second immersion. (One woman, seeing it for the first time, burst into tears.)

In the adjoining room the complementary exhibit of thangkas and other art of the Encampment movement dazzles in the telling of the journey of Buddhist monks, painters and sculptors who essentially maintained a peripatetic monastic system. Siku’s work and words leap from these fabrics with an incandescent particularity.

Buddhas, holy men, visions, and various stories of religious significance are told in a style that drew on the Chinese “blue-green” tradition and reflects the transient nature of those devouts. The irony is that their art and beliefs survived a repressive new ruling class then, and still do.

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[In the Realm of the Buddha, March 13-July 18, 2010]

Jim Conaway is a contributing editor at Traveler. You can contact him here.

Photos: Above, the recreated shrine from “In the Realm of the Buddha”; below, Detail, Tara (One of the Famed Twenty-One Tara Emanations) Late 17th century. Gilt copper alloy; cast part and repousse; high-quality.

Alice S. Kandell Collection, by John Bigelow Taylor. Photos courtesy the Sackler Gallery.

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