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Palm-size bronze figures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from ancient Anuradhapura. Lion-shaped stone stair balustrades from the fourteenth century. Black-and-white photographs of tropical plants by colonial British photographers. A painted ivory comb decorated with a sword-wielding goddess. And a twenty-six-foot inflatable reclining Buddha made in California. These are just a handful of works from a special exhibition showcasing the art and culture of Sri Lanka at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), now on view until July 7, 2019. Titled The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka, the show marks the first comprehensive survey of the island nation’s artistic traditions in a US museum. This is no small feat, considering that two thousand years of history are retold through some 240 works that have been carefully selected and displayed across six rooms inside the spacious Resnick Pavilion. The exhibition curators Robert Brown and Tushara Bindu Gude, both from LACMA’s South and Southeast Asian Art Department, boldly combine the traditional with the modern, the popular with the elite, and the sacred with the secular to present Sri Lankan art in many of its complexities. In so doing, they also demonstrate the ubiquity and diversity of global cultural exchanges in a lesser-known context and the critical role of the visual arts in shaping them. The result is a challenge to both the eye and the mind.
Like many countries across Asia, Sri Lanka witnessed profound changes in its society following the introduction of Buddhism. The faith spread to the island from northern India sometime in the third century BCE and would continue to transform the people and the landscape there for the next two millennia and beyond. As expected, the lasting artistic legacy of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is one of the major themes in The Jeweled Isle. But more than any previous attempts at telling this story in a museum (such as the Guardian of the Flame: Art of Sri Lanka show at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2003), the LACMA exhibition offers nuanced and varied perspectives on the subject with a wider array of material objects and more in-depth discussions about the constant negotiation between Buddhist communities and native institutions. The visitors are immediately exposed to the subject in the first gallery, where colorful masks, containers, and wood panels featuring images of demons, nature deities, and other gods underscore the syncretism of Buddhism with local religions, as reflected in their inclusion at Buddhist temples (fig. 1). In the second room, dedicated to the visual culture of Anuradhapura, some of the earliest extant Buddha icons in bronze are juxtaposed alongside nineteenth-century watercolors depicting figures central to the origin myth of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist kingdom: Vaishravana the heavenly protector of the Buddha, his chief warrior the Yaksha Alawaka, and the Veddas, who were purportedly the descendants of Prince Vijaya from India and his local demon wife. The cultural blending of the indigenous with the imported from the subcontinent became even more complicated with the arrival of Hinduism, typically marked by the conquest of Anuradhapura by the Tamil Nadu–based Chola dynasty in the late tenth century. The subsequent establishment of Polonnaruwa as the capital in the island’s east ushered in significant social and political changes, such as the royal patronage of Buddhist temples by Hindu kings, a practice common in India from the Gupta period onward (ca. 320–647 CE). A number of Hindu-themed works are thus presented to elucidate this topic, including the only known Sri Lanka–made Shiva Nataraja bronze statue that is outside the country (on loan from a private collection in Berlin) and a spectacular painted temple hanging from the Victoria and Albert Museum that depicts scenes from the epic Ramayana.
The development of Sri Lankan art took a decidedly different turn in the wake of expanded trade with European powers in the sixteenth century and the establishment of British colonial rule in the nineteenth. A large part of The Jeweled Isle exhibition is devoted to exploring the many distinctive visual productions that emerged in this period. Especially interesting is the eclectic mixing of local and foreign motifs across a range of domestic furnishings, personal accessories, and textile products. A rectangular, bejeweled ivory casket from the sixteenth century is a case in point. According to the curators, the shape was modeled on European prototypes in leather, whereas the surface decor drew from Christian imageries as well as traditional motifs such as lions, dancers, narilatha (mythical vines in the shape of a woman), and auspicious foliate designs. The work was likely made domestically as a diplomatic gift. The mobility implicit in the global dissemination of luxury objects like this is also evident in the choice of material as well. Some of the carved ivory pieces in the exhibition are believed to have been made from African elephant tusks that were larger in size than those of native Asian species. The raw material might have been brought to Sri Lanka for production by Dutch traders from colonial outposts they set up across Africa during the seventeenth century.
In addition to increasing contact with the Dutch and Portuguese who controlled much of the coastal areas, Sri Lankans also established closer ties with people of mainland Southeast Asia through the Buddhist revival sponsored by rulers of the Kandy kingdom in the second half of the eighteenth century. The powerful King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (r. 1747–80) is known to have invited Thai Buddhist monks to perform rituals at his court, setting up a tradition that was to continue for generations to come. The revival was also facilitated at the popular level by the worship of the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, whose fame had pervaded Burma and Thailand centuries earlier. The artistic outcome of this sustained interchange across the Bay of Bengal is well represented in the exhibition by a group of bronze Buddha statues in the characteristic Kandy style of shiny, blocky bodies with wave-patterned robes as well as photographs by Charles T. Scowen, W. L. H. Skeen, and other British colonial photographers showing Buddhist monks and temples.
The United States enters the storyline of The Jeweled Isle by way of two artists with California ties active in the twentieth century. Lewis deSoto’s Paranirvana (Self-Portrait) (2015), inspired by the twelfth-century colossal Buddha at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, is in many ways a fitting end to the show (fig. 2). Notwithstanding its whimsical form as an inflatable sculpture, the work’s enormous twenty-six-foot size and engrossing surface details do help convey a bit of the grandeur and awe that one would only otherwise experience in situ at Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monuments. Seeing deSoto’s Buddha inside LACMA prompts the visitors to realize how much more there is to see and learn about a culture so rich in art yet so little known in the West beyond the museum space. Reg van Cuylenburg’s exuberant photographs of the island’s people and natural environment from 1955 to 1958, clustered en masse on the wall near the exit, offer an expedient means with which to imagine what one might possibly find when traveling there.
Just as it may be a challenge for visitors to fully digest the exhibition contents, The Jeweled Isle was no less a trial by fire for its organizers. As Brown recounted in an interview, the exhibition underwent numerous changes since he first proposed it in 2014. The original plan was to focus on loans from Sri Lanka, particularly Buddhist objects from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa that have never been exhibited abroad before. But midway through the preparation, all the proposed loans from the island fell through, so the project had to be reconceptualized from scratch. Around the same time Julie Romain, an assistant curator who was involved at the beginning stage of the project, passed away. With Gude joining in, Brown then decided to turn the exhibition into a comprehensive survey to showcase the island’s art through its entire course of development. In addition to drawing on LACMA’s own wide-ranging collection, the organizers borrowed key objects from museums in the United States and Europe as well as nearly seventy British colonial-era photographs from private collectors in Los Angeles. These photographs, as it turns out, play a vital role in the exhibition, serving both as visual aids to contextualize related objects on display and as works of art in their own right. Since there are few wall texts and no other educational tools in the exhibition to guide visitors through unfamiliar materials, the photographs are certainly a welcome addition.
Due to budgetary constraints, a small catalogue for The Jeweled Isle was published by Collator, LACMA’s in-house press, containing two short introductory essays and entries for fewer than forty works from the exhibition. Its limited scope does not do justice to the ambitious scale of the project or the amount of original research done to realize it. To fully grasp the contribution this important exhibition has made to art history and beyond, one needs to see it in person. Better yet, look hard and think with a curious mind.
Sonya S. Lee
Department of Art History, University of Southern California
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