artbeat (2006-19)

Blue Yama, White Tara, Wrathful Deities

Tibetan religious artwork comes to KMA, with a healthy slathering of devotional paint

by Kevin Crowe

Like a lily resting on quiet waters, and firm as Mount Meru, like the iron walls that gird the universe .... The story of the Bodhisattva, a Buddhist holy man, is a story about overcoming temptation, the ability to resist beautiful seductresses and other sundry earthly delights. It’s just an act of devotion, no problem. The Bodhisattva says, Pleasure is brief as the lightning flash— / Why should I, then, covet the pleasures you describe? His tempters, sensing their defeat, rejoin with praise: That which your heart desires may you attain! / And finding for yourself deliverance, deliver all.

The Buddhist religious tradition stresses acts of devotion, preaching the importance of right views, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right mindfulness, etc. These Buddhist devotional rituals are pretty righteous indeed. And KMA’s “By the Light of Butterlamps” exhibit showcases some of the most painstakingly devotional artwork to come out of Tibet and surrounding Buddhist strongholds.

“They’re sort of multi-purposed. Even painting them is an act of devotion,” says Dana Self, KMA’s curator of collections and exhibitions. “So, what would happen often is that the Lama would hold it (the artwork) out in front of the initiate, who is on his Buddhist-monk-path. Really it’s a teaching apparatus to understand all the individual gods and personages related to the many layers of Buddhism.”

On display are small initiation cards, known as Tsakli, which contain imagery from the Rig Veda, Upanishads, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. It’s interesting to see the cross-pollination of India’s multifarious religious beliefs, as these traditions fuse together in the small Tsakli.

One such piece depicts Jhankesvari , who was once a principal deity in the Nepalese region. To his left is Shiva, god of destruction, holding his trident. To Jhankesvari’s right is Vishnu, god of creation, holding his cosmic disc. Since the fourth century, attempts have been made to unite Vaishnavites and Saivites, an ecumenical coming-together of major gods into a makeshift dualistic cosmos. But religious interbreeding has never been uncommon in the Himalayas. Even Vishnu, once a small-time deity in the Rig Veda, eventually merged with the more-popular gods Vasudeva-Krishna and the Brahmanical deity known as Narayana.

“They’re sort of like—it’s not an art-historical equivalent, but in my mind it’s like—Medieval illuminated manuscripts,” Self says, “where painting them was an act of devotion for the monks. The same kind of thing here, painting them and looking at them is an act of devotion.... I don’t know if that’s an accurate parallel, it’s just one that makes it easier for me to understand the act of devotion in a small object like this.”

Each Tsakli tells a story, and the subtle voice of the artist comes through, elucidating his understanding of the vast minutiae of past religious dogma.

Vajra Heruka , besides being an obvious cognate for the Greek demigod Hercules, shows a blue, winged god with three faces. This is one of the “Transcendental Buddhas,” those gods associated with the Tibetan Book of the Dead , rulers of the period between death and rebirth.

Greek writings have survived which mention a god named “Heracles”—most likely an early form of Vishnu—who led the Indian troops against the army of Alexander the Great. In each of these deceptively simple Tsakli is a religious history, organically mixing disparate cultural narratives to create a patchwork view of the cosmos.

On hand in the exhibition room are several magnifying glasses, which allow the viewer to see the Tsakli’s barely visible details. Up close, these paintings look like a Seurat, as each fleck of paint has seeped into the cloth surface, and the slight imperfections in the paper make a dotted landscape for the paint to flow, systematically coming together, defined by a highly-trained and conditioned ritualistic recipe. And all of this micro-craftwork came years before the French Salon des Indépendants first conceived of neo-impressionism.

Also on display are several photographs by Linda Connor taken at various monasteries on the Indian subcontinent. One photo shows a well-worn floor, polished by hundreds of years of ritualistic prostrations. It’s a visceral reminder of the sheer devotion and zealous attention to detail needed before a devotee can begin to craft a Tsakli.

Another photo shows a group of monks dancing in front of the Hemis Monastery in India. Connor uses a slow shutter speed and high F-stop to capture a strikingly clear image of the building’s façade. But the monks bend and blur into one another, in a ghostly, translucent ring. This image is a reminder of the passage of time. But these monks, for no reason other than staid faith in their traditions, have not only kept their ancient religion alive, but kept it evolving, surviving centuries of cultural erosion and modernization.

What: By the Light of Butterlamps: Himalayan Devotional Paintings