Archive for 'General'

Sprucing up the Neighborhood

Not everyone appreciates it, but we love our neighborhood. How could you not? Off the Grid comes by regularly, there’s an amazing farmers’ market, and occasionally there are sleigh rides outside City Hall! This is the view as we leave in the evenings at the moment:

Photo by Jessica Kuhn

We’d like to share more about the great places around the museum where you can eat, get coffee, or otherwise round out your day in the city. Let us know in the comments if you have tips, favorite places, or questions you’d like us to answer.

Brand new, you’re retro

I’ve an admission to make: I’ve been playing a little game, waiting for someone to call me out on the fact that I’ve placed a book of 17th century paintings in a section reserved for contemporary South Asian art.  But you’ve got to admit: on the surface, it’s not an easy call.

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Mystery of the Five Buddhas: Decoding Three Tibetan Paintings

All knowledge begins with a mystery, and there are plenty of them at the Asian Art Museum. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the labyrinth under the museum, where some of our greatest mysteries reside. Among the most intriguing are a set of three Tibetan paintings, each one superficially identical to the others. At the center of each thangka sits a Buddha;  around him appear a host of red-haloed mini-Buddhas. But a closer look begins to reveal telling details.  Body color and hand position differentiate each central Buddha from the others – and this is the crucial clue that tells us we are missing two thangkas from what was once a five-thangka set.

Mysteries abound in the Buddha images on this Tibetan thangka from the Asian Art Museum's collection.

In the original set, each of the five, differently-colored Buddhas presides over one of the cardinal directions, with an additional Buddha at their center. I’ve included an image of these Five Buddhas as they would appear in a complete set. As you’ll immediately see, the museum is missing the blue Buddha of the east, and the red Buddha of the west. I’ve been able to trace the blue Buddha (his name is Akshobhya, the “unshakeable one”) to Honolulu, but the red Buddha is still at large, perhaps in the Tibetan monastery where it was originally created – a place called Sakya, one of the most important institutions in the Himalayas.

The field of Buddhas behind each central Buddha might seem haphazardly arranged, but this is not the case. Looking closely, you’ll see that they occur in a regular sequence: red, yellow, white,  blue, and green, repeated ad infinitum. This fivefold pattern recapitulates in microcosmic form the fivefold structure of the original set of thangkas. Distributed regularly on the thangka’s surface, the field of haloed Buddhas reveals a bilateral symmetry in which diagonals consisting of a single Buddha-color flow downwards at 45 degrees.

Inside the central section of each painting appear 16 small figures. These too might seem randomly distributed, but again this is not the case. In fact, these figures, like the central Buddhas they surround, occupy one of the cardinal directions. When mapped out onto a ground-plan, the form hidden just behind the surface of the thangka becomes clear: our three Sakya paintings (and the two missing ones as well) each represent one quarter of the meditation aid called a mandala.

In the next post, I’ll show you the precise mandala from which these Tibetan images derive, and teach you how to read it. Then, we’ll be in a position to explore the imagery on some of the Asian’s more complex thangkas.

Until then, look closely and patiently at the thangkas, and see what kinds of insights emerge. When you start with a mystery, you may be surprised at what you can discover!

Gifting with Purpose

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the museum store that we undergo some fairly significant changes for each exhibition.  While visitors can usually expect to find Korean & Chinese ceramics, Southeast Asian textiles, antiques and oddities, as well as artist-produced goods from Asia and the Bay Area, exhibitions are an opportunity to show off cultural connections.
But this time around, we’re doing things a little differently.

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Sanjay Patel in Conversation

Sanjay Patel’s show is almost ready – it opens this Friday, November 11. I peeked in today and it looks amazing. I can’t wait for the full experience!

We wanted to share this clip of Sanjay discussing India and identity with some of our Asian Art Museum Art Speak interns. His appearance in conversation with Maharaja curator Qamar Adamjee on November 12 promises to be an insightful and entertaining discussion.

Our YouTube channel has more of the students’ interview with Sanjay. The talk on Saturday, November 12 is free with museum admission.

Be the Match: Marrow Registration at the Museum

This weekend the museum is hosting  a special event at our Target Free Sunday. Be The Match Marrow Registry, a nonprofit organization that matches patients with unrelated bone marrow donors, will be conducting registrations at the museum—complete with cheek cell swabbing!

Why? Great question. Be The Match approached the museum because they have a shortage of South Asian donors in their registry. Bay Area entrepreneur Amit Gupta shared his experience:

Two weeks ago I got a call from my doctor because I’d been feeling worn out and was losing weight, and wasn’t sure why. He was brief: “Amit, you’ve got acute leukemia. You need to enter treatment right away.” I have a couple more months of chemo to go, and then the next step is a bone marrow transplant. Minorities are severely underrepresented in the bone marrow pool, and I need help.

With the Maharaja exhibition in full swing and Sanjay Patel’s show opening next week, the museum is quite a hub for South Asian cultural happenings right now. Be The Match thought it would be a great opportunity to reach out to the South Asian community, and we agreed.

Volunteers from Be The Match will be at the museum from 11:00 am until 3:00 pm this Sunday, November 6. No matter what your background, Be The Match would be grateful for your participation! For more information on what’s involved, check out Be The Match’s ‘Understanding your Commitment’ page.

Remember, admission to the museum this Sunday is free, so come see some art, and maybe save a life as well.

Behind the Scenes: Sanjay Patel’s sketches

Anyone who has been in to the museum lately will have noticed Sanjay Patel’s arresting sketches in South Court. Today Sanjay sent us this wonderful image that gives an insight into the process of creating a work on this scale.

Screen in the planning.


I have always had a rule in museums: look up! These images give you one more reason to do that.

south court wall

If you like to glimpse behind the scenes, check out these videos from the preparation for the Maharaja exhibit.

Deities, Demons and Dudes with ‘Staches: Indian Avatars by Sanjay Patel opens on November 11. Sanjay will be appearing in conversation with curator Qamar Adamjee on November 12.

Chinese Language Teachers Conference in San Francisco

Teachers at the museum

The museum is proud to host the participants in the 2011 National Chinese Language Conference organized by the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning and the College Board in collaboration with the SF-based Mandarin Institute. The conference takes place April 14-16, 2011 at the Hilton, and our event is the evening of April 15.

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Cremation Video


Bali Shortcuts: Ubud Cremation from Something Creative on Vimeo.

I am hoping the filmmakers who made this piece will give us permission to show it as part of our exhibition. In the exhibition, there will be a platform used for the actual burning of the animal coffin with the body inside, a ritual dagger that may have been used to cut open the coffin so the body may be placed inside, and a painting showing many of the cremation ceremonies.

A cornucopia

Some of my favorite objects in the museum’s fine collection are netsuke — delightful little mini-sculptures that I like to call Japan’s Edo Period cell phone charms, except netsuke are not only ornamental but highly functional.

b70y358The persimmon, a lovely symbol of fall

In a nutshell, they act as toggles (fasteners), used to secure a purse or container suspended on a cord from the sash of a robe.  The museum’s labels explain:

An inro (literally “seal casket”) is a small tiered container that a man would suspend from the sash of his kimono on a silk cord. A netsuke threaded onto this cord would serve as a toggle, and a movable bead (ojime) would keep the inro closed. Inro were used not only to hold seals (sometimes called “chops”)—which function in East Asian cultures in much the same way signatures do in the West—but also to hold other small items such as medicines.

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