Archive for 'General'

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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Seven Swords

Death, protection, wisdom, prestige, peace, war, and beauty; throughout the world the blade has taken many shapes and has had many uses and meanings.  From the elegant beauty of a samurai’s sword to the unique serpentine kris blades of Southeast Asia, come take a closer look at these seven blades from the Asian Art Museum’s collection representing different cultures, ideals, and uses.

Punch DaggerDEATH – Punch Dagger – Gallery 5

This wicked fang, called a kattari, comes from South Asia. The parallel bars of the unique H-shaped grip could be used to block attacks while the perpendicular handle gives leverage for punching attacks. This weapon was known as “the tooth of Yama”. Yama is the god of death. It was used to make quick stabbing attacks that packed an armor-piercing punch. This weapon was even said to be capable of piercing the skull of an elephant! A chilling name and a reputation for pachydermatic carnage is indeed a striking feature of this weapon.

Consider the names given our modern weapons, such as the Hellfire missile or the Reaper unmanned aircraft.  How might a weapon’s name and reputation come about and what could be some of its effects?

PROTECTION – Dagger – Gallery 10krisblade

This bladed weapon from Southeast Asia is called a kris. The wavy serpentine shaped blade is a distinctive characteristic. The handle which is often shaped like a pistol-grip shows that the kris was designed for stabbing attacks. Kris were often carried for self-defense while traveling. They were seen as possessing an essence or presence, some being good luck and some bringing misfortune. Some blades are said to have the power to turn away flames, control floods, or even to fly to their master’s defense!

Compare the different kris blades in this gallery case. What kinds of animals and figures adorn the weapons? What kinds of protective powers do you imagine these various blades might be thought to possess?

WISDOM – Ritual Dagger – Gallery 12

The blade can also have a religious and symbolic use.  This instrument for subjugating demons is called a phurba. A closer look at this dagger will reveal that the blade itself issues from the jaws of a fearsome reptile and that there are three heads encircling the handle. This triple-bladed ritual dagger symbolically cuts away the bonds of desire, ignorance, and hatred.

How might a blade help people to overcome desire, ignorance, and hatred?  What are ways people might use weapons during rituals?


PRESTIGE – Sword for Red Scarf Officer – Gallery 12

Bestowed only to those who are knighted by the king of Bhutan, the wearer of the raven crown, this sword with its fine silver filigree and animal-shaped buckles is a serious symbol of rank and prestige. Swords have long had this purpose.  Recall that officers of the U.S. Marine Corps also wear sabers as prestigious symbols of rank.

What are some qualities that make an object prestigious?  Why?


PEACE – Dagger and Scabbard – Gallery 12

Covered in Buddhist symbols and intricately detailed designs this dagger from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan is a work of beauty. Yet many Buddhist art objects in this gallery remind us that Buddhism in the Himalayas so often espouses compassion as a supreme virtue.

What might be the relationship between weapons and compassion?  Is there such a thing as a weapon of compassion and peace?


WARFARE - Bronze Sword – Gallery 14

Superior weapon technology is as important as military skill during warfare. During their time these bronze weapons represented cutting-edge technology. The straight sturdy blade and simple unadorned shape tell us that this is a no-nonsense weapon that gets straight to the point! Also check out the dagger-ax (ge) in the same case. This versatile weapon could hook, stab, and slash opponents on foot or horseback.

Think about the relationship between warfare and technology.  How do imagine they affect each other?


BEAUTY – Long sword – Gallery 27

The exquisite lines of the beautiful gleaming blade of this sword is sheathed in a flawless black lacquered scabbard. The long sword, called a katana, is said to be the soul of the samurai. The short sword is called a wakizashi.  Together as a pair they are called daisho, or the “long and short”. The sword is idealized as the perfect expression of an important part of the samurai code: the sublime integration of beauty and power. Today, as in the past, these swords are seen as art objects of great beauty.

Do you think modern weapons of our own time hold an artful beauty?  How so?  For example, would you consider the graceful soaring jets of the U.S. Navy flight exhibition team, the Blue Angels, art, weapons, or something else?


If only Picard had visited the Asian Art Museum

In the third episode of season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “Code of Honor,” Captain Picard welcomes the Ligonian leader, Lutan, aboard the Enterprise. In the two screenshots below, we see Picard presenting, as a welcome gift, a clay horse sculpture of ancient China:


Picard identifies the sculpture as a Song-dynasty work of the 14th century (Data corrects him, claiming the 13th century). However, both of them are off the mark. According to my professional eye, this glazed horse should be from the Tang dynasty (618-907)–it is a quintessential Tang horse. Compare it with this one in the collection of the Asian Art Museum:


Notice the similarities in the glazing colors and the robust form of the horse. The horse was a prized animal in China, especially in the Tang dynasty when it represented the power and might of the empire. The Tang empire is considered to be a golden era in China’s history both in culture and in the military. So it makes sense that Picard would gift the noble Tang horse to Lutan, but I blame the writers of this episode for not having done their homework.  They should have visited the Asian Art Museum!