Issue 11.1: February/March 2008

The Art of Happiness

story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Shuzo Uemoto

 

The country of Bhutan, nestled between Tibet and India, is about the size of Switzerland, with a population of 700,000. It’s famous for its isolation and its reluctance to embrace modern technologies (television, for example, didn’t come to Bhutan until 1999). But in other ways, Bhutan is leading the world: There’s no smoking in the country, plastic bags are banned and the majority of forested lands are protected. The government, famously, promotes a policy of “Gross National Happiness.”

And then, as all of us in Honolulu are about to find out, there is the art. Bhutan has more than 2,000 temples and a history of Buddhism that dates over 1,000 years. The country’s religion follows the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana (Tantric) Mahayana Buddhism, making this the only nation in the world with an intact Tantric culture. One of Mahayana Buddhism’s central beliefs is that enlightenment can be attained in this lifetime—and painted thangkas, mandalas, sculptures and historical portraits are all considered ritual supports along that path to enlightenment. A centuries-old belief in the spiritual power of art, a closed nation and a prolific people all add up to an abundance of fascinating and heretofore hidden cultural effects—art that has now traveled from a mountain kingdom to an island one.


 

It’s like “opening the doors to Shangri-la,” says Terese Bartholomew, referring to the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ new show, The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan. Bartholomew, a specialist in Himalayan art and a curator at the Asian Art Museum for more than forty years, was lead curator for the Academy’s groundbreaking show, which is the first to focus on Bhutan’s sacred artworks on such a grand scale. The exhibit, which opens in Honolulu Feb. 28, features a group of religious objects that have never before been seen together outside—or even inside—Bhutan. After its debut in Honolulu, the show will travel to other locations around the world, including New York and Sydney. It’s a major coup for the small museum—one that was eight years in the making.

The Dragon’s Gift saw much travel back and forth between Bhutan and Hawai‘i. Academy assistant curator John Johnston, for example, spent almost two years living in Bhutan, working on the show (making his stay in the country one of the longest on record for a foreigner). As part of his duties, he walked hundreds of miles up and down rugged Himalayan inclines and through rough, dense terrain. He battled leeches and rats. He spied red pandas, jungle cats and monkeys on his treks. Even more importantly, he learned the etiquette for dealing with religious leaders. The tall, lanky Georgia native demonstrates by lifting his torso and leaning forward, his head slightly bowed, his voice barely above a whisper. “If you are talking to an important lama or a very important religious personage, you don’t use your full voice, you speak in a hushed tone. You need to hold yourself in a certain way that’s respectful and deferential,” he explains as he mimics the code of conduct. “This was a very important thing to learn for what we ended up doing.”

What he did end up doing “was more akin to expeditions of a century ago,” Johnston says, “expeditionary scholarship, where archeologists and scholars would head to remote locations and discover highly realized works of art.” Since only five of the 116 objects in the Academy’s show were found on exhibit at Bhutan’s National Museum, the rest Johnston and his team had to collect from more than 200 temples around the country. Some of the pieces they found through a national photographic archive, but about two-thirds of the objects—some eighty pieces—were collected simply through research and fieldwork.

Johnston traveled with a team that included representatives from both Bhutan’s cultural governing body and its religious community. With letters of introduction, he asked religious elders if he could view items in temple genkan, areas of restricted access where protectors and wrathful deities are believed to reside. When the genkan were opened, visitors to the temples would sometimes seize the moment to receive a blessing from the unearthed treasures. Johnston, meanwhile, would document the work and later share the images with the Academy’s curatorial team.

Though there were times when he hiked for hours to certain temples—“there are still many places in Bhutan where the nearest road is seven hours away”— Johnston says most of the work in the show was found near cultural centers. “I had this romantic notion that I would be walking for days, and there would be some hovel of a temple that would be filled with treasures. That never happened. There would be times when I would visit modest community temples that would have one or two really great things, but generally there were certain places that were filled with really strong works of art.”


 

 

While Johnston was in Bhutan, two Bhutanese monks were in Honolulu, spending months studying conservation with the Academy’s chief conservator, Eddie Jose. “There were several problems we needed to address—water stains, insects, rats, damage from smoke,” says Jose, who shows me a “before” picture of one of the thangka in the show; the painting is covered with a layer of black soot. Another picture shows a mandala with hundreds of insect holes, a third illustrates a poor repair job. “Training is the most difficult,” says Jose. “I’m very concerned about sustainability in Bhutan, because there are so many foreigners who give classes and leave. A little knowledge can be bad, too. Either you teach them completely, or don’t teach them at all. It’s really a commitment.”

Modern conservation philosophy subscribes to the notion of preservation, not restoration, says Jose. That is, modern practitioners don’t attempt to restore paintings to their original glory; they work to clean and preserve but don’t attempt to match paint perfectly or disguise their influence on a work. The concept of conservation didn’t really exist in Bhutan, continues Jose, and as a consequence, many works were damaged due to poor handling and storage conditions.

Jose himself has now worked for the past three years conserving Bhutanese works and has traveled to the country to give month-long workshops. At an institutional level, the Academy itself has now committed to train Bhutanese monks in modern conservation practices for a period of ten years.

There have been other collaborations in preparation for the show. For the past several years, the Academy team has worked with the Bhutanese to document and catalog findings. They have held roundtable symposiums to elicit Bhutanese views on religious iconography and scriptures. The Academy worked in partnership with Bhutan’s Core of Culture group to create a Bhutanese dance database. These partnerships will continue as the show gets underway: In addition to recitals and lectures surrounding the exhibit, monks will travel with the show and special altars will be erected at each site for religious rituals.

“All the items in the exhibit are considered consecrated items of worship,” says Shawn Eichman, curator at the Academy and another member of the museum’s exhibit team. “Many are only taken out for special occasions, like religious festivals. They are stored in private temples or in non-accessible storage areas, where even people living in nearby villages may have never seen them.” When we get the chance to see storied and sacred works that are legend even to the Bhutanese themselves, you know we’re in a rarified realm: The doors of Shangri-la are open in Honolulu. HH