The sizable lobby and shop area at the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA), on 17th Street of New York’s Manhattan district, was packed with more than 1,000 people the evening of the 17 of September.
They included art lovers and experts, business people and diplomats, devotees of Tibetan Buddhism and friends of Bhutan.
The enthusiastic crowd was attracted by an opportunity to preview nearly 90 pieces of Bhutanese sacred art, exhibited for the first time in the continental United States. “We’re so happy and proud that our spiritual treasure can be shared with you,” said Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, who was the guest of honour at the opening reception. The exhibition, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” has been prepared and organised by the Honolulu Academy of Arts (HAA) in Hawaii, in cooperation with the government of Bhutan and the Central Monastic Body. The exhibition was first staged at HAA earlier this year for three months. In New York, the exhibition comprises of 87 works of art, dozens of thangkas, gilt bronze and wooden sculptures and various ritual objects, among other items. Some of the oldest pieces date back to 8th Century. Intricate statues of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, Drukpa Kuenley and Padmasambhava had been extensively cleaned by art restorers in Hawaii.
“These are rare objects, that are valued for their function within a living spiritual tradition, as for their considerable visual beauty,” said RMA’s senior curator, Ramon Prats.
The Dragon’s Gift project’s co-curator, Buddhist art expert John Johnston, was based in Thimphu for three years from 2003 to search and collect exhibition items. “With the help of the monk body and the department of culture, I visited more than 200 temples and monasteries,” said Johnston, “Some of which were very remote and accessible only via scary mountain roads.” Almost a quarter of the works exhibited were “discoveries” for the curatorial team, items he never expected to find, according to Johnston. “Most Bhutanese have never seen them either.”
Bhutanese visitors were also seen going round the gallery, paying deep respect to a number of sacred statues. A number of monks were invited to RMA from Bhutan to perform daily pujas at a temporary altar room set up next to the gallery.
The solemn endeavour to maintain sacredness of the works of art attracted the attention of local media. The New York Times carried a long article featuring the life and duty in New York City of the two visiting monks, Lam Karma Tenzin and Lopen Sonam Wangchuk, and explained Bhutan’s religious and spiritual heritage extensively.
To commemorate and promote the exhibition and to showcase the comprehensive religious tradition of Bhutan, RMA also invited a dozen monks from the monk body in Trongsa, who performed ritual dances in public places throughout New York City. Led by Lam Pema Dorji, the monks performed Tum Ngam and Shanag Ngacham in downtown parks and ferry landings, and in front of important buildings and monuments. Concluding a week-long, 15-location performances, they danced with black hats and drums at the foot of the majestic Statue of Liberty on Sunday morning.
The exhibition will be on view at RMA through to 5 January 2009. It will then travel to San Francisco to be on view at the Asian Art Museum from February to May 2009. Several European museums are scheduled to host the exhibition later in 2009, including Cologne and Zurich.