“Emerald Cities”at the Asian Art Museum– the dazzling Burmese and Siamese Treasures of Heiress and Philathropist Doris Duke find a new home
The Asian Art Musuem’s marvelous show “Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950,” is now in its final three weeks—it ends January 10, 2010– and if you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth a special visit. The show includes a dazzling array of some 140 remarkable artworks—rare sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, ornately carved 19th century furniture, gilded offering vessels, silk costumes, shadow puppets, and the finest collection of 19th century Thai paintings outside of Asia—most of which were collected by the legendary heiress Doris Duke and acquired by the Asian Art Museum in 2002 in one lucky swoop. It has taken the museum five years and a whopping 6,000 hours in conservation and restoration efforts to ready these objects for display.
A billion dollar fortune built on tobacco and energy
The story behind the Doris Duke collection is as fascinating as the art itself and points to a bygone era— when outrageous industrial wealth enabled travel to exotic lands where artifacts could be had for a song. The story began in 1925, when 12 year old Doris Duke inherited an $80 million dollar estate (about $860 million in 2005 dollars) from her father James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco and hydropower magnate. Buchanan made the bulk of his great fortune by acquiring a license in 1885 to use the first automated cigarette making machine and by 1890, he supplied 40% of the American cigarette market (then known as pre-rolled tobacco). He consolidated control of his four major competitors under one corporate entity, the American Tobacco Company, and monopolized the American cigarette market. In the 1890’s, he made a separate fortune in hydropower by supplying electricity to more than 300 cotton mills and establishing a power grid to supply power to parts of North and South Carolina.
Doris Duke: the richest girl in the world
Upon his death in 1925, $40 million of his estate (over $430 million in 2005 dollars) went to The Duke Endowment, a permanent trust fund that endowed several universities including Trinity University (later renamed Duke University), and hospitals and churches in North Carolina. The remainder went to his only child, Doris, in the form of an immediate bequest of $80 million and lump sum payments totalling another $100 million dispersed on birthdays (over $1 billion in 2005 dollars). Doris literally became the richest girl in the world. She spent her early childhood at of Duke Farms , her father’s 2,700 estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey and her teen years in a Manhattan apartment. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, while she lacked for nothing in the material realm, her unparalleled wealth made her a constant target for self-serving individuals. At age 14, she took her mother, Nonoline Duke, to court and successfully blocked the sale of Duke Farms and became solely responsible for the stewardship of her vast fortune.
A Passion for Southeast Asian Art Emerges
As Doris Duke came of age she, she used her great wealth to pursue a variety of interests including extensive world travel that profoundly impacted the philanthropic interests she would later pursue, one of which was art. She spoke nine languages, worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt during WWII, and even did a stint as a foreign correspondent. She married twice and it was on her first honeymoon in 1930 with the dashing James H.R. Cromwell, son of Palm Beach doyenne Eva Stotesbury, that she embarked on a trip to India, Thailand, Indonesia and other Asian locales and started to amass a sizeable collection of important Islamic and Southeast Asian art. She collected her artworks before the UNESCO convention, so there were basically no restrictions on purchases of sacred or rare objects. Duke’s passion for Southeast Asian art was not widely publicized and that is probably because she was collecting in areas where there was little knowledge. While back in the States, she continued collecting through an agent she employed in Bangkok. According to Asian Art Museum curator Forrest McGill, the juicy details of her purchases remain a mystery. She tended to buy several objects at a time and the sales receipts that have been saved do not give a breakdown of any prices paid for individual items.
Before being distributed, Doris Duke’s collection of Southeast Asian art included more than 400 museum-quality objects and 1,800 other items most of which had been in storage at Duke Farms. Her intention was to create a Southeast Asian cultural theme park in Honolulu. She even bought some very beautiful farm buildings in Southeast Asia, had them dismantled, and was going to send those to Honolulu, where they would be situated amongst gardens. She couldn’t find the land she wanted in Hawaii and so she sent everything to her New Jersey estate instead and planned to design a Southeast Asian museum and gardens there. All those buildings sat dismantled in the enormous indoor tennis court for years, awaiting plans that did not materialize. Some of the buildings and artifacts were given to a Tampa garden and were going to be erected there.
Doris Duke died in 1993, at 80, of a stroke. While living, she had proven to be a substanial and often progressive philanthropist, giving over $500 million to organizations supporting the arts, the environment, medical research, child abuse prevention and historic preservation. In her final will, Duke left virtually all of her fortune (estimated to be in the billions) to charitable foundations, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which she endowed with financial assets totaling approximately $1.3 billion. She bequeathed her Irish-born butler Bernard Lafferty with $5 million and appointed him co-executor of her estate. A number of lawsuits were filed against the will. Her life was the focus of a 2007 HBO docu-drama “Bernard and Doris” starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Raplh Fines as her butler Lafferty.
The Asian Art Museum entered the scene about 1998, when its then board chairman Johnson S. “Jack” Bogart was working with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York to see if they would fund a portion of the museum’s re-do. “Jack became aware that there was a collection that Doris Duke had put together and asked me about it,” said curator Forrest McGill, “In a classic bone-headed mistake I said ‘I never heard of it, so it must not be that important.’ Was I ever wrong. I will never make that mistake again.”
Bogart insisted that McGill have a look any way, so he visited Duke Farms, just outside of Princeton, New Jersey, and was astounded. “I walked into her coach barn, which was literally as big as a train station, and it was like going into an amazing vault of a museum with thousands of 18th and 19th century artworks–sculptures, furniture, paintings, vessels, manuscripts– and I just wasn’t prepared. She had some of the things more or less on display, but some of them were stored in an indoor tennis court and others were in a gigantic indoor shooting gallery inside her house. The Duke people were not aware of the rarity of this artwork. We started to make the case that the collection was much more important than they thought it was.”
A lucky coin toss
After years of negotiation, around 2002, the foundation decided to let The Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has a very important Asian art collection, have first choice of the objects. “We agreed to work out the division of the artworks ourselves and to gave the Duke Foundation a reconciled list,” explained McGill. “We had a coin toss and we won and got first pick and we went back and forth down the list in that way. We ended up with 167 objects and they got 150 objects and the leftovers were distributed to about 20 other museums in Great Britain and the US.” (Duke Foundation gift to the Walters Art Museum , Duke Foundation gift to the Asian Art Museum)
McGill estimates that roughly 75 percent of the objects have some kind religious orientation, either direct or indirect. They would have been commissioned by wealthy and aristocratic families for use in their homes or palaces or to donate to the monasteries.
The objects were then in storage for several decades in the 1940’s and 50’s and early 60’s. “Everything was dirty and many pieces needed restoration,” said McGill. In several cases, materials that survived in the tropical climate Southeast Asia decayed in the new climate. “We spent the last five years and about 7,000 hours consolidating, stabilizing, preserving, and repairing the artworks,” said McGill. “Some of the fragile Thai paintings on fabric were beyond repair.”
The exhibition is divided geographically into three sections— Central Burma, followed by Eastern Burma and Northern Thailand which, despite different borders, have the Shan people in common and share many cultural similarities, and it ends with a large gallery devoted to Central Thailand. The exhibition title “Emerald Cities” does not refer to any actual emeralds on display but is meant to be poetic. The most important Buddha image in Bangkok is the Emerald Buddha and Bangkok’s formal name is “the City of the Emerald Buddha.” The three 19th century capitals of Burma, all have their formal names based on gems, though none are emerald.
The Burma segment opens with objects that had a religious use and continues with luxury goods. Several ornate offering vessels, offering containers and stands are on display. These were purchased by aristocratic families, often filled with food and given as donations to the temples at monasteries to make merit and maintain their high standing. These vessels are metal with ornate mirrored glass in-lay or glass reproductions of precious gems on the outside. They open in the middle and are lined with bamboo which is completely coated with lacquer. Not much is known about the glass on these objects or on any of the artworks in the collection, except that glass was highly desirable and was used even on royal objects, in lieu of real gems.
“You can imagine for a culture that did not have or know glass what a delight it must have been to see English chandeliers and other types of European luxury glassware,” explained McGill. “We don’t actually know where did the fragments they used came from. Some of it may have been European glass and some of it may have come from India. Eventually, because they liked glass so much and there was a heavy demand for it, the Burmese and the Thai brought in European advisors and set up glass manufacturing factories in Burma and Thailand.
The show presents many more questions. “We do not know the name of a single maker, a single workshop or artist, and not a single object has a date inscribed on it” explained McGill. Wall plaques are as descriptive as they can be but frequently give dates of creation ranging up to 125 years, not the level of precision most hope for. “Some of these objects were made the same way decade after decade after decade and it’s just impossible to date them more accurately,” said McGill.
A highlight of the Burmese section is “Scenes from the Burmese version of the epic of Rama,” a rare, sequined, nearly six-meter-long textile hanging that portrays the scenes of the legend of Rama. Although it’s purpose is unknown, it is possible that this narrative textile may have been a backdrop for puppet performances. The royal costumes depicted in this artwork are echoed throughout the exhibition, through actual costumes and those that appear in artworks and on puppets.
Those with an interest in furniture will be enthralled with a stunning Burmese couch, or day-bed, with ball and claw legs, made of ornately lacquered and gilded wood that has been inlaid with glass rods and mirrored glass and it has an emerald green velvet cushion. In old photographs, Burmese and Shan aristocrats sit, Buddha images recline and deceased monks are laid out. The Asian’s couch was missing its original cushion, so a new emerald green velvet one was made in 2008 inspired by a similar couch in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This lovely couch did not come directly from Burma to Doris Duke. Instead, she bought it from an interior designer who already had it in New York. This was discovered by accident when one of the Asian’s conservators was looking at an interior design magazine and saw a photograph of this very couch in the living room of a designer’s posh 5th Avenue apt in the 1930’s. “When we saw photograph and started comparing all the nicks and so forth, we determined that this was the very couch that we had obtained from Doris Duke,” said McGill. “We have been trying to track down the exact connection yet between the decorator and Doris Duke but haven’t yet succeeded.”
Northern Thailand and Shan State, Burma
The second segment of show features the religious art and luxury goods Northern Thailand and the Shan state, Burma. A large black and red wooden chest, gilded with lacquer would have been used in the temple for storing monk’s robes and manuscripts. This is a rare and important chest which was a likely donation to the temple. It is adorned on all sides with drawings telling stories and includes scenes of the Buddha enthroned, Phra Malai and Indra at the Chulamani Stupa, and guardians. Several examples of ceremonial standards are displayed next to the chest, illustrating actual objects that are depicted in the scenes on the chest so we can better imagine how these standards were put to use as royal regalia in official processions and ceremonies. The number of standards showed the rank of the royal family member.
The third segment emphasizes Central Thailand, particularly the royal capital of Bangkok, and accounts for more than two-third of the artworks in the exhibition. A rare late 18th century stucco image of Buddha is situated alongside numerous Buddha statues in the opening of this gallery. This stucco head is fascinating for what it represents–in an effort to make the Buddha images uniform and to consolidate his rule, the first monarch of the new kingdom of Siam essentially did a Buddha recall–in the 1790’s, Buddhas from all parts of Thailand were brought to Bangkok where they were covered with layers of stucco and gilded, so they were all the same. In the 1950’s, when this style had gone out of fashion, the stucco was removed and presumably discarded. This stucco image is only one of two that are known to have survived.
One of Doris Duke’s greatest accomplishments was that she collected Thai painting at a time when nobody else was interested. The Asian Art Museum now has more 19th century Thai paintings than have ever been seen in Thailand, or any place else. “These are rare, fragile and the finest to be had, ” explained McGill. “Some are on wood, but most are painted on cotton fabric and most survived only in very shaky condition.” Those painted on fabric have a very long vertical format because the imported Indian cloth they were painted on came in this length. When a donor gave their valuable cloth to a temple for being made into painting, the piece of fabric was kept intact and was painted over by the Thai artisans.
Thai paintings are almost exclusively works intended to be conducive to contemplation whose themes were drawn from well-known religious writings. “The Buddha Overcomes the Demon Mara and his Forces, and the Earth Goddess Creates a Flood,” an early 19th century mural on panel, is probably the largest and most impressive Thai painting outside of Thailand (3.33 feet x 13.33 feet). While it has sustained damage and undergone minimally-invasive restoration, it depicts a spectacular cosmic struggle that is marvelously executed in a rare palette dominated by blue, bluish gray and brick tones. It depicts the central episode in Buddha’s life–he is in meditation and is challenged by a demon, Mara, whose forces come in from the right on elephants. Allegorically, this is Buddha battling his own negative impulses that he must overcome to achieve enlightenment. As he is attacked from the right side, he calls on the earth goddess in the middle to bear witness to his many lifetimes of spiritual preparation for Buddhahood. The earth goddess wrings out her wet hair and creates a flood that washes away the demons or the negative impulses in the young prince’s psyche. On the left side, the flood is visible and the demon is no longer attacking but now has his hands folded in reverence. He is thus transformed by his own intellectual and spiritual efforts from a young prince into a Buddha.
Along the gallery wall is a very rare group of 13 paintings that form a complete set for the recitation of the story of the Buddha’s previous immediate life before which he became a Buddha. The Story of Prince Vessantara is still recited annually in Thailand at a ceremony. Each family in the village sponsored the recitation of one of the 13 chapters by paying for the painting that went with each of the 13 chapters. Once a set of paintings was used in a recitation, it may have not been used again and generally there were no special provisions to preserve a full set. This set survived in fair condition but the inscriptions along the bottom edges have deteriorated and are only partially visible.
Some may find it surprising while Southeast Asia had plentiful and relatively inexpensive gold, the majority of these ceremonial treasures were not made of gold or even precious metals but were fabricated from smelted metal that was elaborately gilded, lacquered or inlaid in very sophisticated patterns with materials like mother of pearl or colored glass.
Only one of the objects exhibited is solid gold, a lovely small bowl (roughly 3 x 5 inches) adorned with three alternating motifs—garudas (a mythical eagles with human attributes), stylized foliage and a celestial being with the hand gesture of adoration. The bowl was presented as a wedding gift in 1921 from Rama VI to the daughter of Hamilton King, a US diplomat to Siam. Originally, it would have most likely been filled with religious objects or offerings. The gold’s unusual reddish hue, which the Siamese preferred, was analyzed by conservators at the Asian Art Museum and they could find no chemical explanation for it.
Most beguiling and graceful are two mythical 19th century carved wooden sculptures of bird-men of Siam. Once exquisitely detailed, only bits of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass in-lay remain. There is evidence that some damaged parts were carefully replaced. The lower part of the bodies are similar to a bird’s—the feet are elaborately carved– and the weight is shifted forward with wings and ornate tail that would enable them to fly between the heavenly and earthly realms. Their hands are pressed together in prayer and the torso and head are human. In Buddhist legend, these mythical creatures inhabit the Eden-like Himavanta Forest. Historically, such statues played an integral role in royal ceremonies such as coronations and some served as reliquaries. Starting from the reign of Rama V onwards (1868-1910), these statues were placed high up on posts and along the main boulevards of Bangkok. Presently, one has a prominent place on the main road from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The exhibition closes by showcasing three delightful and very well-preserved Thai shadow puppets made of reticulated and ornately painted cowhide. The shadow puppet theatre, “Nang Yai” in Thai, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment still practiced all over Asia. These puppets were used to enact scenes from the epic of Rama, known in Thai as Rammakian. Opaque figures, normally made of stretched cowhide and rattan, are held against an illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images and the performance is accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. The screen is lit from behind revealing not only the shadow of the puppet but also the shadow of performer behind it. Unlike Indonesian puppets which have moving parts, these Thai puppets are singular and rigid. On display is a single character roaming puppet of the monkey hero Hanuman and an action or fighting puppet which depicts two famous characters—Ravana and Hanuman–charging into battle on a mythical chariot.
While there are some very rare pieces in the collection, McGill is not concerned about any lawsuits to return artworks back to their countries of origin. “In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was an open market and virtually everything was for sale,” explained McGill. “Things are much different now. None of these works came from archaeological contexts—they were not in the ground. They are not fragments of buildings, they are separate portable objects. We’ve never had a claim and directors and curators from the museums in Cambodia and Thailand have been here multiple times and we have given them photos and documentation of everything we have in an effort to be open.”
Petaluma Arts Council: A Feast of Color, Embroidery and Painting from the Villages of India, April 7- June 7, 2009
Malini Bakshi the force behind Pink Mango
For centuries, Maithil women from the remote and impoverished Bihar region of eastern India have marked important rituals such as weddings and encouraged fertility and bountiful harvests, by creating unique freehand drawings directly on the plaster surfaces of their courtyards, verandas and interior rooms. Over time several distinctive styles of Mathila painting evolved. Today, the practice continues on both paper and walls. Malini Bakshi founded the Pink Mango organization to legitimize Mathila art, to share it with the rest of the world and to help Mathila artists generate income. In April, I spoke with Malini, a remarkable young woman who was born in India and currently resides in the Bay Area about Pink Mango and her unique plan for giving back to her native society and spreading the joy of Mathila art here.
1. GA: Can you tell me something about your first encounter with Mithila painting; was it a part of your childhood? What about it did you find so engaging and how did this lead to forming an arts organization?
MB: I grew up in Northern India with a lot of art around me and this work is clearly from East India, which is similar to someone growing up in CA and finding some work in North Dakota and trying to find commonalities—there are few. Seven or eight years ago, I had gone to India to my parents’ place, which is an area that’s sort of a cross between Tahoe and Petaluma, not in the sticks but away from the hustle-bustle of the city—quiet, lots of fruit tress mangos, lychees. An aunt of mine was visiting and she had done a lot of community-building work with villages in India. I was living in the US—I had come over to study sculpture for my undergrad and then gotten my masters–and she was chiding me that Indians go abroad and get their education and they forget about India and nothing comes back to the country.
I wanted to do something with art, but I wasn’t the type of person who’d run right off to a village. Art was a very strong interest, it runs in the family. Also, I had studied art…How many Indians do you know who travel half way across the world to study sculpture, instead of the sciences or engineering? So art was important and like everyone, I wanted to “do” something…but…the thought happens and time goes on.
I was introduced to an artist through this aunt who encouraged me to take a look. I remember that when I saw that first piece, I was taken aback…it was Baua Devi’s orange cow. It came out of the trunk of this beat-up car and her son started to unroll it and all I saw was this orange strip that grew into this fabulous cow. It was such a modern piece and immediately upon looking at it, I fell in love. It was so special. The boy opened up a folded Xerox of a show that she had at Berkeley Art Museum in 1997 and I was blown away by that and wanted more information. Then, I saw the rest of her works and I just bought them all. I was also very touched by the idea that he was here on his mother’s behalf, that his mother had done them and he was so proud of her.
I asked about the iconography and some basic naïve questions and the stories just began to flow out of him and I was hooked…so I have the cow, all the rest of the paintings and these memories. When I came home to SF and spent time with them in my home, I knew I had to do something with them. I knew they had to be in a museum. I spoke with the Museum of Crafts and Folk Art in San Francisco and they knew nothing about these pieces. There was nothing written, anywhere, except an out-of-print pamphlet done by a French man. The Asian Art Museum told there was not enough academic material on these pieces to warrant a show. It was clearly a chicken and egg problem. I started to think about getting more information together.
2. GA: I’m dieing to know, how did Baua Devi get that show?
MB: Precisely! The curators at the Berkley Art Museum told me about Raymond Owens who had spent many months with the Mathila painters between 1977 and 2000 and how he had helped her get that show. That inspired me and while the institutional doors were closed because the art lacked legitimacy, I began to try and find a gallery for an exhibition. I was lucky. Our first exhibit was in April 2003 at the Shavaani Gallery in San Francisco, since closed. I kept it very simple focusing on Baua Devi and other women artists from Jitwarpur, India. I researched the story behind each painting and in retelling the mythology, hoped to educate. David Szanton, an American anthropologist who had been working with the Mathila community for some 30 years heard about the show and contacted me. David and Raymond Owens were friends. David and I became fast friends and that was how our collaboration began.
3. GA: David Szanton co-authored the book, what led to your collaboration?
MB: Well, David had this enthusiasm and knowledge and I had lots of enthusiasm but lacked the knowledge of this culture. In 2004, David and I made our first trip to India to the region, along with my father and people from universities. My parents felt I was literally visiting the armpit of the country and my father wanted to accompany me. I welcomed the company. We went on a journey from New Delhi to Patna, which is the capital of Bihar, and then by car to all these villages which might take an hour here but can take six, seven, eight hours by car because of the horrific roads…bridges washed out, etc. For me, it was quite an eye opener because it’s a very poor part of the country, another dimension. That’s what got me thinking about what I could do to help. I knew it would not help to hand out a dollar, what you need is sustainable change and there has to be some kind of change in that community where the people themselves improve the way they live. I grew up having all my needs met: we traveled abroad and didn’t think about the basics. But suddenly it hit me, that this is my country and this is its state
What happened on that trip was that I was received differently because my father was with me. I also behaved in a very traditional way, I covered my head. This was a real discovery of an India that I had not known. When we entered Bihar, there were so many things that I was shocked about. Kids running around in the bitter cold without proper clothing, the towns were pristine, clean, no trash, so there was pride about the surroundings that you don’t see in the big cities, but there was real poverty. I was also appalled at the callousness of others in my party, others from India, to the surroundings. It really got me thinking.
The women who created these artworks are dignified, poised, wonderful…they may be poor, but they have pride. They are carrying a child on one hip and offering no complaints about what they don’t have. They tell you their stories. They also tell you to shut up at times. They captured my heart: they were like my grandmom.
And they were wise. Shashikala Devi told me, “You know, you have to get rid of this instinct of yours to immediately ask questions to get an answer…you have to let it seep in and grow within you, because the understanding is not in any answer I will give you.”
The more time I spent with them, the more I wanted to get their work in a museum. And so it began. David had the same thought. The idea for the book came too.
4. GA: How did Pink Mango happen?
MB: It happened before that trip to India, with the very first show in 2003 at the Shavaani Gallery in San Francisco. I had to sign all these papers and I was advised by an attorney who is a friend of mine to do this signing under the name of an organization. From there, it emerged.
5. GA: And the name?
MB: India for me is color. The country is pink and red and orange. And mangos, well, it’s just for fun…associations. I did not want one of those serious Sanskrit names. This was a lighthearted endeavor and the name came before I’d actually met all the artists. I wanted the name to be abstract with no symbolism associated with it. Later, I thought it could not have been better.
6. GA: What are the immediately recognizable historical hallmarks of Mithila painting and what are some of the modern trends?
MB: Traditionally, these paintings were done on ritual occasions on plaster…this art is believed to have survived from epic periods. The wall paintings are done as part of a ritual to bring good results in marriage, to bless the home, bring fertility, bountiful harvest and also included protective deities. To bless and they served as auspicious purpose. Nuptial paintings, called khobar were meant to bestow blessings on the newlyweds. It was considered necessary to include all the main gods and goddesses in the paintings so that they could shower their blessings on the newlyweds. When the couple marries they spend their first four days in a room of the bride’s house and the khobar is painted on the eastern wall of this room. The women get together and do it. The process it that the oldest woman who has children and whose husband is alive starts the painting by putting a red dot in the middle of the wall and then someone who is talented in the community makes the outlines and then everyone comes in and all together they start painting to create the total vibrant work with specific use of red. You rarely see this vibrancy any more. The bamboo grove is very important, highly symbolic, and every artist paints it differently.
In general, the mud images allowed for much larger and free-floating images than paper. In the late 1960’s, when there was extreme drought in the region, the government, via the Crafts Council, went and introduced paper to the area so that the paintings could be done on paper and sold at regional craft fairs. That did generate income and it had a profound impact on the community. They continued to adorn the walls of their homes with these paintings too but over time, they have become less elaborate.
I have gotten pieces done with a ball point pen and I don’t tell them not to use it but I ask them why they chose to work with that. I am most interested in the works with the natural colors and they know that.
7. GA: Is there anything distinctive about the transition from wall to paper?
MB: I’ve been wanting to do an animated film to show this, but when they work on paper, they always start on the edges of the blank paper, working the border first and then inward. Whereas they used to start with a dot on the center of a blank wall and expand outwards. Paper is expensive and precious and there are no mistakes, no second guessing in this. Paper gave permanence to their creative expression.
8. GA: When it goes to the paper, do they explore different themes?
MB: It’s expanded…themes that we’ve seen are the epics–the Ramayana epic, so forth. Shaguntla (the hermit’s wife, girl forest, ring)?? Ask Malini. Baua Devi has done a lot of snake stories and there’s this growing narrative tradition in her paintings.
9. GA: Are these stories specific to the region or more general Indian mythology?
MB: They are known throughout India. Mithila is the goddess Sita who was called Mithila and she is from this area. She was found in a furrow in a plowed field and adopted by Janaka, King of Mithila-Jankapur (now Nepal) and his wife Sunayana but she is regarded as a daughter of Bhudevi, the Goddess Mother Earth. She was the princess of Mithila and known as Maithili. When she came of age, she was wed to Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. Sita is one of the central characters in the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. When people are looking at these works, instead of abstract design, there is a real story there.
10. GA: Is everything in the work then symbolic?
MB: I wouldn’t say that. They are almost like tapestries with portions that are filled in. The borders are not so symbolic; the leaves are fillers but they also have a symbolism to them. The fish is basically the Noah’s ark story…he has to get one male and female of each creature on earth.
11. GA: What about the subject matter…How is Madhubani painting changing due to the penetration of modern technology and contemporary culture? What happens when cell phones start cropping up in the artworks or they start working with Sharpies?
MB: The original purpose was ceremonial rituals and this is evolving and expanding. One of the paintings in this exhibition is Kamlesh Roy’s “Twin Towers” (2001). Another is Shalinee Kumari’s “Global Terrorism” (2005), which shows the globe and the twin towers. Amrita Das did “Tsunami in Sri Lanka” in 2005.
12. GA: And, in your opinion, is cross-pollination with contemporary culture a healthy trend in their artistic production or one that will lead them away from their traditional roots into something like touristy folk art? Do you have concerns about maintaining the purity of the symbolism and not wanting the modern world to mess with that?
MB: In terms of the art, it can’t stay pure forever, whatever pure is. With the advent of technology—radio, BBC, newspapers, tv—the artists become aware of the world and that has impacted mostly the younger generation of artists. Shalinee Kumari is a young artist who will have a debut show in June in San Francisco at the Frey Norris Gallery. She has done all these progressive feminist pieces where a woman can pilot a helicopter, mountain climb, drive a scooter and she cooks and cleans…she’s stepping out of the traditional role and addressing gender equality. The works are highly narrative. There have also been works that have been very critical of the dowry, bride burning, capitalism, etc.
In general, the villages in the Bihar region have had a lack of education, along with poverty, corruption, rotten weather, the list goes on. There is electricity, but they don’t have many modern appliances. So, it’s happening but it isn’t happening. When I last visited, I met a woman who we picked up in the jeep, newly married and she had just finished her MS in physics in India. She was from a village and her husband actually works at the Mathila Arts Institute, which is a school that the Ethnic Arts Foundation started that was financed by Ray. She wanted to stay in her village.
I see changes in the short time I’ve been involved, but honestly, I enjoy both ends—the traditional and the new influences– and it’s inevitable. That’s the evolution of an art form and that is addressed in the catalogue too. For art to survive and to thrive, it must remain vital. This is about the expression of a community done in a particular style and that makes it a genre in its own right and you have to acknowledge it and present it as a genre of art. It is not about making little tourist pieces for them but about honoring the fact that this was part of a ritual.
13. GA: Is there any effort underway to preserve the historical wall paintings?
MB: This is not wall-painting like cave paintings, these are done on their interior walls and you’ve got moisture and they don’t last. Rice paste or lime is what they use for the white and it is not a solid ground. The air is very moist and the little stoves they use add black to the works over time, so give it a few weeks, a month and it all will be gone. That’s the natural course of it. These are ephemeral.
14. GA: Have these drawings been documented?
MB: There is a substantial documentation of Mathila paintings from the 1930’s in the Archer Photographs, black and white, which are covered in the book.
This is the change that worries me a more…you’ll hear them say that “my grandma did the old painting on the walls, but we’re cooler than that.” I don’t care for that attitude. I’d like for there to be recognition that my grandma used to paint durga with all her powers and I paint a woman with all her powers, a bachelor’s certificate, so forth. That’s a positive attitude while the other is not.
15. GA: How much effort do these women put into these works?
MB: It varies, basically it’s what ever time they’ve got left over. They say “I save a bit of time like a few pennies and put it into the paintings and at the end of it, you’ve got a painting.”
16. GA: How does the sale of an artwork typically impact an artist?
MB: They are paid immediately. I buy the paintings in India and then I sell them in the US for them and send them the money back. They are paid twice. Once an artwork is sold, whatever profit is generated, that profit goes back to India. The most expensive piece I’ve sold is for $2,100, which is a huge sale, and that translates into lots of cash going back. At first, my model was hard for them to believe–that they would get a share of what it sold for in the West. Never in their life had someone bought something and then said, “Do you recall that three years ago I bought a painting, well I re-sold it and here’s your share. One of the artists was in such complete disbelief that she took the money and started counting it in the corner.
These two women from Berkeley wrote this book–they cashed in their frequent flyer miles and went to 80 countries or communities and interviewed craftswomen form around the world and it’s amazing. UNESCO did a study focused on women who make money as crafts women, all that money generated is poured into nutrition and basics for the kids, whereas when the men make the money, it may goes to cigarettes or alcohol.
17. GA: Is getting paid for their work problematic or empowering for the women in this society? And has money been a factor in enticing men to take up this art form? How many men actually participate?
MB: You might think that it upsets things, but that’s where the poise of these women comes into play. They don’t want to flex their muscles or stand shoulder to shoulder and rub it in. They are so comfortable in being women that they handle it well. For the next generation though, it may be different. You hear the younger women like Shalinee saying that she’s listening to the BBC. I don’t encourage the works about the bride burning, female infanticide, the heavy stuff. I’d like to focus on the good, positive stuff going around basically because if you focus on the positive, you will be happier. Getting back to the money, there is no idea of mortgages, big debt…what you need to survive there is very different from here. The focus is on marriage, kids and what they believe the real things in life are and less on accumulating objects you will spend the rest of your life paying for.
A lot of men have started painting. It is traditionally considered women’s work but it is legitimized because it is an income earning choice.
18. GA: Are the men any good?
MB: They start out by filling in the paint. The women will do the outline and they will fill them in and some of them are very talented. One man was so good that he was sent to an art school. Komlesh Roy did the twin towers piece, also Santish Kamar Das (??ask about spelling) did a series of works of the awful train burning and riots accidents and some pieces on the death of Raymond Owens.
19. GA: The show at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco’s Year Buena Gardens in 2005 allowed Mathila art to enter the museum circuit and you won a quite prestigious curatorial award. Can you tell me about that?
MB: The idea for the show at this museum emerged over two years because the director, Kate Alexson, was pregnant. It started small, but after David came along, it grew and I mean literally…from the mezzanine to several galleries until we had filled the museum with over 500 works. The key impact of that exhibition “Mithila Paintings: The Evolution of an Art Form” was that Mathila art entered the museum circuit. I was interested in legitimization from the museum community because that would give us a solid base from which we could work and present this work. I knew there would be added research, scholarship too, on their part. I realized that if the value of the object went up, it would bring back more to the community tangibly and intangibly. David is very interested in sales because the money goes back to the artists, whom he has a deep connection with
Kate Alexson had nominated Pink Mango, for the 2005 Curatorial Excellence Award from The Apple Valley Foundation. The award was for the most comprehensive and look at a new body of fresh work, material that had never been shown before. The committee made unannounced visits to museums and galleries and evaluated exhibitions for their creativity, presentation, so forth. When I learned that the runner up was The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, and that we beat them out, I was stunned. After that, David and I realized more than ever, that we had to do a book.
20. GA: I understand that other museums have expressed an interest in Mithila painting—both the Berkeley and Asian Art Museums have large collections. How did they acquire the works? Did they paying decently for them? I know that in this exhibition, works will sell from a hundred to about $4,500?
MB: Well, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we met with curator Forrest McGill and he had bought all their paintings from Raymond Owens. Raymond gave the money to the village. This amount of $4,000 to $5,000 is a goal and it will come. Right now, the majority of works that sell are smaller and between $40 and $150. By the way, I love it when people tell me they are going to India and would like to visit the artists and buy directly. When they do that, it forges a special bond and I love to see that. This is not about Pink Mango having any exclusive.
When I think of really successful shows here in the State, our most successful financially was the show we had at the SRJC Mahoney library under Karen Petersen. That was the maximum number of pieces we’ve ever sold.
21. GA: The book, Mithila Painting: The Evolution of Art Form, was very important in your vision wasn’t it?
MB: The intention of the book which was published in 2007 was to explain the history and of course to give the individual artists a tool they could use. It gives them quite a lot to be able to show someone a book written in English that profiles them and their artwork. This about empowering and that is all I care about. I am more in sync with the philosophy of the Google boys rather than the Rockefellers. The Google boys want to put systems in place during their lifetimes and say that my money is going to go toward the creation of this sustainability model rather than the Rockefellers who have this board distributing this lump sum and they are not so active. Our generation wants to be actively involved and to see results. My idea with the book was to just give it to the artists, give them something to break the language barrier and let them run with this while we are helping them here.
22. GA: I understood that up until recently, the art was not well-known in India. Was it taught about in the schools for example?
MB: No. There was no mention of Indian folk art in my education at all in India…it was Rembrandt, the classics. But these are not artists waking up in the morning with berets on, saying I’m going to paint. It’s part of a ritual that is integrated into their lifestyle. When you get married, you have a little ritual that involves fertility and blesses the marriage. It was not considered art per se.
People know something about the Multalbani paintings mainly because of the government-run craft emporiums. People who go to India, go to the craft emporiums…and people who travel from India go to the craft emporiums to shop for gifts. These emporiums are in every state, and in the major cities—New Delhi, Bombay– so that each state can showcase its own unique crafts, like in Oaxaca, Mexico. You can buy stuff straight from the villages from these women. The transaction happens and money is exchanged and it’s over.
23. GA: Are there serious Indian or other collectors who are building collections within India?
MB: In India, are there a handful of collectors of this type of art, including Menisha Mishra from Delhi, who I worked with on the Habitat Center exhibition. She’s very involved and also works with the Ethnic Arts Foundation. I think that this form of collecting will catch on.
24. GA: What events have been organized in India?
MB: The Habitat Centre show in January, 2007 in New Delhi is by far the most important thing we’ve done. This is like the Lincoln Center, a huge government-run cultural center, which represent the arts, not a gallery, so it’s a very different mindset. The proposals went in two or three years in advance because it’s very tough to get in, but that basically happens with all big museums. We were able to show 500 plus paintings and several of the artists came from the villages. Artworks were for sale, not very many sold, but a lot of people came and we had tremendous press coverage in India. We rushed the book, so it was available at this show. This was a tremendous success.
25. GA: Is there a relationship between motifs in Indian textiles and these artworks? I am speaking of composition, subject, color, border treatments and the basic evolution of the forms and symbolism?
MB: First, the majority of these tapestries are from the Punjab region and all over, which is North and this Mathila painting from the East and key in both of these is their region of origin, so it’s very difficult to draw comparisons. I do think a lot about what a craftswoman is though because these were all made by craftswomen.
A craftswoman is not an artist in the Western sense of an artist. The West has a definition for an artist but I don’t think the East really has a definition for an artist. It’s a way of being, a kind of meditation that comes out of our spiritual traditions so it’s an integrated aspect of the personality and personal expression. It’s like the mom doing the icing on cake for her kid’s birthday. That’s what a craftswoman is.
26. GA: Maybe now, you are giving them power to see that there is even more flexibility in being a woman, even more power that can come from sharing their creative expression and getting paid for it, or maybe that’s my Western overlay…linking identity and empowerment, to sending a message out to the world.