South Asian Art: Bias in Art

The warm lighting brushed onto the exhibits of the Greco-Roman art. Angelic sculptures lightly kissed by colors that belong to sunsets were captivated by starry eyes belonging to visitors amazed by their beauty. I walked along photographing the artwork for class, using all my efforts to capture their elegance. That section always seems to be more lively. I stroll through exhibits in European arts depicting godlike people on pedestals of power. I continue through snapping shots of moments frozen in time. I soon found myself in modern art exhibits, art pushing the boundaries and celebrated for its nuances. I travel up the stairs in the back and discover the art deco section, depicting recent decorative arts and enjoying how art is found everywhere.

I once again move along to the next section, I come across a bridge. Behind me dressers with subtle flower designs and lamps with simplistic line patterns sit there, but in front of me a monstrous creature forced together with black sort of metal like substance. I could feel its harsh gaze coming from its horrific eyes. I continue through into the exhibit. When I walk in harsh statues of demonic figures strangle the walls shrouded in dark scalding red light. They’re bodies are contorted and twisted, other heads leech onto their bodies, animalistic faces replace human sympathy.

I stand there in this secluded exhibit where I’m completely alone. Only I and the monsters exist here. All the other exhibits had people milling around gawking at the heavenly art. Here, nothing but overwhelming silence. I go from exhibit to exhibit taking photos while maintaining a safe distance from their roughness. Then, I hear it, a creaking noise, the sound of old wheel rolling. I feel shivers creep up my spine, my heart begins to pound. I look over my shoulder to see a decaying old man with darker skin hunched over in a wheelchair. His fingers were thin and bony, his skin clung tightly to his bones, and he had a blank stare, a stare that never ended and was to nowhere in particular. Behind him a larger woman with pale skin stood behind him. Her porcelain skin was covered in pure white nurse scrubs. Her cheeks were rosy but not full of life. Her cropped light blonde hair ended at her chin.

I turned away and returned to my camera, trying not to gawk. Behind me I could hear the sound, the dreadful creaking as she pushed him from exhibit to exhibit. Slowly the sound started to become louder, their getting closer. I ignore it and continue with pictures. With each shot I could hear them creeping towards me like a jaguar with its prey. Creak…. Creak….. CREAK………. The creaking was so loud I stopped taking photos, I felt a warm breath on the small of my back and heard deep raspy breaths. Every hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I held my sides and my arms began to shake. I tell myself, “Do it, just turn around, nothing bad can happen.” On the count of three I turn around, “one, two, three.” I whipped my head around to see nothing behind me, It was just me and the statues. I grabbed my camera and ran out of there.

This story is only a half truth, but it is a reflection on how I responded to the South Asian Gallery. I feel that there’s a negative outlook on this artwork. It’s seen as pagan in way, and it’s set aside for Greco-Roman art, European art, and Egyptian art. Even the placement of the exhibit made it feel secluded and strange. The reality is this art reflects a complex culture with its own traditions and values. Arts in South Asia were treated very seriously throughout their history because of its religious value. Art was often seen as gifts given to the gods. Art was mostly about moral ethics particularly in government. It was about the importance of having an orderly government. Due to this art often depicting the king as a commanding and unifying savior. Sculpture would also highlight the significance of virtue in war. Sculpture belonging to the South Indian Pallava dynasty would display this most by depicting diplomatic receptions, sacrificial horse symbolism, meeting of the king’s council, etc. It can also be noted that South Asian artists were very talented as it was expected for artists to know multiple art forms. An example is that sculptors were expected to know dance due to how the need to understand movement in the human body. The ideals of nobility and government were most important in South Asian art not demons or monsters.

Throughout my journey in this section, there were a few pieces that stuck out to me. One I found interesting is Shakyamuni Triumphing over Mara. The intense detail circulating around the main focal point, Buddha Shakyamuni, represents the demon, Mara (Death), using temptations to stop his enlightenment. The entirety of the sculpture represents Buddha Shakyamuni sitting upon his lotus throne surrounded by the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya. The base is composed of lions, elephant, and kneeling donor figures. The sculpture is from the 11th century and is made of black phyllite.

The next is a more simplistic sculpture, that’s actually a piece of a much larger sculpture. It’s simply known as Head of a Male. Head of a Male is currently just a small sculpture made up of stucco, a plaster type, it originally would have been attached to a body composed of concrete. This sculpture is from the Kushan-period in Gandhara in the 4th and 5th century. Unlike the Mathura faces, the Gandharan faces were more idealized giving it an expressionless look.

Lastly, I want to focus on a sculpture called, Avalokiteshvara. An Avalokiteshvara is an aspect of Buddhism surrounding the idea of how a Buddha will put their own Buddhahood aside for the need of others to release (moksha) from suffering (dukkha). The point is for the Avalokiteshvara to focus on the death and rebirth of others over his own buddhahood. Also his name has been interpreted as “the lord who looks in every direction,” implying his protective and guiding nature. The Avalokiteshvara is celebrated in multiple different cultures as well and is represented differently for each, in China he’s actually worshipped in a female form. This sculpture is from Kashmir or Western Tibet around 950-1050 and is made from copper alloy.

Overall, I find it interesting how perspective always layers over art. What we have been exposed to shapes our viewpoint so greatly. It causes us to view certain objects as clean, pure, and enlightening while also causing us to view things as demonic, twisted, and pagan. It’s always important to understand the other because it could be argued that it’s not the other. Just because it seems strange doesn’t mean it can’t be similar to you. A good example would be the Avalokiteshvara, looking upon the sculpture it’s inhuman face is jarring, and it’s body is more tense compared to European sculpture. However, it’s from another culture and while it seems like something evil at first, but when you look into it you realize that’s not the case. Art is subjective and changes meaning from culture to culture. It’s important to understand that it all has value and a distinct personality.

Bibliography

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Avalokiteshvara.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Avalokiteshvara.

Dimock, Edward C., et al. “South Asian Arts.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 May 2018, www.britannica.com/art/South-Asian-arts.

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