Visiting the “Jeweled Isle” Exhibition of Sri Lankan Art at LACMA

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to visit “The Jeweled Isle,” a major exhibition of Sri Lankan art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Exhibitions of Sri Lankan art in the U.S. are few and far between; to my knowledge, this is only the third exhibition devoted exclusively to the art of Sri Lanka. The first, in 1992-93 at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, focused exclusively on Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, while the second, the 2003 “Guardian of the Flame” exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, was limited to Buddhist artifacts. The LACMA exhibition, which opened last December and closed in early July (2019), presents a much broader focus, highlighting the interactions of the diverse communities, ethnicities, and religious identities that have taken root on the island over the past three millennia. This globalized perspective is effectively evoked by the first image that appears at the entrance to the exhibit: the island’s silhouette superimposed at the center of a web-like pattern that simultaneously evokes a network of global connections, and the facets of a jewel, one of the island’s natural resources that has captured the attention of traders and colonizers.

Sign at exhibit entrance.
(All photographs are mine, unless otherwise indicated; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2019)
Display of 21 precious gems from Sri Lanka.

The power of “jewels” is one of the key organizing themes that run throughout the exhibit, linking the human attraction to precious gemstones with two foundational forms of Buddhist practice: taking refuge in the “triple gem” of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and activities centered on the Buddha’s bodily relics, which have long been symbolically and physically linked with precious stones. Buddha relics are typically enclosed in two different kinds of containers, both of which appear throughout the exhibit: in the massive relic monuments (stupas) that spatially and ritually define important Sri Lankan Buddhist devotional sites (displayed here on palm-leaf manuscript covers and as captured by 19th-century colonial photographers), and in stupa-shaped reliquaries, which are either permanently enshrined in stupas or serve as moveable relic containers for devotional purposes. Several examples of reliquaries, labeled “votive stupas,” appear throughout the exhibit, dating from the 2nd-3rd century to the 19th century.

Rock crystal reliquary, 2nd-3rd cent.
Ivory reliquary, 17th-18th cent. Ebony reliquary, 19th cent.
Two illustrated palm-leaf manuscript covers (inside surface); the top pair (18th-19th cent.) are wood overlaid with inscribed silver; the bottom pair (19th cent.) are painted wood. Both include depictions of the 16 great pilgrimage sites associated with the tradition of Gotama Buddha’s three visits to the island; the upper set also depicts the bodhisattva’s encounter with 24 previous Buddhas prior to his final rebirth as Siddhartha, and the first seven weeks after his enlightenment. Together they illustrate the extended life of the Buddha, beginning with his first aspiration to Buddhahood countless ages ago, his three visits to the island during his lifetime, and his post-death connection to sixteen places across the island where his physical relics continue to mediate his presence in the world.
Detail, showing (above) the bodhisattva’s encounter with previous Buddhas and (below) the first seven weeks following his enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
Detail from gallery card.

These containers for precious materials evoke another key theme threading throughout the exhibition: the island itself as a physical container, bounded by water, and defined by the comings and goings of different groups of people throughout its long history. As the gallery card provided for the gemstone exhibit notes, in the early centuries of the Common Era the island was known as “Ratnadvipa” (Island of Gems), and legends developed that the gems found there originated from the tears of the Buddha, or of Adam and Eve. Medieval Christian and Islamic texts preserve a tradition that it was the site of Paradise. The island, with its strategic location for global trade and valuable natural resources and commodities (e.g., spices, gems, rubber, coffee, tea), has exerted a powerful centripetal force, attracting diverse groups of outsiders defined by a multiplicity of identity markers (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences). Sinhalas, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, trace their origins to North India, and the traditional account of their migration to the island is closely linked to the life of the Buddha: Vijaya, their legendary progenitor, is said to have set foot on the island on the day of Gotama Buddha’s parinibbāna (final passing away). Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, constitute the second largest ethnic group, and they trace their origins to groups of settlers from South India. Other ethnic groups include the Väddas, an indigenous group whose ancestors are regarded as predating the arrival of the Sinhalas; Moors, descended from Arab-speaking traders, who are predominantly Muslim; and Malays, also predominantly Muslim, whose ancestors came from the Malay Archipelago. Sri Lanka was also populated by three successive groups of European colonizers, beginning with the Portuguese in the early 16th century, followed be the Dutch in the 17th century, and finally the British who gained complete control of the island, then called Ceylon, in 1815 and ruled it as a British crown colony until its independence in 1948. The Burghers, a Eurasian community defined by links to a paternal ancestor of European descent, constitute an additional group.

All of these communities, with the exception of the Malays, are represented through the objects on display, most of which belong to the LACMA collection, supplemented by objects borrowed from a number of other museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Without attempting to provide a detailed account of the impact of European colonial rule, or of the long history of inter-ethnic conflicts on island, the objects on display effectively evoke the complex interactions of diverse groups, pointing to moments of shared interest and appreciation, as well as contestation and social othering. This is accomplished through the curators’ choice of objects for display, the exhibition’s integrated spatial layout and unified aesthetic plan (designed by a prominent Los Angeles architecture firm), and the strategically placed signage, which provides essential historical and cultural information. I was particularly impressed by the use of 19th-century photographs strategically placed throughout the exhibit to highlight the impact of British colonial points of view, including their fascination with Buddhist archaeological sites, aspects of the natural environment, and “native” Sri Lankans represented by shots of humble villagers, as well as members of the Kandyan aristocracy, a group that lost power with the British conquest of Kandy in 1815. These photographic displays culminate near the end of the exhibition with a series of 20 photographs by Reg van Cuylenburg (1926-1988), a Sri Lankan photographer of Kandyan Sinhalese, English, and Dutch descent who toured the island from 1949-58, documenting people and places in the newly independent nation. It is revealing, I think, to compare the very formal and static character of the 19th-century photos with the vibrant and dynamic force of van Cuylenburg’s “Village Girls Bathing” (see below). A final sign at the end of the exhibit, titled “Buddhist Legacies and Island Memories,” makes a poignant contrast between the optimism that informed van Cuylenburg’s work, and the more recent history of ethnic conflict, concluding: “Among the greatest tragedies in Sri Lanka’s recent history is the civil war (1983-2009) that pitted Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus, two groups that had coexisted and comingled for much of Sri Lanka’s history. It is unlikely that such a prolonged conflict could have been foreseen when Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain in 1948. Young Sri Lankans of that time, including the photographer Reg van Cuylenburg, reveled in optimism for the future of their island nation, which had been strewn for two millennia with the jewels of diverse communities, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”

19th-cent. colonial photographs: “Villager Selling Plaintains, c. 1890. Photo from exhibition catalogue: Robert Brown, et al., The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka (Los Angeles: LACMA, 2018).
“Kandyan Chief,” Scowen & Co., c. 1880-90.
Photographs displayed on wall near entrance to the exhibition, with introductory label.
Reg van Cuylenburg, “Village Girls Bathing,” c. 1950-58.

Much could be said about the ways that the exhibit portrays the deep integration of “Buddhist” and “Hindu” religious practices in the lives of Sri Lankans, providing a visual counter-narrative to one of the enduring legacies of British rule in South Asia—a taxonomy of knowledge that represented “world religions” such as Buddhism and Hinduism as tightly organized and exclusive systems of belief that closely aligned with other exclusivist racial/ethnic and linguistic categories (e.g., Buddhist/Sinhala and Hindu/Tamil). This integrative approach is apparent in the prominent display of a series of 17th-18th-century painted wood panels from the LACMA collection, which most likely served as window or door panels in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple (their original provenance is unknown; they came to the museum as a donation from the actor James Coburn). These depict major gods associated with Indian Brahmanical religion and planetary deities, as well as devotees and powerful local spirits. As the gallery card notes: “Sri Lankan Buddhist practices often involve honoring various deities who were originally assimilated from popular, folk, and Indian traditions in order to undergird Buddhism’s relevance to the everyday lives and goals of worshippers … [who] seek protection and benefits in their present lives, and the gods found throughout Buddhist temple complexes in Sri Lanka aid their efforts.” The two panels depicted below show the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha, and probably Shakra (Indra), who figures prominently in Theravada accounts of the Buddha’s life; a demonic spirit (commonly depicted as fierce guardians in Buddhist temples) and a female devotee are depicted in the lower registers of each panel.

Panel depicting Ganesha and a demonic spirit.
Probably Shakra, king of the gods; in the background can be seen a large carved wooden mask (20th-century) of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, chief of the demonic spirits (yakshas), who are engaged in yaktovil healing rituals. UVM’s Fleming Museum has several Sri Lankan yaktovil masks, including a very rare 19th-century mask of Maha Kola Sanni Yaksha, now prominently displayed in the Fleming’s new gallery of Asian art; see my discussion of the mask here.

The final object in the exhibition might at first strike the viewer as incongruous, as it was created by Lewis deSoto, a contemporary artist of Cahuilla Native American ancestry. Titled “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” it is a 26-foot inflatable image of the reclining Buddha with the artist’s own face. Like the inflatable lawn ornaments that appear during the holidays in the front yards of many American homes, it relies upon an electric fan to keep it inflated. As the nearby label notes, the sculpture’s inflation in the morning and its deflation at the close of the day calls to mind the rising and falling of “spiritual breath” (prana) in yogic practice, as well as the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It’s connection to Sri Lanka? It is inspired by the massive 12th-century reclining Buddha image at Gal Vihara, part of the Polonnaruwa temple complex in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly fitting that the last object in the exhibit simultaneously looks backward toward an ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist monument, and forward toward new globalized forms of Asian religious practice (yoga, as well as Buddhism in its multiple North American hybridized forms). And, once again, the curators have juxtaposed a final example of a British colonial gaze in the form of a 19th-century photograph of the Gal Vihara sculpture.

Joseph Lawton, photograph, “Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, 1870-71
Lewis deSoto, painted vinyl infused with cloth, “Paranirvana (Self Portrait),” 2015

I feel very fortunate to have been able to undertake this academic pilgrimage to Los Angeles to view this remarkable exhibition, which has given me much to reflect upon. I also want to express my gratitude to Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, co-curator, who very graciously walked me through the exhibition and gave me a better understanding of its genesis.

Alumni Spotlight: Jillian Ward ’11

MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT*

If a university education is meant to build not just a career but a productive and meaningful life, Jillian Ward’s UVM experience provides a compelling example. A native of Woodbridge, Conn., Ward ’11 was interested in entering the helping professions and declared psychology as her UVM major. It wasn’t until her second semester that she took an introduction to Asian religions class. She liked it so much, she took a few more religion courses, including sections on African religion and Buddhism. After a while she realized she was accumulating enough credits to earn a double major.

“They were the best classes I ever took, so I just kept taking them. By the time I got to upper level classes, I felt this amazing sense of community shared by a small cohort of students and professors.”

When it came to deep discussions, developing ideas for a thesis project or getting advice on writing and other academic projects, it was mostly faculty in the religion department whom she turned to for guidance. “The department became a sort of a sanctuary for me,” she said.

After UVM, Ward graduated from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in nursing, and now works as a trauma and neurology RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The perspectives she gained in her religion courses at UVM, and her interest in yoga, have informed her holistic approach to healing. “I did yoga at UVM and enjoyed it. Then I did it more intensely as a way of dealing with the stress of graduate school. I received my certification as a RYT (registered yoga teacher) and teach part time at Core Power YogaI. Now I see yoga as a key part of providing care that treats the patient’s mind, body, and inner spirit.”

As she becomes grounded in her career, Ward is looking forward: “My goal is to work in palliative care and hospice nursing…One of the reasons why my experience in the religion department was so powerful was the passion the instructors—every one of them—had for the subject matter and for their students,” Ward recalls. “They showed me how important it is to find something to be passionate about.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Mairé Gebhard ’18

Making a Difference*

Mairé Gebhard ’18

“My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion . . .

When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study political science. It wasn’t until my junior year, when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography, that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said ‘religion.’ I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day . . .

I am currently working for AmeriCorps in Florida with the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition where I am working with Haitian immigrants, teaching English to both children and adults. I have an eleven-month commitment with AmeriCorps and my plan is to apply for the PeaceCorps after my service here. People always ask ‘what you can do with a degree in religion’ and I think the great thing is that you’re not limited! My studies broadened my world view, taught me about race, gender, politics, and so much more than just religion.”

–Mairé Gebhard ’18

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Making a difference in the here and now*

Marissa (left) during a study abroad program in India.

As a high school student in Groton, Conn., Marissa McFadden ’17

was looking for a college that offered a lively religion program and a strong reputation in the sciences—at the time she had her sights set on medical school.

“I had never been to Vermont as a kid, but I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so the fact that UVM had a good medical school right on campus and a great rural atmosphere were really strong selling points for me.”

McFadden double-majored in biochemistry and religion, but felt a stronger tug to the latter discipline.

“I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. I don’t think I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world as an activist.”

In her second year at UVM she concentrated fully on religious studies. She still sees herself working in a clinical setting as a social worker–she’s now pursuing an MSW through UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

“Studying religion helps you empathize with people and what they are going through. It takes into account not just their belief systems but their cultural history, their stories, their circumstances. It provides me a way to bring the whole person into focus.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Lectures in Religion and Law

This Fall, Prof. Thomas Borchert has arranged a truly impressive speaker series–one that boasts academic rockstars and timely topics. The Lectures in Religion and Law Series, “Interrogating Religion Freedom in the US and Abroad,” features four talks between October and November 2018; two of which center on Asia and two on North America.

Prof. Borchert gave the first talk in the series himself! On October 3, he presented “Bloody Amulets and Punitive Disrobing: Reflections on the Legal Environment Governing Monks in Contemporary Thailand.” The talk was a CAS Full Professor lecture, a series sponsored by the College to honor and share the work of newly-minted full professors. We assume you may know his work already, but if not: Prof. Borchert writes about religion, nationalism, and Thailand.

Prof. Winnifred Sullivan is the second speaker. Renown scholar of law, religion, and the United States, Prof. Sullivan’s talk, “Banning Bibles: Death-Qualifying a Jury,” will be on October 11.

Next, we welcome Prof. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who focuses on law, religion, international relations, and the concept of religious freedom. Her talk, “Religion and Politics after Religious Freedom,” will be held on November 2.

Finally, Prof. Jolyon Thomas joins us a lecture titled “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan” on November 13. He is a scholar of definitions of religion, religious freedom, religion and media, Asian religious traditions, and religion and law. This talk is also the Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Mairé Gebhard

Mairé Gebhard ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Mairé Gebhard ’18

This question, combined with a face full of confusion/wonder, will forever haunt me. It’s a hard question to answer, because so many things led to my decision. My father is a Presbyterian minister, my mother a self-proclaimed agnostic. I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, however my parents were both constantly discussing and introducing other religions. I remember distinctly having a menorah, talking about Kwanza, my mom referencing different Hindu Gods, and my most fond memory of my mom reminding us every year on Christmas that the reason we celebrate the holiday when he we do actually because of ancient Indo-Iranian mythology and the God Mithras. I was constantly surrounded by discussions about religion.

When I got into middle school I began to reject religion pretty fiercely. When I was in high school and began going on college tours I told everyone I wanted to study Political Science. It wasn’t until my junior year when I took a religion course combined with a class called Human Geography (basically like a high school anthropology class) that my thoughts began to change. I distinctly remember the day I was touring colleges the summer before senior year and changed my answer to what I wanted to study. I said Religion. I came in declared and haven’t regretted it a single day.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea. My mind changes every other day! Honestly, I still have no clue “what I want to be when I grow up,” but I’ve come to realize (with the reminder of my mother and professors) that that’s okay. I’ll figure it out, or I won’t, and I’ll let you know in another 10 years.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Honestly, any class with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. Seriously. I think that every single student, everyone in our country really, needs to take a course on Islam. Religion and Empire fundamentally changed the way I think.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

This year for my religion practicum and colloquium I wrote a paper titled “With God on Our Side: The American Flag and Patriotic Symbols in the American Christian Church” and have never had more fun writing a paper. If I could write a book I would expand on this research.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

So many. 481 Main feels like home: because I came in declared a religion major, I have been going to that building since my first year at UVM. There is something comforting about the department, and I feel incredibly scholarly sitting around the table in the seminar room. From long chats about classes and life with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst, to existential crisis about paper topics with Professor Borchert, to feeling like a real scholar discussing theory with my colleagues—I will never forget my time at the religion department.

Senior Spotlight 2018: Simon Wolfe

Simon Wolfe ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Simon Wolfe ’18

I initially chose religion because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but at the time

I thought I might want to be a rabbi.  I stuck with it because religion turned out to encompass quite a lot, and I’ve always thought of it as the best parts of literature and history smooshed into one.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

No idea.  The world is big and scary and there’s somehow to much and not enough to do at the same time.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I’ve said for years that Intro to Islam with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst should be required for everyone in arts and sciences.  That course fundamentally changed the way I see not only Islam, not only religion, but the whole crazy entangled world all together.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

I wish I could expand my term paper from Religion and Empire which was about the abolitionists Maria W Stewart and Angelina Grimke.  It would be titled something like The Nasty Christian Women of Abolition: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Discursive Struggle for Liberation.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

No memories in particular, but its always been my favorite building on campus.  The seminar room and all its beautiful dark wood and old books have always made me feel very comfortable.  I had my first class ever in that room, a TAP course on the Bible with Professor Clarke.  Every other classroom has been something of a disappointment since then, but luckily religion classes end up in there with some regularity, and it’s always been a little spot of home on a campus that so often seems to value STEM over the humanities.  When/if I come back to visit campus, that will be the first and one of the few spots on my list.

Upcoming Religion@UVM Events on Campus!

It’s the middle of the spring semester, so predictably, that means there is a bounty of Religion@UVM events–whether that’s sponsored, co-sponsored, faculty-initiated, or featuring a faculty speaker! Check out the UVM calendar but also the information below.

 


Join us on Tuesday, April 3, alongside the UVM Humanities Center, Romance Languages and Linguistics, History, and Art and Art History departments for a talk by Prof. E. Bruce Hayes of the University of Kansas.



Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, in her capacity as Director of the Middle East Studies Program, has invited scholar of religion Prof. Megan Goodwin of Northeastern University to campus. Join us on Thursday, April 5.


Prof. Richard Sugarman will give The Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies Holocaust Remembrance Day Lecture on April 12, 2018.




 

We’re celebrating our very many new books–and we hope you’ll join us–on Friday, April 13!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


On April 20, Prof. Clark welcomes Dr. Amy Appleford to campus for a talk titled “Dying Daily: The Vernacular Office of the Dead in Late Medieval England.


 

 

 

 

On Friday, April 20, Prof. Vicki Brennan hosts a day-long symposium featuring keynote speakers, student presentations, and more. It is the culmination of years worth of work, lecture series, film series, multiple courses, and the Sacred Things exhibition–you don’t want to miss it.


Prof. Thomas Borchert, in his capacity as Director of the Asian Studies Program has invited Prof. Kristian Petersen of the University of Nebraska Omaha to deliver the Claire M. Lintilhac Seminar in Asian Studies. Join us on Monday April 23.

 

 


 

Recent & Upcoming Faculty Speaking Events

Our faculty are on the move, offering public lectures on their varied fields of expertise around the country. See below for details!

In February, Prof. Erica Andrus talked about science fiction, Battlestar Galactica, and religion at The Ohio State University’s Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In early March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be part of a panel at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that same week, Prof. Kevin Trainor will be in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He will be a guest speaker in a major event on relics and reliquaries titled Sacred Access.

 

 

 

 

 

And, at the end of March, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst will be at Duke University as a keynote speaker. Her talk is titled After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia.

Senior Spotlight: Linda Biafore

Linda Biafore in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Linda Biafore ’16

Why did you major in Religion?

After transferring from art school, I decided on Religion and Classics majors because I was interested in world mythology. It was during my first Intro Comparative Religion class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst that made me decide to focus on Religion. In short, it blew my mind, and I was very excited and eager to learn more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

My plans change pretty constantly. I hope to get a job at a college or university, as staff, in financial aid, admissions or advising–something that helps students with the hard parts of college and post-college life. (Bonus: this job within a college or university will help pay for a graduate degree.)

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would highly recommend REL196: Race and Religion in America with Professor Chipumuro. The class was engaging, intense, and introspective. You learn about the world that is right in front of you; aspects of our daily lives that we overlook every day. Every class discussion was relevant to current events, because we were learning about how religion motivates movements, traditions, and our own worldviews in our society.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

To be honest, I would write a book in the style of “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Mitchell Miner. I love turning the lens around on our own society and analyzing the way we talk about cultures that aren’t our own.