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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston presents exhibition featuring newly conserved 17th century Tibetan paintings
Gonkar Gyatso (Tibetan, born 1961), The Shambala in Modern Times, 2008. Silkscreen with gold and silver leaf on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Marshall H. Gould Fund. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- The search for the utopian realm of Shambhala, also sometimes known as “Shangri-la,” has captured the imagination of people for thousands of years. Be it a state of mind or an actual place somewhere in Central Asia, this legendary kingdom is said to be ruled by a lineage of 32 mythological kings who are protectors of Tibetan Buddhist texts. A set of newly conserved 17th-century paintings representing 22 of these Shambhala kings provides the focal point of the MFA’s exhibition Seeking Shambhala, on view from March 6 to October 21 on the second floor of the Museum. Through these centuries-old scroll paintings and decorative objects, as well as contemporary works, the exhibition examines the spiritual journey to find “The Pure Land” where peace reigns, wealth abounds, and no illness exists. Seeking Shambhala is presented with generous support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund and the Dr. Robert A. and Dr. Veronica Petersen Fund for Exhibitions.

The exhibition features more than 60 objects primarily from the MFA’s collection. The Museum has one of the largest sets of Shambhala kings paintings outside of Asia, and the exhibition represents the first time that the restored works will be seen with the scroll painting Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan, second half of the 17th century). These thangkas, or Tibetan paintings on silk or cotton, incorporate Buddhist symbols and iconography associated with each of the kings. Included in the exhibition are decorative works that capture this rich imagery and offer clues identifying the kings and placing them in order within the lineage. Complementing these paintings are contemporary works created by Gonkar Gyatso, one of the foremost Tibetan artists, and Tadanori Yokoo, the highly celebrated Japanese artist. Their personal quests to find Shambhala—śambhu in Sanskrit, which means “Source of Happiness” (bde 'byung) in Tibetan—reinforce this mystical place’s relevance in the modern world. Featured among the contemporary works on view will be Gyatso’s Radioactive (2011, Courtesy of Gonkar Gyatso and Beyer Projects Collection), a large cast-resin sculpture of Buddha Shakyamuni decorated with a collage of modern-day references, which is on view in the gallery in front of the entrance to the Museum’s Buddhist Temple Room.

“I am always delighted by opportunities to bring to light paintings from our collections that have not been readily exhibited,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “Asian Conservation has breathed new life and energy into these magnificent kings by returning the paintings to their original regal and glorious formats. By combining this 17th-century set with contemporary art by Gonkar Gyatso and Tadanori Yokoo, new connections are formed. Our visitors will be pleasantly surprised by the symbolism, color, and brilliance of this exhibition.”

Conservation of Thangkas
The thangkas were given to the MFA in 1906 by collector and Museum benefactor Denman Waldo Ross, who purchased them in Paris. They had been brought from China and are thought to have been made for a monastery. When the Museum acquired the paintings, which are traditionally not signed by the master painter and his apprentices, they had been stripped of their textile mounts. Around 1910 they were placed on rigid panels in an attempt to preserve them. Through recent conservation efforts, they have been returned to their customary formats as hanging scrolls. Under the direction of exhibition organizer Jacki Elgar, the MFA’s Head of Asian Conservation and Head of International Projects, Asia, the Museum’s Asian Conservation Department restored the paintings, assisted in the process by a host of people around the world. Buddhist silk brocades were made in Tibet and Taiwan, silk veils and streamers were sewn at the Kopan Monastery and Nunnery in Nepal, and gilt bronze end-knobs shaped like eight-petal lotuses were fabricated in Japan. Additionally, the MFA’s Museum Associates helped stitch the textile mounts for the 23 paintings.

According to ancient Tibetan Buddhist and Bon texts, Shambhala is a fabulous kingdom hidden by mist and a ring of snowcovered mountains, where the rulers safeguard the Kalachakra Tantra, sacred teachings about the “Wheel of Time” that, through practice and meditation, allows one to achieve enlightenment. The texts also foretell of a world that descends into chaos and war, and of one king who will emerge after the apocalypse to restore order and prosperity in the year 2424.

The 32 rulers are divided into two lineages, the Dharma and the Kalki kings. The MFA’s holdings include paintings from both, beginning with King Suchandra, who was among the select disciples to be taught the Kalachakra by the Buddha Shakyamuni. He became the first of the seven Dharma (Religious or Truth) Kings of Shambhala. In the colorful painting Suchandra, First Dharma King of Shambhala (Tibet, late 17th century), the monarch holds lotuses, a diamond scepter (vajra), and hand-bell (ghanta). At his feet are an offering bowl of jewels and a devoted subject holding a Tibetan manuscript (sutra). Included in the exhibition are objects that relate to the imagery in this and other paintings, such as Ritual Implements: Bell, Thunderbolt, Carrying Case (Tibetan, Buddhist, about 18th century), Prajnaparamita sutra (Perfection of Wisdom manuscript) (Tibetan, 17th century), and Official’s pendant earring (so-byis) (Tibet, late 19th century).

The exhibition also features paintings of four other Dharma Kings of the first lineage, including Sureshana, Seventh Dharma King of Shambhala (Tibet, late 17th century). It shows the ruler as the “Cutter of Delusion,” who wields a flaming double-edged sword (khadga) over his head while holding a shield (phalaka) in his other hand. The wrathful king sits on a human corpse, his left foot supported by its head. Complementing this work is Ritual sword (khadga) with scabbard (Tibet, early 14th century), a cast-iron blade with crocodile-skin-covered scabbard, decorated in gold, silver, iron, coral, glass, and lapis lazuli. The sword’s hilt evokes an elaborately embellished diamond scepter, a common attribute among Shambhala kings.

The second lineage kings, the Kalki (Rigden in Tibetan), are known as “Holders of the Caste.” A late 17th-century Tibetan painting of the first Kalki King, Manjushri Yashas (who would be the eighth Shambhala king), is highlighted in the exhibition. He founded Shambhala’s second lineage of 25 kings, uniting all of the kingdom’s inhabitants into one vajra-caste, or family of tantric practitioners. As the incarnation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, he also simplified the Kalachakra teaching—still in use today. A 15th–16th-century Tibetan statue of the bodhisattva, made of gilt copper, semi-precious stones, and gold, is on view near the painting, where he sits cross-legged on a double lotus pedestal, his hands in the gesture of teaching. It is one of many beautiful sculptures on view in Seeking Shambhala featuring Buddhas and bodhisattvas—those who have attained enlightenment, but who have postponed nirvana for the sake of helping others in their own spiritual journeys. The exhibition also includes a gilt brass statue of Ngawang Losang Gyatso, the Fifth Dali Lama (1617–82) (Tibet, 17th century), who unified his country under the control of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition (the Yellow Hats) during the 17th century.

In addition to this first Kalki king, the MFA’s collection includes paintings of 13 other kings of this lineage. Two are of special note: Aniruddha, and Rudra Chakrin. Aniruddha, the Twenty-First Kalki King, is believed to be the current monarch, whose reign extends from 1927 to 2027. By the end of this period, the Kalachakra teachings will be nearly extinct. In the painting of him, he holds the ankusha (iron hook or elephant goad) and rope noose as an enraged lion stares up at him bearing his teeth and projecting a sword-like tongue. Placed near the painting is a Ritual axe (parasu) (China, 1368–98), decorated in gold and silver, which is similar in appearance to the ankusha held by some of the Shambhala kings. The last ruler, Rudra Chakrin, Twenty-fifth Kalki King of Shambhala, will wage a final battle with the enemies of Buddhism in 2424, and after the apocalypse, a new golden age will emerge. In the painting of Rudra Chakrin, he appears as a heroic warrior holding a spear and shield, looming large as he charges from the left in a snow-lion-drawn chariot, flanked by his army. Four enemy warriors lie on the ground, their distinctive ethnic characteristics and dress symbolizing all of mankind.

Contemporary Shambhala Works
These nearly 400-year-old paintings and sculptures symbolize the ideal world thought to exist in Shambhala. For many, the search for this realm continues though the present day as evidenced by the works of contemporary artists Gonkar Gyatso, who was born (1961) in Tibet under Chinese rule, and Tadanori Yokoo, a native of Japan (born in 1936). The exhibition showcases three works by each artist.

“When I first examined Tadanori Yokoo’s SHAMBHALA series years ago, I was mesmerized—his images were so psychedelic and vivid. Later, in the early 1990s, I discovered the Shambhala kings paintings in storage at the Museum and began researching the materials and techniques the artists used to create them,” said curator Jacki Elgar. “Then, as I began to organize this exhibition of the Shambhala kings, Gonkar Gyatso’s Shambala in Modern Times was shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, prompting this serendipitous blend of old and new.”

Gyatso’s Shambala in Modern Times (2008) a set of prints recently acquired by the MFA, features a collage image of the Buddha. Within the silhouetted head the artist uses several languages to convey the written word and creates his own Chinese/Tibetan characters. A halo surrounds the Buddha and is filled with exploding images of the every-day world, from children’s stickers to newspaper clippings to advertisements. The notion of artist identity is also examined by Gyatso, especially since most traditional Tibetan paintings remain anonymous. In his series of photographs, My Identity (2003), he explores his personal journey. The first photograph shows Gyatso in a traditional Tibetan robe, painting a Buddha as a thangka painter would, followed by an image of him wearing a Chinese Communist uniform from the Cultural Revolution period, painting a picture of Chairman Mao. The third photograph shows Gyatso as a modern Tibetan refugee artist painting a picture of the 14th Dalai Lama, and the fourth is an image of him as an expatriate artist working in London, painting an abstract work.

Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo originally thought the route to Shambhala was through yoga meditation and religious study, then he had a dream of a monk he had known who said, “I bring the King of Shambhala,” but when Yokoo looked at him, he only saw pure light. This inspired the artist to look within himself for inner peace, and his series SHAMBALA (1974) was created during this period of soul searching. It comprises 14 vividly hued silkscreened prints featuring symbolic imagery borrowed from Indian advertisements for incenses, the Hindu and Buddhist pantheon, and popculture. They range from pyramids of dynamic energy exchanged over the sun, to the artist’s footprints (akin to those found in Buddhist paintings denoting an enlightened being), to the Egyptian Temple of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Kings. Yet another evokes Pink Floyd’s 1973 album cover for Dark Side of the Moon. Yokoo’s The Mantra Waterfall (1992) also reflects his personal journey in search of Shambhala, which began in the early 1970s. This digital techanimation references the underground caves and waterfalls that Yokoo believes to be at the entrance to Shambhala. This kinetic work uses the waterfall motif with Christian and Japanese Buddhist iconography, seen through a kaleidoscope’s perspective. The artist’s other work in the show, Chakras II (1974, Collection of the Artist), reuses the image of Tejas-Bhumi (Fire-Earth) from the SHAMBHALA series to highlight the chakra or “wheel” associated with the body’s centers of energy.

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