NEW YORK.-An exhibition of magnificent masks from the Himalayas will be presented by London dealer Rossi & Rossi at the Neuhoff Gallery, Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, New York, from Saturday 7 to Tuesday 17 March 2009. Facing the Music comprises thirty masks made from wood or papier maché which date from the 19th and early 20th centuries and were used in Buddhist ritual dances. The exhibition coincides with New York's Asia Week, other dealer exhibitions and the International Asian Art Fair.
This collection of masks was formed by a European private collector and the majority comes from Bhutan, the last unspoiled cultural and ecological country in the Himalayas as well as the only remaining Buddhist Himalayan kingdom. The present monarch, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned on 6 November 2008 when ritual dances played a part in the ceremonies as masked dances are still an integral part of the culture there. The masked dances are performed for the benefit of all sentient beings with the profound belief that witnesses to the purification dances will enjoy long life and prosperity as well as freedom from suffering and illness. These mesmerising performances are accompanied by trumpets and strong rhythmic drumming, the dancers wearing brilliantly-coloured silk brocade costumes and dramatic and startling masks.
The masks in the exhibition have been used in Buddhist dances which celebrate the activities of historic people as well as local deities and the gods and goddesses of the Vajrayana pantheon. Vajrayana Buddhism is so called because of the ritual use of the vajra, a symbol of imperishable diamond, thunder and lightning. Central to the theme of the masked dances is Padmasambhava, the Indian master who introduced Vajrayana, the school of Tantric Buddhist teaching, to Tibet and is revered for his acts of ritual subjugation of the malevolent animist spirits of Tibet which tried to prevent the spread of Buddhism in their land.
Many of the masks on show have animal faces, some of which are assistants to Padmasambhava. Among them are the lion-headed goddess Senge gdom ma and the goddess Chu sring ma with the head of the mythical aquatic creature Makara, represented in the exhibition by a papier maché mask with an elephant trunk, the ferocious face with spotted skin reminiscent of the raised welts of alligator skin, fiery eyebrows, short horns, striped ears, fangs and tusks. A papier maché Wrathful Deity mask with three eyes, flaming eyebrows, moustache and beard, a crown of five skulls, and gaping mouth is another example of masks used for several different protective deities whose identity is determined only by the attributes such as a dagger and scorpion or sword and skullcup held in the hands of the dancer.
A wonderful raven mask may represent the raven-headed form of Mahakala, one of the principal guardian deities of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, who has more than 70 different aspects and is characteristically portrayed with a human head and a crow's beak. His name literally means maha, great, and kala, black, i.e. the great black lord. This divinity was the personal guardian deity of the founder of the Bhutanese state, Zhabs drung Ngag dbang rnam rgyal and is particularly revered by the Bhutanese. Raven masks are worn in Vajrakila dances where the dancer acts as one of the guardians of the four gates to the mandala. The earrings in wood made to represent bone hoops found on this mask could be worn by either Mahakala as a raven beak or the raven gate guardian.
Another superb mask represents Garuda, the Hindu deity depicted as a hybrid creature with an eagle's beak and horns, integrated into the Buddhist pantheon as protector of the Buddha's teachings. This wood example has three eyes, fangs inside the gaping beak and a flaming jewel finial adorning the top of the head.
Other masks represent the citipati dancers, the lords of the cemetery who assist the god of death Yama, whose grinning skeletons mirthfully remind us of the impermanence of human existence and the importance of accumulating good karma to ensure a favourable rebirth. A wood skeleton mask in the exhibition, although macabre and dark, has a gaily grinning face and sports a simple crown above the empty eye sockets. Similarly mocking are the Atsara, represented by a human mask with a large hooked nose, who tease and provoke the crowd and the deities, bringing life and laughter to the ritual dances. Their ludicrous behaviour reminds the faithful of how they should behave and thus reinforces the ideals of Vajrayana Buddhism. A stunning red papier maché Atsara mask in the exhibition has high cheekbones and a shaven head.
While these extraordinary, animated masks of museum quality offer an insight into Buddhist rituals still performed today on 'the roof of the world', they are also wonderful pieces of sculpture which would look stunning in any private collection. They will be on sale in New York for prices ranging from $15,000 to $40,000. The display of masks will be complemented by a selection of tantric paintings and furniture. In addition, Himalayan sculpture and ritual objects dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries from another remarkable private collection formed over the last 15 years will be also on view.
The exhibition of masks is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by Amy Heller, a Tibetologist specializing in Tibetan history and philology, particularly the field of Tibetan art history and rituals, and Tokyo-based Andrew Maerkle, formerly Deputy Editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine and one of the founding editors of the relaunch of the fortnightly online publication Artkrush. Maerkle also writes on international art in Esquire Japan and is a contributor to The Japan Times.
Rossi & Rossi was founded in London in 1985 by Anna Maria Rossi who has been active in the field of Asian art for over 30 years. In 1988 she was joined by her son Fabio who started travelling to Asia with his parents at an early age and moved to London in 1983 to attend the School of Oriental and African Studies. Together, Anna Maria and Fabio Rossi have established a reputation as leading dealers in traditional Indian and Himalayan art as well as contemporary Asian art, particularly Tibetan. Among their clients are such institutions as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Tokyo National Museum.