Tibetan Buddhist Art Exhibition at VMFA

By Annie Tobey | April 25th, 2019

New exhibition offers to educate and enlighten visitors

The Three Protectors of Tibet, 2008, Tsherin Sherpa (Nepalese, b. 1968), ink and colors on cotton. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
© Tsherin Sherpa. Photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco


By its very nature, art can serve a therapeutic purpose, offering to relax our souls as it stimulates our senses and scintillates our minds. The new exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts goes a step further. “Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment” was crafted to enhance spiritual tranquility while sharing the art of Tibetan Buddhism.

VMFA Awaken
Naro Dakini, 18th century, Tibetan, bronze, gold leaf. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Mary Shepherd Slusser. Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The exhibition’s co-curators intended “to create an exhibition that visitors would not just come to see, but to do, to experience,” said Dr. John Henry Rice, VMFA’s curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, who worked with Dr. Jeffrey Durham, associate curator of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. “We present the stunning, complex part of Tibetan Buddhism by creating a story … which we invite the museum visitor to join and to actively participate in. That story is of a journey … from the fragmentation and confusion of ordinary experience through the meditative terrain of Tibetan Buddhism and toward the focus and clarity of the awakened or enlightened mind.”

In following the exhibition, visitors make their way through a series of ten galleries, corresponding to states along the spiritual quest. The first gallery establishes the chaos of everyday life with a dark, fragmented video presentation that fills the room and with a series of discontinuous mirrors, fragmenting the participant and reflecting the cacophonous video.

The chaos is followed by an exploration of the historical Buddha, of learning about Buddhism’s essential teachings and by the promise of finding a way out of the disorder. The visitor finds a room for contemplation and journeys through four galleries that represent stages of movement into a mandala – a painting representing a spiritual map. In following the spiritual story, visitors learn of the journey’s guides, the allies, specialized equipment and mandala and of the challenges that await along the way.

In the final galleries, says Rice, “You encounter the wrath at the very center of the map and confront the most primal of fears, death itself … (which) reveals that the mind is capable of conquering hate. In the last two, (you move) from dark meditative crescendo to an intense light, symbolic of an awakened mind … confusion gives way to clarity, fragmentation is replaced by singular focus.”

VMFA Awaken
Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi, late 15th–early 16th century, Central Tibet, opaque watercolor on cloth. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Gift of Paul Mellon. Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Most of the 100 objects in the exhibition come from the collections of the VMFA and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, with additional works from private collections and institutions, including the Rubin Museum of Art, the Newark Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The pieces range from ninth century to contemporary.

The exhibition runs from April 27 to Aug. 18, 2019. Related special events include:

  • A talk by the co-curators, May 2.
  • Mandala sand painting by Tibetan Buddhist monks, May 2-5.
  • Open studio for mandala construction, May 2-5, open to all ages
  • Visit by Tsherin Sherpa, artist-in-residence, May 14-17
  • Meditation and Mindfulness series, multiple sessions between May 22 and July 20

“Through this immersive exhibition, we are … allowing visitors to deepen their understanding of the role played by works of art in Tibetan Buddhist culture and religious practices,” said Alex Nyerges, VMFA director.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
200 N. Boulevard, Richmond

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