Mandala of Chakrasamvara. Tibet, 14th-15th century. Pigment on cloth. Rubin Museum of Art.

Traveling Exhibition Introduces Lehigh Community to Himalayan Artworks

Latest LUAG exhibition will feature Himalayan art, which includes works from the Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Kashmir, Bhutan and areas of northern India and Pakistan.

Story by

Christina Tatu

From intricate painted scrolls depicting colorful deities representing the Buddhist values of compassion and wisdom, to objects such as a silver and wood prayer wheel studded by turquoise stones, Lehigh University Art Galleries’ (LUAG) latest exhibition gives viewers an entry point into the varied world of Himalayan art.

From Jan. 31 through May 26, LUAG’s main gallery at Zoellner Arts Center will be the first stop for “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” a traveling exhibition from the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

In addition, LUAG will host a Tibetan New Year celebration called “Losar” from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Feb. 17 with food and music from the region. The event will be held in Zoellner’s main and lower galleries.

Along with the artwork, the exhibition features print and digital material, both in-gallery and online, including first-person voices from Himalayan and Inner Asian communities, artists and religious practitioners. It includes three areas of focus: Symbols and Meanings, Materials and Technologies and Living Practices.

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha. Tibet, 17th century.

“It’s a broad array of objects that will be on display,” said William Crow, director of LUAG and professor of practice in art, architecture and design. “Everything from scroll paintings which are called Thangka paintings—pronounced ‘tonga—to sculptures made from wood, metal and stone, to objects that are used in rites and ceremonies, and objects used to promote well-being and health.”

There will be about 100 artworks and objects on display, Crow said.

The exhibition is the result of several years of effort and collaboration between the Rubin Museum and LUAG, said Annabella Pitkin, associate professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions and director of the Asian Studies Program at Lehigh.

Pitkin is on the faculty advisory board of the Rubin Museum’s Project Himalayan Art, a three-part initiative, which includes the traveling exhibition, designed to encourage the incorporation of Himalayan, Tibetan and Inner Asian art and cultures into humanities and liberal arts curriculum.

The initiative seeks to remedy underrepresentation, due in large part to the lack of introductory resources for teaching Himalayan art, according to Rubin’s website. The project’s strategy is to work with faculty to create content for teaching on Asia within a wide range of disciplines, including history, religion, art, anthropology and the natural sciences.

Lehigh already has several pieces of Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist paintings and sculptures in its permanent collection, Pitkin said.

Chakrasamvara with Consort Vajravarahi

Chakrasamvara with Consort Vajravarahi. Kham region, eastern Tibet, 19th century.

“For several years it’s been a goal to build on that and to bring the Rubin’s Gateway to Himalayan Art traveling exhibition to Lehigh, to share the riches of Himalayan art more widely with all of our students and the broader campus and Bethlehem community,” Pitkin said.

The exhibition is also designed to be an accessible teaching tool and learning experience for students and faculty with no prior knowledge of the Himalayan region or art history.

“It has something to offer classes across the disciplines, with materials that connect to health, engineering, history, literature, environmental studies, the natural sciences and more,” Pitkin said.

There will be further workshops and gallery tours for students and educators as well as artistic and cultural events centered around the exhibition, she said. On April 28, Lehigh’s Asian Studies Program will hold a Spring Asian Studies Colloquium in conjunction with the exhibition.

In partnership with LUAG, Lehigh's Global Citizenship Center will use the exhibition as part of the 2023 Global Teaching and Learning Fellows Seminar, which helps faculty learn how to bring a global perspective to their teaching and use art as a pedagogical tool. From May 20-29, seven faculty members will travel to Rishikesh, India, in the Himalayan foothills, where they will be able to reflect on what it means to study abroad and how to use place-based learning in their own classrooms.

Crow believes the exhibition will have something for everyone.

“I would say these are objects that reward close looking and observation,” he said. “They are very visually dense and complex and the closer one looks, the more one sees. They often have narratives that are unfolding of complex characters, figures from the Buddhist canon and imagery.”

Crow also acknowledged that for many viewers, this will be their first introduction to Himalayan art.

“It’s an opportunity for people to enjoy these magnificent objects and determine what they take away from them, visually, through color, through body language and through symbols,” he said. “It may even cause people to reflect on how we made meaning from those types of things in our everyday lives.”

Pitkin expressed her gratitude for the Rubin Museum team for their work to bring the exhibition to Lehigh, in particular Senior Curator Elena Pakhoutova, Senior Curator Karl Debreczeny and Executive Director Jorrit Britschgi.

The “Gateway to Himalayan Art” tour will last through 2025 and make stops at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the Frank Museum of Art at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Sponsors for the exhibit include the Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. At Lehigh, the Office of International Affairs, Asian Studies Program and Department of Religion Studies sponsored the exhibit.

Handheld prayer wheel.

Handheld prayer wheel. Central Tibet, early 20th century.

Story by

Christina Tatu

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