Seeing the unseen

Sunday, September 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Pieces of art that adorned ancient temples in India centuries ago now line the walls of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Small sculptures that were once devotional icons at home are on display, worn from years of being cleansed and anointed.

“The Infinite and the Absolute: Belief and Being in the Art of South Asia” opened Aug. 28 at the museum in Pickard Hall. The exhibit features sculptures from 1000 B.C. through the 19th century from three influential India-based religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Each piece is meant to be a symbol of belief — rich in symbolism and grounded in ancient religious texts, right down to the poses and hand gestures of the spirits and gods depicted, said Jeffrey Wilcox, the museum’s registrar and curator of the exhibition.

The pieces did not start out as art; they were meant to remind people of their faith, Wilcox said.

“People want something to look at and focus on, something tangible,” he said. “These sculptures are to make visible the unseen, to help people focus their attention and help meditation.”

Though separated by religious differences and time, the artwork is connected by the central idea of keeping faith visual. The Hindu section of the exhibit focuses mainly on the key deities — Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu — and the other gods related to them. A substantial portion is dedicated to Hindu goddesses.

The display on Buddhism focuses on Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha. The artwork takes the observer through the life and enlightenment of Buddha, depicted in different episodes.

Jainism, the least known of the three religions, is represented by a smaller selection of sculptures. The artwork shows the principles and rituals behind a faith that seeks to conquer the excesses of the human condition. Some of the pieces reflect practices of self-punishment or denial, such as fasting.

The exhibit’s 122 pieces, most of which belong to the museum, are infrequently displayed because of a lack of space. Altogether, the museum owns more than 500 pieces of South and Southeast Asian art.

Most of the works in the current exhibition were donated by 20 individuals, beginning in the 1960s. One major donor, the late Samuel Eilenberg, was instrumental in helping form the museum’s South Asian collection. The three works that do not belong to the museum are gifts from an anonymous lender.

Wilcox started planning the show in January, and he was aided by a small focus group made up of members of the community and university. Wilcox said they suggested tie-in events and ways to promote the exhibit.

Signe Cohen, an assistant professor in MU’s Department of Religious Studies, participated in the focus group. She said she thinks it is wonderful that the museum has the chance to show off its collection of Asian art.

“The university is lucky to have this treasure, and it is a great resource for the members of the university to see art with culture,” she said.

Marlene Perchinske, the museum’s director, said that the exhibit has been well-received so far and that someone always seems to be in the gallery. Perchinske said a number of schools have expressed interest in taking tours to see the material that has long been put away in storage.

“Our goal is to explore culture and all of its diversity to students and the public through our exhibitions and programs,” she said.

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