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By Ku'ulei Funn, editor

Each yard of silk, stitch of thread, and stroke of paint in the restoration of thangkas is crafted with extremely careful and precise effort. Thangkas, a precious form of Buddhist art. Thangka, or scroll painting, is a religious painting of the Buddha and/or Bodhisattva bordered with silk and typically hung at a religious altar for prayer. These paintings, art works to us in the West, are sacred images to the Bhutanese, images of religious reverence that resonate within its culture.

Every aspect of Bhutanese culture is deeply influenced by religious practice and tradition. Bhutan is the only country in the world that practices Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, as its official religion, and it has done so in an unbroken tradition dating back thousands of years.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts (HAA) will be presenting The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan in the first comprehensive exhibition of Bhutanese Buddhist art in the United States. Starting Feb. 26 and on view through May 23, 2008 the exhibition will showcase rare religious Buddhist art with a special focus on Bhutanese culture and ritual. Two main branches of Vajrayana Buddhism will be represented in the exhibition: the Drukpa Kagyu and the Nyingma. During a four-year research program, HAA was granted unprecedented access to the religious arts of Bhutan with the permission of the Bhutanese Royal Family, Bhutan’s Department of Culture, and its Central Monastic Authority.
The HAA’s Asian Paintings Conservation Studio has committed three years to train Bhutanese monks in advanced techniques of Himalayan painting conservation to restore thangkas. Ephraim “Eddie” José, head conservator and trainer of the project, carefully inspects each scroll before restoration.

“ I get a gut feeling about it,” said José, as he described the process of choosing thangka to restore. Some thangka are too damaged and cannot be restored. The original artist painted each Bodhisattva and deity with meticulous detail. If one is missing from a scroll painting, José will not restore it because he does not want to ruin or replace an important character on the scroll.

“ The standard is to be as minimally invasive as possible,” said Shawn Eichman, curator of Asian Art, as he described the care and precision each monk must take to restore each thangka.

José and his team of nine monks and other HAA volunteer use mineral pigments to repaint images on the thangkas. The pigments are made from crushed jade, semi-precious stones, and gold to authentically recreate the vivid colors of the original thangkas.

Since the program began in 2004, José has conserved 60 thangka originally created in the 18th and 19th centuries. The project is a 10-year commitment toward restoring ancient thangkas, and it includes trainting a cadre of Bhutanese monks to carry on e the restoration and establish practices of conservation.

Norbu Tshering, 19, a Buddhist monk, has traveled thousands of miles from his monastery, or goenpa, high in the mountains of Bhutan, to Honolulu, where he is the youngest of nine monks learning to restore these sacred paintings. He practiced painting thangkas for five years before he was specially selected by his instructor to be sent to Hawai‘i to train with José. He is still a beginner in his training; therefore, he is not allowed, yet, to paint yet. José assigned him to ironing the silks that are used in the borders of these paintings.

The monks are usually subject to strict conditions at their monastery in Bhutan, which has prepared them for José’s restoration training. “They still beat them,” said José, describing the kind of discipline Norbu and other monks had experienced before coming to Hawai‘i. Norbu is one of the only monks that speak English in José’s group, and he smiled shyly as he explained that while monastic discipline is strict, physical punishment is not as harsh as it once was.

“ They are spoiled, actually, here,” said José. The monks train six days a week, Monday thru Saturday, and typically have Sundays off. Some of them have been surfing on a day off. When Norbu was asked if he had been surfing, he eagerly nodded with a smile.

The project is funded entirely by the HAA and monies raised by José selling some of the monks’ works. One of the monks, Lopen Sangay Rinchen, painted mystic creatures on surfboards to be sold at an auction to raise money for the conservation project.

José plans a series of workshops in Bhutan to teach the monastaries how to conserve their thangkas, with the last conservation workshop scheduled for 2015. His dream is to build a self-sustaining program for the restoration and preservation of Bhutanese Buddhist art. He would like to see the monks that he has trained pass on the skills that he has taught them, ideally teaching other monks to restore and preserve thangkas as well.

The exhibition will present a variety of Buddhist art ranging from thangkas to brass sculptures. José is excited to share this exhibition with the public, as it will illustrate the strong Buddhist influence on Bhutanese culture.

“ This is not an art exhibition,” he said, “but a religious experience.”

Norbu Tshering prepares fine silk for the border of a thangka, a Buddhist scroll painting.

Eddie José carefully removes the backing of a thangka to prepare it for restoration.

Eddie José and two of his students dye silk for thangkas.

All photos by Jermel Quillopo



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