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
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
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.
José and two of his students dye silk for thangkas.
All photos by Jermel Quillopo