Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism
As the world seemingly grows more chaotic, people are looking for peace, safety, and tranquility. Many turn to religion, but with many conflicts stemming from religious tensions and justifications, that also doesn’t grant people the comfort they seek. Buddhism, however, is one of the exceptions to this. In fact, Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator at the Rubin Museum and the lead curator of the Faith and Empire exhibit, says, “Buddhism has often been romanticized as an unchanging passive tradition, but historically this was not the case.” It is this contradiction that the Rubin’s newest exhibit, Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, seeks to unravel.
The exhibit showcases over 60 pieces of art to show the ways in which Tibetan Buddhism played an integral role in politics and power struggles in some of the great Asian empires from the 7th to the early 20th century. In particular, Faith and Empire highlights the Tibetan Empire, the Tangut Kingdom of Xixia, the Mongol Empire, the Ming Dynasty (China), the rule of the Dalai Lamas, and the Manchu Qing dynasty.
Rulers utilized Tibetan Buddhism and its tenets to claim religious and political legitimacy. The influences spread across religion, politics, art, language, war, and even magic. For instance, the exhibit showcases a Mongolian helmet (rmong) that shows the use of spiritual warfare, calling on deities and deploying war magic. There are also several religious paintings and tapestries, rich in color and full of religious and political symbolism. Another particularly interesting piece is a Bodhisattva sculpture with an unusual trilingual inscription at its base, likely from a temple on the northern Sino-Tibetan frontier that was part of a series of temples projecting the Ming imperial power throughout the contested borderlands.
Faith and Empire is a great introduction to a lesser-known religious, political, and cultural history, at least for most people in the United States and in the West, but one that is just as rich and contested as what we learn in our history classes. Most pieces are displayed alongside helpful and informative descriptions, allowing one to dig deeper and to understand the complex history that is reflected in the works of art. I learned so much from the exhibit, from the multicultural and multilingual practices of the Tanguts (Tangut, Chinese, and Tibetan), to Qubilai Khan’s use of Tibetan Buddhism to declare himself the Great Khan, to the use of spiritual ancestry through reincarnation by the Manchus to establish political legitimacy, and much more.
I highly recommend the exhibit to those interested in and/or studying: art history, history, Asian art/history, Chinese, religion, and political science. Art history students at Hunter may also be particularly interested to know that Professor Wen-Shing Chou wrote a chapter of the catalogue for the exhibit.
Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism opens February 1st and is the first exhibition in the Rubin’s yearlong exploration of the theme “Power: Within and Between Us.”