Questions loom over donation of Tibetan thangkas to three US universities

On March 8, Skidmore, Vassar and Williams colleges jointly announced that they would collectively acquire more than 60 Tibetan thangkas in an “innovative collaboration” between their three university art museums, thanks to a generous donation from the Jack Shears collection.

Thangkas – Tibetan Buddhist devotional paintings on scrolls of cotton and silk appliqué intended to guide monastic students in meditation – were created as early as the 9th and 10th centuries and continue to be made into modern times. Many thangkas are small, sized for personal use, but larger ones are created for shared use during holidays and religious festivals and hung on the walls of a monastery. As material representations of enlightenment, thangkas typically depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, with the Buddha in the center surrounded by lamas and deities along the branches of a cosmic tree or wheel of life. .

Different thangkas have different purposes; some are commissioned for practical, earthly purposes like healing the sick, while others exist for more sacred matters that touch the soul of a worshipper. Ariana Maki, an independent curator who was enlisted to research the thangkas and facilitate their display, divided them into three categories: paintings by Buddhist masters, which depict Shakyamuni Buddha and subsequent masters; paints that meet the daily needs of practitioners; and more philosophical and esoteric paintings.

Unrecorded Tibetan Artist, “Two Chapters of Scenes from the Wish-Fulfilling Vine” (c. 18th century), Eastern Tibet, tempera on cloth (courtesy Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and Jack Shear Collection)

The thangka set acquired by the three colleges dates from the 18th to 20th centuries and is accompanied by other religious objects such as a personal shrine, divining mirrors and tsakli, which are painted initiation cards used during ritual meditations. A press release celebrating the acquisition touts the beauty of the thangka and commends the collaboration between the three colleges as a “monumental” collaboration for “collecting and sharing resources between university museums”.

But what the press release does not include is information about the origins of the thangkas and how they ended up in the Jack Shear collection. When Hyperallergic asked the collaboration’s leaders about the provenance of the thangka paintings, they were unable to provide specifics and instead gestured to research that they hoped the thangka would usher in and through each of their institutions. The most concrete information they could provide was that Jack Shear – a photographer and collector who was married to Ellsworth Kelly and is now executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation – had collected the thangkas for some 30 years, the buying in various ways from galleries and auctions. Houses.

Asked about the records of the origin of thangkas and the paths they took to get to the United States, Ian Berry, director of the Tang Teaching Museum in Skidmore, told Hyperallergic: “We expect that years and years of students and faculty making new connections and learning new things about these objects every semester.

Unrecorded Tibetan artist, Situ Panchen VIII Chökyi Jungné (1700-1744) Acting patron, Eastern Tibet (c. 19th century), tempera on cloth (courtesy Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and Jack Shear Collection)

In the future, the three colleges hope to launch a website like Himalayan Art Resources – a “virtual museum” of Himalayan and Tibetan art hosted by the Rubin Museum of Art that contains tens of thousands of object photographs – which will centralize research and will provide “as much transparency as possible,” according to the director of the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Bart Thurber.

The uneven accounting of past ownership of thangkas and how they first traveled out of the Himalayas is not unusual. Even when thangkas pass through the hands of the most reputable galleries and auction houses, they come with incomplete histories of their past. In 2021, when notorious antiques dealer Nancy Wiener pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property in connection with trafficking in looted treasures from India and Southeast Asia, she admitted that she had for decades “conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiques with vague provenance or even no provenance was the norm.

Referring to the donation of the Jack Shear Collection, Emiline Smith, a lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow, told Hyperallergic: “This provenance research is clearly not up to the mark. 21st century standards, because otherwise… it would have been part of the press release, and it’s not.

Jack Shear could not be reached for comment.

Unrecorded Tibetan artist, Tsepakme, the Buddha of Unlimited Life, Eastern Tibet (c. 18th/19th century), tempera on cloth (courtesy Williams College Museum of Art and Jack Shear Collection)

Smith, who has studied the trafficking of art objects from Nepal and South Asia for more than a decade, explains that since the 1950s, wealthy art collectors and dealers began accumulating stories of Asian art because there was a great abundance of it that they could tap into. The demand for Asian art peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when “extensive private and public collections of Himalayan and Asian art were built up from cultural objects of looted, stolen, or otherwise illegal/contrary to ethics”. The market’s enthusiasm for Asian art at this time coincided with a political and human rights crisis in the region: from the 1950s, thousands of Tibetans fled to Kathmandu, fleeing repression and genocide. When they left, they took devotional objects with them and often resold them to survive.

The purchase of works of art sold under duress is increasingly seen as a form of looting; While this is not outright plunder, such dealings are nonetheless based on the exploitation of crude global hierarchies of power. Two groups of people interested in Himalayan artifacts profited from the desperation of Tibetan refugees and the profusion of South Asian art at the time: Nepal had just opened its borders to tourism in the 1950s, and the country was a magnet for young Europeans and North Americans. visitors. The country was teeming with “European and North American travelers seeking enlightenment along the Hippie Trail, as well as wealthy post-WWII Americans on trips around the world, all of whom brought back memories of their travels. home,” Smith describes. . During this time, there was also a cohort of researchers, scholars, and curators who purchased ethnographic material for the institutions with which they were affiliated. Overall, an art historian said Nepal was like “a huge open-air museum” that saw its cultural heritage hoarded by vulture visitors.

Unrecorded Tibetan Artist, Mandala of the Luminous One, Nampar Nangdze, Central Tibet (c. 18th century), tempera on cloth (courtesy Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and Jack Shear Collection)

“I was very interested in this specific press release because it says it’s about an equitable collaboration between the institutions,” Smith said. “Of course, I wonder: where is the Tibetan voice in this? There is no access or agency given to Tibetans in this whole story.

“What a beautifully succinct way to say they were looted and taken by people fleeing genocide, saying, ‘Although removed from their original context,'” Smith added, referring to a line in the statement from press that continues, “these paintings retain many aspects of their intended purposes in their new homes.

Asked about the controversy surrounding how Himalayan art has been stripped of its place of origin, as some would say, or ‘recontextualized’, as others would argue, Maki took a long second to think. “There have been different authoritative voices outlining what they think are the right things to do in terms of who should share and display the culture,” she said afterwards.

Lama Tashi Topgyal of Kunzang Pallchen Ling in Red Hook joins Jack Shear during a Blessing of Mastery and Merit ceremony at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on March 4, 2022 (photo by Karl Rabe, courtesy from Vassar College)

Even as Tibetan artifacts were systematically looted and smuggled into the international art market, the Dalai Lama called on museums and galleries in Europe and Asia to protect them. When a Tibetan artifact was unveiled at the Sackler-Freer Galleries of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC in 1995, he said: “After the destruction of our monasteries…what appears on the international art market is the little who stays.” He continued: “It is essential that collections of Tibetan art in Europe, America, Asia and elsewhere be formed because it is difficult to regulate or control the objects that come out of Tibet, and so much has been scattered or lost… It is a welcome development when these collections are made available to scholars, students and the public for study so that understanding of our culture can deepen and spread.

Nonetheless, Smith offers, “There are many Tibetan scholars of Tibetan art who could have been consulted.” Acknowledging the repressive political atmosphere in Tibet, Smith still believes it would have been possible for museums to consult an expert on Himalayan art. “You could have found someone else,” she said.

Unrecorded Tibetan artist, The Handprints and Footprints of a Red Hat Master (c. 18th/19th century), tempera on cloth (courtesy Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and Jack Shear Collection)

Smith continued that provenance is becoming increasingly important as some museums strive to decolonize and redefine their role in society, and that putting provenance at the center of attention is important in making museums a more equitable place. for everyone. The public has a right to know where their art comes from, she said, especially since it is often paid for – or in this case, as the thangkas were gifted, cared for – with the money of the taxpayers.

“From what was described to me,” Smith said, “it is actually incredibly painful to see these remnants of an incredibly painful time,” because so many devotional objects have been painfully kept by refugees. to be sold out of necessity. “The fact that they’re now so easily distributed without anything about provenance – that usually means it’s problematic.”