Charleston Collects: South Asian Art
Opens Oct. 26, Through Feb. 17, 2019
$15/adult, $13/senior and military, $10/student, $6/youth
Gibbes Museum of Art 135 Meeting St.
South Asia encompasses the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. By far the largest nation in the region (and the second most populous in the world), India, which is made up of 24 states, is a place of great cultural diversity. Indeed, whether talking about the Tamil region of South India or the Punjab region in the North, from place to place you will find a wealth of distinct linguistic, culinary, cultural, and artistic traditions beyond and apart from the Kama Sutra and westernized dishes like chicken tikka masala.
According to guest curator and professor of South Asian art at the University of Virginia, Daniel Ehnbom, what makes The Gibbes Museum of Art’s upcoming Charleston Collects: South Asian Art exhibit so special is the spectrum of these diverse histories, narratives, and styles it captures.
“This exhibit is an important reflection on the diversity and complexity of Indian culture,” says Ehnbom. “There is art that represents religious, sectarian, and secular interests.”
The birthplace of three of the world’s major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and with deep connections to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, a lot of India’s surviving art history consists of sacred images. But what surprises here, says Enhhom, is the range of styles, from extremely flat and abstract, to the highly refined that are on display, providing contextually important variations on a theme. In the exhibit, Ehnbom adds, “you might, for example, have a Muslim painter, painting in a conservative style for a Hindu text. Simple categories just don’t work.”
“It is a very personal collection,” says Ehnbom. “There is a wide range of narratives and styles from the 16th through the 18th centuries represented, including conservative, abstract styles to Mughal painting.” Mughal painting is a style that developed during the reign of the Mughal emperors, borrowing some from Persian painting traditions and confined mainly to book illustrations and the production of individual miniatures.
“There’s also lots of storytelling that happens in the pieces themselves,” says Ehnbom, from historical narratives to folktales. One notable example from the collection is the story of the angry frog. In the folktale, the frog befriends a snake, who in turn eats his enemies. You can see where this is headed. Eventually the snake runs out of things to eat and turns on his friend.
Other characteristics that make this collection unique, says Ehnbom, are the various representations of the god Krishna included. Perhaps the most widely revered and most popular of all Hindu divinities, Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu and a supreme god in his own right. He is depicted in a variety of legends represented in painting and sculpture and, remarkably, the Charleston Collects exhibit features representations of Krishna as a child, a lover, and as a warrior.
When asked about his goals for the show, Ehnbom’s objective is simple: “I want to show some good things to the people of Charleston and demonstrate the cultural complexities of Indian painting.”
Charleston audiences can expand their horizons and learn more about South Asian art and culture by attending the exhibit at the Gibbes from Oct. 26 through February, 2019. Prof. Ehnbom will also be on hand for a lunchtime talk on Oct. 26 that will focus on a handful of special artworks included in the collection. More information on the exhibit and related programming can be found at gibbesmuseum.org.