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This article by Vickie Schlegel was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on November 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
Tales of a Journey, From a Sacred Realm
The gritty streets of Newark seem an unlikely location
to discover a thriving outpost of a disappearing Asian culture —
an ancient culture, steeped in spirituality and ritual, whose home
is at the "roof of the world" some 7,500 miles away. Yet
unlikely, the surprising Newark Museum does indeed house the largest
repository of Tibetan artifacts in the Western hemisphere. And on
Friday, November 26, the museum will recreate the spirit of a lively
traditional Tibetan festival as part of its ongoing major exhibition,
"From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art," which
on view through January 20.
How did this rare collection — over 1,000 objects encompassing
every facet of Tibetan life — find its way to Newark? It was a
chance shipboard meeting in 1910 that led to the Newark Museum’s first
Tibetan acquisitions. Edward Crane, a founding trustee of the then
two-year-old museum, struck up a friendship with an American medical
missionary, Albert Shelton. Shelton was traveling back to America
after six years in Tibet. The destruction of temples during the
border war had provided him with the opportunity to acquire some
items during his stay, which he agreed to lend to the Newark Museum.
After Crane’s death roughly a decade later, Shelton’s family donated
the collection to the museum. The bulk of the holdings grew in the
next 40 years through forays to Tibet by Shelton and three other
along with the treasures later donated by New York financier, C.
This breathtaking exhibition required five years of preparation and
offers over 300 items, including scroll paintings, brass sculpture,
historical photographs, intricate brocade fabrics, and exquisitely
worked silver. The carefully selected items span 12 centuries, and
are among the best the museum owns. "This is when we’re showing
our real masterpieces," says curator Valrae Reynolds, who has
nurtured this collection for 30 years.
Why and how it is that Tibetan art and spiritual traditions are so
extraordinary is a question with no simple answer. As a tribal people
subsisting in the harsh Himalayan environment, Tibetans had, since
time immemorial, imbued their land and the objects they relied on
for their survival with a sense of the sacred. Before Buddhism, the
region’s tribes were united by a theocracy, which attributed divine
powers to an inherited chiefdom. When Buddhism was introduced in the
early 9th century, it initially coexisted with the indigenous
As it gradually supplanted the native theocracy, reincarnation was
introduced into Buddhism, replacing inheritance as the means for
"From the Sacred Realm" is presented in three sections:
and Valleys" and "Castles and Tents" are on the first
floor; "Courtyards and Temples" are in the upstairs galleries.
In the "Castles and Tents" section visitors will find some
of the masterpieces Reynolds mentions. Three tents, never before
together because of limited space, are the focus of the gallery. Two
are spacious and colorful appliqued festival tents designed to
accommodate Tibetan nobility. The other tent, woven of rough, dark
yak hair, sits low to the ground in stark contrast to the others,
before a photograph of proud-faced nomads who relied on tents like
this one to shelter them from the elements at elevations up to 28,000
You can see such a broad spectrum of Tibetan life thanks to curators
dedicated to acquiring the artifacts of daily living as well as sacred
art. As Reynolds says, "This collection shows the richness of
the culture in all its aspects."
A unique dimension of "From the Sacred Realm" is a commitment
to incorporating present-day Tibetan people amidst the backdrop of
their history. Significantly, the museum has a strong relationship
with two Tibetan monasteries that exist in New Jersey. You can, for
instance, watch a living work of Tibetan art develop right on the
museum’s first floor. Just before entering the "Castles and
area stands the low platform in the Eweson Gallery where Phuntsok
Dorje sits at work. Dorje is a Tibetan artist with a long history
of collaboration with the Newark Museum. On weekends through January
16, he will work from 1 to 4 p.m. on a sacred scroll painting, called
a "tangka," that depicts the Buddhist deity Tara.
With the deity Tara sitting serenely beside him swathed in clouds,
Dorje freely talks to museum visitors about his art. Now a resident
of Manhattan, he was trained in Sikkim in the sacred Tibetan style,
and uses traditional materials as much as possible. Though his present
brushes are store-bought, he has made brush tips from a goat’s fur,
and another from a willing neighbor’s cat’s hair. Dorje must be
to tradition to complete the "tangka" properly, for these
images are believed to embody a living presence. In order to invoke
a sacred presence on cotton cloth, there are strict rules that Tibetan
artists must follow, down to the physical proportions of each deity.
Once his "tangka" is finished, it will join the museum’s
collection. Similar completed examples of scroll paintings in all
of their riotous greens, reds, oranges and blues hang upstairs in
the "Courtyards and Temples" galleries. Their debt to Indian
and Chinese Buddhist art is apparent in both style and content. The
deep cultural connections of these countries, born of trade and a
shared religion, are elucidated in the permanent Asian galleries
in the museum.
As you wander through the second floor galleries, be prepared for
a rare experience. To properly house its Tibetan religious objects,
the Newark Museum commissioned an authentic Tibetan altar. It is an
oasis of sacred calm and serene beauty — a little-known treasure
that, once discovered, brings some visitors back to the museum again
At the time of its original construction in 1935, the
Newark Museum’s was the first Tibetan Buddhist altar in America.
in 1988, the altar was reconstructed and renovated with the counsel
of the local Tibetan community. From 1989 to ’90, Phuntsok Dorje
the room’s ceiling, columns, and walls with vivid painted layers of
clouds, flowers, and dragons. Behind a bright red railing stands the
golden altar laden with butter lamps, flowers, scripture, and statues
of Buddhist deities. In 1990 the altar was consecrated by the Dalai
Lama himself, who left a white scarf, which still rests here
as a symbol of purity.
This year Phuntsok Dorje returned to the Newark Museum to paint a
new extension to the altar that looks into the altar and contains
a photo of the Dalai Lama, as well as a bench for contemplation or
Not far from the altar stands a small room that offers a striking
contrast in mood. Modeled after the traditional Tibetan "Chapel
of Fierce Protectors," it exudes a menacing, fiercely fascinating
atmosphere. Dorje picked the deep orange tones used for the room which
is traditionally kept in darkness except for a few flickering butter
jar lamps. Arrayed around the room are the accouterments of tantric
Buddhism. These objects are nightmarishly alien to Western eyes: a
skull drum, a thigh bone trumpet, a cast-iron chopper blade emerging
from the fanged mouth of a monster.
Walk farther into "Courtyards and Temples" for some of the
artfully crafted instruments of a Tibetan monastic orchestra. Two
telescopic brass horns capable of extending to over five feet curve
over drums and silver trumpets. Horns like these require two monks
to hold them.
Further on, don’t miss the display of intricately patterned textiles
and brightly-hued traditional costumes. Silks from China, Japan,
Asia, and even Europe were imported as early as the 7th century, and
used for altar coverings, capes, canopies, and other temple
Sometimes a patchwork of these foreign cloths were sewn together into
a whimsical combination of stripes, flowers, and other patterns.
Near the back of this floor is a video-screening area with documentary
tapes which augment a selection of videos that are shown on small
screens throughout the exhibit. Some of the footage consists of rare
black-and-white films shot by C. Cutting in the 1930s. These old,
grainy films provide a precious record of a way of life that has
been destroyed since the Chinese occupation began in 1959. One film,
"Music and Dance: Celebrating Tibetan Festivals" shows footage
of past and present religious festivals. Today these cultural events
have disappeared from Tibet along with the stratified social system
of noble families that supported them.
"The mayor or a noble family would sponsor the performance and
it would go on for days," explains curator Reynolds, describing
a typical festival. "It was a chance to catch up some gossip and
do some eating and drinking." Social occasions were especially
anticipated by nomads who roamed isolated for most of the year atop
the vast, empty "roof of the world."
The Newark Museum’s "Totally Tibet" family day on Friday,
November 26, is a partial recreation of such an exciting festival
atmosphere. The day after Thanksgiving is always one of the museum’s
busiest public days, with theme events based on a major exhibition.
Saturday and Sunday’s activities revolve around the sand mandala and
how it is made. This circular Buddhist representation of the sacred
is intricately constructed out of grain after grain of sand, only
to be ceremonially swept away soon after completion. The sand mandala
is a powerful symbol for the impermanence of life. Sadly, it is now
also a metaphor for the Tibetan culture, which has been all but
swept away. Thanks to the Newark Museum, some part of it will endure.
— Vickie Schlegel
Admission and all events are free. Call 800-7-MUSEUM for more
and directions, or visit the website at
Open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8:30.
Closed Thanksgiving .
Tibetan singers and dancers: Chaksam-pa, Tibetan Dance and Opera
will perform authentic festival dances in the auditorium at 1 and
3 p.m. These are not religious dances, but whirling and stomping party
Participatory workshops from 1 to 4 p.m. include: Miniature
tent workshop in which children can make and bring home their own
decorated festival tent based on the exhibition’s large formal tent.
Monastic dance mask workshop to make and keep a life-size masks
similar to the guardian mask in the collection and to those worn by
traditional Tibetan dancers. Tangka Painting Workshop led by
Phuntsok Dorje who teaches participants to make a flower in the sacred
by Tibetan monks, continuing Saturday and Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m.
Weekend activities include Tibetan Sand Painting workshops at 1, 2,
and 3 p.m. The sand mandala demonstration by Tibetan monks continues
from 1 to 4 p.m.
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