On March 8, Skidmore, Vassar, and Williams colleges jointly announced that they would be collectively acquiring more than 60 Tibetan thangkas in an “innovative collaboration” between their three college art museums, thanks to a generous gift from the Jack Shear Collection.
Thangkas — Tibetan Buddhist devotional paintings on cotton and silk appliqué scrolls meant to guide monastic students in meditation — were created as early as the 9th and 10th centuries and continue to be made in 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 commonly portray scenes from the Buddha’s life, with the Buddha in the center surrounded by lamas and deities along the branches of a cosmic tree or a wheel of life.
Different thangkas have different purposes; some are commissioned for practical, earthly ends like healing a sick person, while others exist for more sacred matters that touch a worshiper’s soul. Ariana Maki, an independent curator who was enlisted to research the thangkas and facilitate their display, divided them into three categories: Buddhist master paintings, which represent the Shakyamuni Buddha and subsequent masters; paintings that address the everyday needs of practitioners; and more philosophical, esoteric paintings.
The set of thangka acquired by the three colleges date from the 18th through 20th centuries and are accompanied by other religious objects such as a personal shrine, divination 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 congratulates the collaboration between the three colleges as a “monumental” one for “collection and resource sharing among academic museums.”
But what the press release does not include is any information on the origins of the thangkas and how they made their way to the Jack Shear Collection. When Hyperallergic asked leaders of the collaboration about the provenance of the thangka paintings, they were unable to provide details and gestured instead to research they hoped the thangka would inaugurate at and across 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 now serves as executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation — had collected the thangkas over some 30 years, purchasing them variously at galleries and auction houses.
When asked about records of where the thangkas originated and what paths they took to make their way to the United States, Ian Berry, director of the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore, told Hyperallergic, “we expect years and years of students and faculty to make new connections and learn new things about these objects every semester.”
Sometime in the future, the three colleges hope to launch a website like Himalayan Art Resources — a “virtual museum” of Himalayan and Tibetan art that contains tens of thousands of photographs of objects — that will centralize research and will provide “as much transparency as possible,” according to Vassar College’s Loeb Art Center Director Bart Thurber.
Spotty accounting of past ownership for the thangkas and how they first traveled out of the Himalayas is not unusual. Even when thangkas pass hands through the most highly regarded galleries and auction houses, they come with incomplete stories of their pasts. In 2021, when notorious antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property in connection with trafficking looted treasures from India and Southeast Asia, she admitted that she had for decades “conducted business in a market where buying and selling antiquities with vague or even no provenance was the norm.”
Referencing the Jack Shear Collection gift, Emiline Smith, a lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow, told Hyperallergic, “This provenance research is clearly not up to 21st-century standards, because otherwise … it would have been part of the press release, and it isn’t.”
Jack Shear could not be reached for comment.
Smith, who has studied the trafficking of art objects from Nepal and South Asia for over a decade, explains that since the 1950s, wealthy collectors and art dealers began amassing stories of Asian art because there was a great abundance of it that they could tap. The demand for Asian art came to a boil in the 1970s and 1980s, when “extensive private and public collections of Himalayan and Asian art were formed of cultural objects of looted, stolen, or otherwise illegal/unethical origins.” The market’s craze for Asian art at this time coincided with a political and human rights crisis in the region: Beginning in the 1950s, thousands of Tibetans were fleeing to Kathmandu, escaping repression and genocide. As they left, they brought with them devotional objects and often sold them to survive.
Buying art sold under duress is increasingly being understood as a form of looting; if not straight-out plunder, such transactions nevertheless rely on taking advantage of gross global hierarchies of power. Two groups of people interested in Himalayan artifacts benefited 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 European and North American visitors. The country was swarmed with “European and North American travelers looking for enlightenment along the Hippie Trail, as well as some post-World War Two rich Americans on round-the-world trips, who all brought mementos from their trips home,” Smith describes. Meanwhile, there was also a cohort of researchers, academics, and curators who purchased ethnographic material for institutions they were affiliated with. All in all, an art historian commented that Nepal was like “an enormous open museum” that saw its cultural heritage picked through by vulturous visitors.
“What a beautifully succinct way of saying they were looted and taken by people fleeing genocide, by saying, ‘While removed from their original context,’” Smith added, referencing a line in the press release that continues, “these paintings retain many aspects of their intended purposes in their new homes.”
When questioned on the controversy surrounding how Himalayan art has been stripped from its place of origin, as some would say, or “recontextualized,” as others would maintain, Maki took a long second to think. “There have been differing authoritative voices who have described what they feel are the right things to do in terms of who should be sharing and displaying culture,” she then said.
Even as Tibetan artifacts were systematically looted and smuggled out into the international art market, the Dalai Lama has called for museums and galleries in Europe and Asia to safeguard them. When a Tibetan artifact was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s Sackler-Freer Galleries in Washington, DC in 1995, he said, “Following the destruction of our monasteries … what appears on the international art market now are the few remaining things.” 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 coming out of Tibet, and so much has been dispersed or lost … It is a welcome development when these collections are made available to scholars, students, and the public for study so that the understanding of our culture can deepen and spread.”
When the thangkas were unveiled at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on March 4, Lama Tashi Topgyal from the Kunzang Palchen Ling monastery in Red Hook, New York was invited by the student-led Buddhist Sangha Community to ritually bless the exhibit. Topgyal discussed the significance of each object and sprinkled holy rice under them. The event was attended by Jack Shear and leaders at art museums at all three institutions. Meanwhile, at the Loeb, paintings and sculptures by ten contemporary Tibetan artists are also currently on display.
Smith says that provenance is becoming more and more important as some museums strive to decolonize and redefine their role in society, and that putting it center stage is important for making museums a more equitable place for everyone. The public has a right to know about 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 taxpayer money.
“From what has been described to me,” Smith said, “it’s actually incredibly painful to see these remnants of an incredibly painful time,” since so many devotional objects were tediously safe kept by refugees only to be sold out of necessity. “The fact that they’re now so easily distributed with nothing addressing the provenance — that usually means it’s problematic.”
Editor’s note 4/7/22 5:15pm EST: A previous version of this article included quotes that alleged an absence of Tibetan individuals involved in the initiative. These quotes have been removed, and the article has been updated to include additional information about the involvement of Lama Tashi Topgyal from the Kunzang Palchen Ling monastery and a concurrent show featuring contemporary Tibetan artists at the Loeb Art Center.