Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.

However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.

Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.

Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.

Threads of protest: hand making as world making


Julia Bryan-Wilson

Julia Bryan-Wilson


The ‘Threads of Protest’ lecture provided a summary of Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson’s current book project entitled Craft Crisis: Handmade Art and Activism since 1970. Examining the issues of labour, hand making and process within late twentieth-century craft practices in the Americas and England, the project relates to Professor Bryan-Wilson’s earlier book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, published in 2009. Art Workers discussed the redefinition of artistic labour in minimalism, process, feminist and conceptual art, structured around four case studies including the artistic practice of Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke and Lucy Lippard. The book discussed how these artists constructed their identities as ‘art workers’ through participating in the Art Workers’ Coalition, a short-lived organisation which agitated against the Vietnam War and for artists’ rights, as well as in the New York Art Strike. In Craft Crisis, Professor Bryan-Wilson once again examines the intersections between art and protest through discussing thread and yarn-based works. The talk was structured into two parts: the first mapped the intellectual and conceptual framework for the project, while the second focused on the artistic practice of Chilean born artist Cecilia Vicuña and her relationship to native craft work.

The narrative of Craft Crisis begins in the 1970s and once again applies the case study approach in order to systematise the massive subject of hand making practices. The time frame for this project differs therefore from other recent publications on crafts such as Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design (2008), where the highly abbreviated narrative of hand-making processes begins as late as in 1994. This leads to the omitting of many pivotal projects related to the crafts such as Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (1972) created as part of ‘Womanhouse’, a collaborative performance and installation project initiated in 1972 by the founders of the First Feminist Program at the California Institute of Art, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Craft Crisis grows out of the tradition set by Rozsika Parker’s seminal publication entitled The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and The Making of the Feminine (1989) which examined the public and often political connotations of stitchery and fostered the emergence of subsequent craft movements. Framed by this intellectual tradition, Craft Crisis is mainly an archival project which examines moments in history when textiles become pressed into political service.

Exploring the relationships between hand making and world making, the book focuses on case studies such as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt began in 1987, which forms a highly powerful reminder of the AIDS pandemic. Composed of individual memorial panels, each commemorating a person who died of AIDS, the quilt is the largest community folk art work created to date. Made by both professional artists and amateurs, the quilt epitomises one of the biggest challenges of Professor Bryan-Wilson’s project: to compose a narrative which would look beyond the traditional binary division between the amateur and the professional. Testing this challenge, Professor Bryan-Wilson juxtaposes various artistic and non-artistic practices within each chapter, examining how these can coexist within one narrative.

However, in some cases the binary division is not between the amateur and the professional since much of craft work requires specialised skills, but between the intentionally artistic and the non-artistic. One chapter isCecilia Vicuña - El Quipu Menstrual dedicated to Chilean arpilleras, colourful patchwork representing daily life which, like the AIDS Quilt, relates fibre to collective memory. Not perceived as art works by their makers, the arpilleras played a vital role during the oppressive Pinochet regime as they were produced for foreign export in order to raise awareness of the political situation in Chile. Craft Crisis discusses them in strict dialogue with the artistic practice of Cecilia Vicuña whose banners made in collaboration with American artist John Dugger supported the Rally for Democracy in Chile in 1974 and largely drew on the tradition of the arpilleras. Since the skills applied by Vicuña and Dugger are similar to these of the traditional arpilleras producers, such a juxtaposition requires a clarification of the relationship between the intentionally artistic and objects created outside of the art context.  Cecilia Vicuña - El Quipu Menstrual

Vicuña’s practice also enters in dialogue with the traditional quipu, which were produced from ca 3000 BC across Andean South America. Made of coloured thread from llama or alpaca hair, they assisted in collecting data and keeping records. Further, they served as a representational model to the Incas who perceived the totality of their culture as a structure similar to that of the quipu. In 2006, Vicuña directly referred to the tradition of the quipu through installing twenty-eight streams of blood coloured fleece to the ceiling of the Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda in Santiago, Chile. The installation formed a silent protest directed at the Chilean President to preserve the glaciers which form the southern tip of the country. The quipu served here to both draw on ancestral values but also to create a reflection of the current social and economic system which allows for environmental degradation. Criticised by the curators for its large size, Vicuña decided to decrease the installation, displaying what she called a weak version of the work. Through this it referenced the doubling of violence, directed at both nature and art. Furthermore, Vicuña used the remaining red fleece and placed it in the public space in front of the Centro Cultural, rendering the political implications of fibre apparent.

Craft Crisis will examine how identities and political stances are formed through craft work and how these are both constructed within the art context and beyond. Led by a strong collaborative ethos, the materials for this research project include both archival documentation, as well as the testimonies of featured artists and highly skilled craft producers. A highly inclusive approach defines the ethical framework for this project, which even at this early stage provides an inspiring insight and analysis into an alternative mode of world making.