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By The Glow Of A Yak-Butter Lamp: Arts Of Mongolia And Tibet

You might find the following tidbit in the Best-Kept Secrets Department: Indiana University is the only university in the American continent that offers a program in Mongolian culture and formal instruction in Mongolian on three levels. Add to this an enormous private collection of Mongolian art and artifacts on long-term loan to the IU Art Museum, and you have From the Steppes and the Monasteries: Arts of Mongolia and Tibet, on view in the museum's Special Exhibitions Gallery through December 19.

Curator Follows Buddhism To Its Roots

"Buddhism as it's practiced in Mongolia has its origins in Tibet," explains exhibition co-curator Judy Stubbs, the museum's Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art. "Given the complicated nature of this material, I chose to include Tibetan art and artifacts as well."

The Tibetan material is from the museum's collection and lent by the IU Campus Art Collection, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, and the Mongolia Society.

The show encompasses sacred objects-from thangka paintings to ritual masks to the holy texts known as sutras-and secular items, from contemporary horse furnishings to Bronze Age knives. Some context is supplied by photos of 1960s Ulaanbaatar. An antique map, translated into English for the first time for the occasion of the exhibition, supplies additional background about the politically complicated region.

Local Scholars Translate Foreign Material

In addition to the abundant material resources on the IU campus, the exhibition showcases the university's unusually rich intellectual resources in Tibetan and Mongolian studies.

Brian Baumann, the show's co-curator and a Ph.D. in Mongolian Studies at IU, translated the map and other Mongolian texts; while the Lilly Library's Jim Canary provided English equivalents of the materials written in Tibetan.

Wrathful Deities Radiate Energy

For an art-viewing audience uninitiated in these cultures and languages, let alone Buddhist iconography, hellish figures with bulging eyes, flaming hair, and necklaces strung with human heads might be somewhat alienating.

"What often startles people about Buddhist paintings are the wrathful deities," Stubbs concedes. But these terrifying figures are not demons. "They are the champions of the believer. They're trampling the impediments to enlightenment. They're very muscular, they radiate energy, their hair stands up on end. That's all symbolism to convey the idea of their very muscular defense of you."

Universal Connection

Once we know that the demons are on our side, maybe we can relax and enjoy the show, which links two geographically and politically distinct places through the spirituality that permeates daily life in both lands.

On view, for example, are the spoon-like utensils with which women in Mongolia throw aspersions of milk to the four cardinal directions every morning. The thangka paintings on display often show smoke damage from having been hung in tents lit with yak-butter lamps.

It's these everyday objects that provide the Western viewer with a real portal into these distant cultures, poised heavenward.

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