Museum  December 31, 2018  Caterina Bellinetti

Two Thousand Years of Art History from the Bejeweled Island

© Museum Associates/LACMA

Unknown, Comb with Woman and Attendants, 18th–19th century, ivory with paint, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Corinne and Don Whitaker

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Madonna of the Immaculate Conception, 17th century, ivory with gilding and paint

The first exhibition of Sri Lankan art held at an American museum opened this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka showcases a wide range of Sri Lankan art pieces, from gold, silver, and ivory jewels to 19th-century photographs. More than 240 objects are on display and cover around 2,000 years of the country’s history and culture. Thanks to its natural beauty and the popularity of its precious gemstones, Sri Lanka is part of our collective imagination as the bejeweled island. The first accounts of the richness of the country were brought to the West by Greek sailors in the 4th century BCE.

The abundance and variety of Sri Lankan treasures is the focal point of the exhibition. The artistic influences from the European colonial domination and from neighboring India are evident in many of the artworks presented at LACMA. Images of sacred sites and temples show the importance of Hinduism in regard to the cultural and religious development of Sri Lanka. Concurrently, ivory statues like the Madonna of the Immaculate Conception reveal the impact that the British rule and Christian missionaries had on the themes and styles of the island’s art. On these influences, curators Dr. Robert L. Brown and Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude note that, “Sri Lankan culture developed in a complex web of foreign influences and local customs that have never been fully explored in previous exhibitions. These multiple influences were woven together in a fusion that is uniquely Sri Lankan. The art shown in The Jeweled Isle reflects this development and also offers a window onto Sri Lanka’s rich history and culture.”

© Museum Associates/LACMA

Buddha Reclining, 18th century, Sri Lanka, wood with paint, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The last section of the exhibition presents the works of British photographers, including Joseph Lawton, Charles T. Scowen and Co, WLH Skeen and Co, taken in the nineteenth century. A part of these images presents the archaeological and architectural richness of the country, a topic that sparks a debate on the impact of colonialism on the history of Sri Lanka. Other works, like the portrait of a dancer at the annual procession of the tooth relict, portray the uniqueness of the local cultural traditions. The luscious natural beauty of the island is also present as a theme in the photographs included in the exhibition. For instance, Charles T. Scowen, active in Sri Lanka c. 1875-94, employed his camera to conduct botanical studies at the royal gardens in Kandy, one of the major cities of the country.

Buddha Shakyamuni
© Museum Associates/LACMA

Buddha Shakyamuni, Kandy period, 18th century, gilt copper alloy with partial black coating

Reg van Cuylenburg, Dancer at the Annual Procession of the Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka, Kandy, 1957
© The Estate of Reg van Cuylenburg, digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA

Reg van Cuylenburg, Dancer at the Annual Procession of the Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka, Kandy, 1957

Standing Buddha, 10th century, copper alloy with gilding
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/

Standing Buddha, 10th century, copper alloy with gilding

Tile with Musicians, late 18th century
© Museum Associates/LACMA

Unknown, Tile with Musicians, late 18th century, opaque watercolor on terracotta

Seated Buddha, late 8th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/

Seated Buddha, late 8th century, copper alloy

The museum CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan remarked that, “LACMA has a long history of collecting South and Southeast Asian art and its Sri Lankan holdings are more expansive and diverse in range than those found in any other U.S. collection.” The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka is a great opportunity to explore and become familiar with the art and history of a small, yet incredibly rich Asian country.

The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka is on view through June 23, 2019, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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