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New York Times art critic Holland Cotter praised the exhibition, calling it “quietly majestic.”
“Even if your interest is strictly aesthetic or historical, the show is a find, because chances are you won’t have seen much of this kind of art before,” Cotter wrote in his review.
In early February, art historian Catherine Raymond, director of NIU’s Center for Burma Studies and curator of the Burma Art Collection at NIU, traveled to New York City. There she oversaw the installation of 10 pieces of artwork brought from NIU to NYC and featured in the groundbreaking exhibition by the Asia Society. It opened Feb. 10.
The exhibition is the first in the West solely dedicated to Buddhist art on loan from Myanmar museums since the country, also known as Burma, began reopening to the outside world in 2009.
Some of the 70 pieces on display—including sculptures, textiles, paintings, and lacquer ritual implements all created for Buddhist merit making—date back more than 1,600 years and have never left Myanmar before now, according to Raymond.
“It is the first time that at a national level any museum has been able to bring Buddhist art treasures together for such an exhibit,” Raymond said. “It includes pieces from important Myanmar museums, not only from the two national museums, but also from the great archaeological sites of Bagan, the cradle of Burmese civilization from the 11th to 13th centuries, and Thayekittaya, the main city of the Pyu culture from the 2nd to 9th centuries.”
NIU’s contributions to the exhibition include four sculptures, three textiles, one vessel, one food cover and one palm-leaf manuscript (kept in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department at Founders Memorial Library).
“It is an extraordinary acknowledgement of the caliber of some of our hidden treasures within the Burma Art Collection at NIU,” Raymond said.
The NIU collection now numbers more than 10,000 items. It began with a core of 80 pieces donated by Sarah and Konrad Bekker, American diplomats who went to Burma in 1958 and left at the time of the 1962 military coup, which closed the country for four decades.
“Four of the pieces on display in the New York show were collected by the Bekkers at a time when little attention was given to Burmese religious art,” Raymond said. “The Bekkers donated them to NIU when the Center for Burma Studies was established here under [now-retired NIU art historian] Richard Cooler in 1986.”
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, co-curator of the exhibition and a close friend of the late Sarah Bekker, chose the objects from NIU for display by the Asia Society, Raymond said.
“She selected them largely on their rarity and artistic significance. They complement the present New York exhibition extremely well,” Raymond said. “As my colleagues in the Asia Society repeatedly noted, the NIU pieces really stand out among the artifacts presented in New York.”
NIU’s contributions include paired kinnari and bilu (ogre) statues; an especially rare illustrated palm leaf manuscript; and colorful paintings of the Buddha footprint and the Descent of the Buddha from Tavatimsa Heaven.
All of the objects were cleaned and prepared for show before being packed for cross-country shipment to New York. NIU alumna Alison Bastian Balcanoff (MA Art History, 2014) worked over the summer to meticulously clean the fragile pieces of lacquerware, Raymond said.
ICON, which is led by NIU alumnus Bruce MacGilpin, sent a team to the NIU Art Museum to measure and photograph each item in preparation for the design of custom-made individual shipping crates. The ICON team took several days to pack the objects before they were divided into two shipments to New York (to minimize risk), Raymond said.
Before leaving for Myanmar on an NIU academic trip Feb. 7, Raymond flew to New York to meet the shipments when they arrived at the Asia Society.
“While I could not stay for the formal opening, I did get to witness the unpacking of all the crated NIU pieces and oversee their installation,” Raymond said. “I was also able to answer the numerous questions posed by the curators during the initial installation process, which entailed special display features for each.”
The exhibit will be on display at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave., in New York through May 10, after which time the objects will return the Burma Art Collection at NIU. For more behind-the-scenes details about the exhibit, see the Asia Society website.