Beyond Buddhism: Exhibition Spotlights Early Tibetan Culture
A new exhibition at the Mogao Caves in northwestern China’s Gansu province aims to give visitors a fresh appreciation for the splendor of an early Tibetan civilization nourished by the Silk Road.
Titled “Culture Exchange Along the Silk Road: Masterpieces of the Tubo Period,” the exhibit opened Wednesday at the Dunhuang Academy — the research institute overseeing the Mogao Caves, one of China’s 50-plus UNESCO World Heritage Sites — and will last through mid-October.
The term Tubo commonly refers to the Tibetan Empire from 618 to 842 A.D., founded by Namri Songsten, a chieftain who asserted authority over his neighboring clans. Shortly after the turn of the seventh century, Namri Songsten sent emissaries to the ruling Tang dynasty in the east, marking Tubo’s emergence as a dynasty in its own right.
Jointly organized by the Dunhuang Academy and the Pritzker Art Collaborative, the exhibition is comprised to a large extent of Silk Road artifacts from the collection of Margot and Thomas J. Pritzker — the family behind the world’s most coveted architecture prize — and from the Abegg Foundation in Switzerland. In addition, 22 Chinese museums and archeological institutes as well as six foreign institutions — including the Art Institute of Chicago, Moscow’s Hermitage Museum, and the Al Thani Collection of Qatar’s royal family — have contributed treasured items.
The exhibit offers a fresh perspective of early Tibetan culture. Rather than the towering Buddha statues long associated with the region, it features a variety of secular artifacts, including a child’s silk garment decorated with ducks and pearl medallions, a silver ewer with gilt depictions of the Trojan War, a gold quiver-plate painted with scenes from a lion hunt, and silk brocade with large, circular panels dotted with pearls.
“When people think of Tibet, most of them will instantly think about Tibetan Buddhism,” David Pritzker, the director and chief curator of the Pritzker Art Collaborative in Chicago, told Sixth Tone. “I hope this exhibition will challenge such stereotyping.”
Pritzker, who studied the early textual history and historiography of Tibet for his Ph.D. at Oxford University, envisioned the exhibition as a vessel for conveying the rich culture of the Tibetan Empire, which extends far beyond Buddhism.
According to Mao Ming, a researcher at the Dunhuang Academy who specializes in Central Asian history, the exhibition is the first to show the full extent of the cultural and economic exchange among ancient Asia’s dominant civilizations. Tubo had close relations with the Sogdians and Sasanians in present-day Iran, as well as the Turks in the Arabian Peninsula and the Tang dynasty in eastern China. The silk brocades incorporating pearls, for example, were made by the Sogdians and worn by Tibetan ministers, while their patterns and panels were influenced by Sasanian Zoroastrianism.
As a vital outpost along the Silk Road — the region’s main artery for trade and travel — Dunhuang was the epicenter of cultural exchange between the great civilizations of the first millennia. Many of the artifacts on display came from monks, merchants, diplomats, and craftsmen who brought their wares to the Tibetan Plateau along the Silk Road. Dunhuang itself was part of the Tibetan Empire for 66 years. During that period, some of China’s finest sculptures and frescoes were created in the hallowed Mogao Caves.
Thomas Pritzker, chairman and CEO of the Pritzker Organization, told Sixth Tone that, for him at least, the exhibition is a shining example of how a nation stands to benefit from the contributions of its disparate neighbors. “In the end, communication and collaboration always trump rivalry and confrontation,” he said.
(Header image: Ancient artifacts are displayed at the Dunhuang Academy exhibition center in Dunhuang, Gansu province, June 2019. Courtesy of Dunhuang Academy)