Exploring Buddhist Art and Technique from Burma and Thailand: Three Buddha Heads from Mainland Southeast Asia

1/15/09 to 5/10/09
Northern Illinois University
School of Art
DeKalb IL

This exhibit explores the art and technique as well as the cultural context in which three masterpiece examples of Buddha images from Burma and Thailand were created: respectively, in bronze, stone and dry lacquer. These complex techniques are still commonly practiced in Burma/Myanmar and in Thailand, within a Buddhist context of gaining merit.

In the Burmese tradition, a Buddha image that had been damaged, or a Buddha head that had been broken off by either a natural disaster or an act of war would have been regarded as inauspicious, hence removed from display, while likely retained within the precincts of the pagoda.

Sarah Bekker —Burma scholar and donor of many of the finest objects in the NIU Burma Art Collection— noted that prior to 1962 it was nearly impossible for Westerners in Burma to find on public sale a complete Buddha statue. And even more so a separated head, which most monks then would have considered completely value-less. But quite soon thereafter, those foreigners in Southeast Asia who wished to acquire Buddha images for scholarly or aesthetic objectives were identified as a potential lucrative market.

In Thailand especially, less-than-scrupulous dealers, sometimes with monastic connections, would actively peddle intact or fragmentary Buddha images —many of which were of Burmese provenance— door-to-door within the diplomatic enclaves. This was greatly exacerbated when interior décor magazines in Europe and America began to feature disembodied Buddha heads as the quintessential oriental accent piece.

The demand is so great —and the value of “original antiques” so inflated— that with the weakening of Buddhist belief —and with it, the fear of karmic retribution— temple thefts became rampant, so now disembodied Buddha heads have become a prized item in the international art and antiquities market, and seem ever more readily available: thanks in part to the Internet. Thus, superb Buddha images in unguarded, outlying shrines are routinely and expertly decapitated by art theft syndicates, with the heads sold online, or ending up —beautifully-lit and stunningly-priced— at fashionable, reprehensible emporia like River City in Bangkok.

This exhibit explored both the art and technique of creating traditional Buddha images, as well as heightening awareness of their intentional desecration and commoditization.

Head 1

 

head 2

 

head 3