Low-lit alcoves. Gray walls. Ancient Thai sculptures lost in shadows.
That was how the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s South Asian, Southeast Asian and Himalayan galleries looked when Pujan Gandhi arrived as curator two years ago.
“There were some great works on view, but it felt kind of drab, lifeless,” said Gandhi. “So I went to art exhibitions in Paris and just focused on the colors” — not the artwork.
The dreary colors are gone now, making way for a deep aubergine, profound red and “Krishna” blue in the redesigned second-floor galleries that made their debut Thursday. Artworks nearly jump off their pedestals, glow in alcoves and liven up walls.
The reinstallation includes about 100 objects, 21 of them on view for the first time in at least 10 years (some collected as far back as 1917). There are seven recent acquisitions and 11 newly conserved works.
Gandhi feels his arrival as assistant curator of South and Southeast Asian art was kismet. In his new galleries, which were essentially untouched since they first opened in 1998, visitors will find historic works punctuated by contemporary pieces, breathing life into the space.
Start in South Asia
Visitors will be guided through a chronological understanding of the past 1,000-plus years of the region that now includes present-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
One corner is lined with six Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculptures from the medieval period and a 15th-century red sandstone jali, an Islamic pointed arch frame that was likely used on a tomb.
Gandhi arranged them in a semicircle, letting viewers stand in the middle of this progression of historical pieces. Obviously this arrangement would not have happened in real life, even though all the objects are from the same region.
“That’s why we are a museum,” Gandhi said. “I’m not a Mughal architect.”
In a display case on the other side of the room, he proudly pointed to a pair of ornate 19th-century silver bridal sandals decorated with tiny bells.
It took collection maintenance technician Todd Holmberg around 40 hours to delicately remove layers of grime from each tiny bell.
Gandhi takes a different conceptual approach to the Himalayan Gallery, which features works from Tibet, China, Nepal and Mongolia. The art is more focused on deities, and he hopes viewers will have a psychedelic experience in this aubergine-colored space.
“Pehar (Worldly Protector Deity),” a scroll painting from the late 17th century, certainly has a hallucinatory effect. It depicts Pehar, a fanged, red-skinned, three-eyed deity, galloping across a fantastical landscape filled with other deities riding white horses and tigers. At the bottom of the scroll, a pair of distended eyes pop out of a skull cap.
“That’s the source of illusion, that’s the source of ignorance,” said Gandhi, pointing to the detail. “That’s why we’re unhappy — because we think we see what we see. We don’t accept that what we see is just impermanent, and we hold onto it and take it as fact, and that’s the cause of suffering.”
There’s a metaphysical sensibility here. Deities in sculptural form are encased in Creamsicle-colored cases. Gandhi admitted he couldn’t re-create a monastery, so he went for the next best thing: an aesthetic, psychological experience.
“Mandala V,” a large painting by John McCracken depicting a circle with bands of mostly rainbow colors leading to a green center, occupies one wall. Tibetan Buddhism came into Western consciousness after the Dalai Lama’s 1959 expulsion from Tibet. Its influence is present in McCracken’s work, which invites viewers to focus on the center, letting the other colors reverberate out into an ecstatic experience.
“We have to acknowledge the technicolorness of Himalayan art,” said Gandhi. “It’s hypnotic.”
Poetry in the details
In the red-walled Southeast Asian gallery, Gandhi mixes Ban Chiang ceramics (from 3000 B.C. to 400 A.D.) with monumental Hindu and Buddhist sculpture of the Khmer Empire (802-1437 A.D.) and Indonesian and Hmong textiles.
Minnesota is home to the nation’s third-largest Southeast Asian American population. This year marks the 45th anniversary of these communities’ first migration here after the Vietnam War.
“I think we are the only encyclopedic art museum that would include the Hmong within this vast history,” he said. “It’s because of our awareness.”
In the hall outside the galleries, Chinese art curator Liu Yang organized four sets of women’s garments and 10 pieces of silver jewelry by the Miao people, one of the largest ethnic minorities in China. (Mia has than 1,600 works by Miao artists in its collection.)
Gandhi, who loves to wax poetic about the details of individual works, hopes that the gallery remodel will help visitors learn to see.
“I don’t know if people have spent time looking at the folds of her skirt,” he said, pointing to a gray sandstone sculpture of Prajnaparamita, the goddess of transcendent wisdom, dating to the 12th or 13th century. “Hopefully people will delight in details as much as narrative.”