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The South and Southeast Asia Gallery (Gallery 176) at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Photo courtesy of the MFA.

In partnership with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the Mittal Institute recently hosted a webinar that delved into the history of art in South Asia. Laura Weinstein, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA, discussed with Jinah Kim, George P. Bickford Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Harvard University, a new publication from the MFA that explores its South Asian collection, while critiquing the binaries based in Western Enlightenment thought that have historically been applied to art from India and its neighbors.

Until recently, the MFA had not had a volume dedicated to Indian or South Asian art. Dr. Weinstein’s newly released publication, “Arts of South Asia,” a part of the MFA Highlights series, explores just that — delving into the art of South Asia over the past four millennia. It presents a vast range of South Asian art on display at the MFA in Boston, from sculptures of stone and bronze to miniature paintings and luxury textiles. The arrangement of the publication takes a fascinating form, exploring six binaries in South Asian art: Hindu and Muslim, art and craft, sacred and secular, real and ideal, male and female, and local and foreign. Through all of the artworks shared, Dr. Weinstein reveals the rich depth of South Asia’s history of art and culture, spanning generations.

Dr. Weinstein explored the various binaries that we impose on art as we view it, thinking back to her first year of graduate school at Columbia University. “We were studying Buddhist art and we talked about Sanchi [a Buddhist complex in India]. I remember thinking: ‘What is this figure doing at this Buddhist site?’” she said, sharing an image of a sculpture of a female form. “I didn’t know a lot about Buddhism at the time and didn’t understand how a religion I thought was about transcending the earthly could be marking its gateways with images of bodies, which to me spoke of the earthly. In my mind, sacred and secular were two opposed, distinct concepts in cultural spaces, and that’s something I’ve had to step away from and question. It’s been fascinating for me in my own personal journey to question and realize that there’s more going on [in these works of art].”

Beginning with a chapter on art and craft traditions, Dr. Weinstein’s book explores the MFA’s amazing collection of textiles, jewelry, and a number of things that are traditionally thought of as crafts. “I have struggled sometimes as a curator to figure out how to talk about these objects in a way that didn’t fall prey to the sense that there is something inherently different about a work that has this kind of function — something that is wearable,” she said. Inspired by a conversation with a colleague, the idea of binaries surfaced. The two of them scribbled binaries on pieces of paper and cut up thumbnails of artwork, scattering them around to apply each to a particular binary, including “body–spirit,” “religious–secular,” and “Hindu–Muslim.” “Many of these works of art give us ways to think about both the sacred and the secular, and so on,” she said.

“The challenge for me was how to unpack something so multilayered and complex into a book… My hope is that this does resonate for people who teach Indian art with a European or American background, that it will cause them to unpack some of these binaries in their thinking,” Dr. Weinstein commented. She spoke of her experience after drafting up the art–craft chapter of the book and sharing it with her colleague, Susan Bean.

“She wrote back saying, ‘All of your entries start by talking about technique. Is that true for the other chapters?’ And it wasn’t. Other chapters started by talking about meaning, iconography, context of use — but only when talking about these particular objects I felt it was necessary to stress how sophisticated the production techniques were,” said Dr. Weinstein. “She pointed out that this was a relic of an outmoded idea built into the art-craft binary that these are things that have sacred meaning, but the primary lens through which we see them is as works of craftsmanship — and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to question in writing this book.”

Showing an image of a pendant with an elaborate painting across it, Dr. Weinstein questioned the nature we have of viewing a craft as utilitarian, rather than a work of art. “It’s utilitarian, but I don’t know if it’s more utilitarian than a temple sculpture — which also has a function to play. This is more than a normal pendant because of the pictorial on it, it can be seen as a protective or amuletic pendant, and my understanding is the side that we’re looking at is the side that would face the body of the wearer, its opposite side encrusted with jewels facing the world to announce the person’s wealth,” she said. “Why would you hide this side? This gorgeous painting? That really challenges the idea that art is always meant to be seen.”

Dr. Weinstein addressed the binaries that she identified in her book’s chapters, noting how the boundaries between many or all of them have been fluid and have changed shape over centuries — giving good reason to question these binaries. “Yet, I wouldn’t want to go as far as saying there is no binary thinking in South Asia. There is something very fundamental about human beings to wants to explain the world by reducing things down to two opposing things. With the male–female binary, there’s no single trans-historical concept on what it means to be a male and a female in South Asian art. There are maybe moments and cultures within South Asia for whom male and female do have distinct and complementary features, so in some ways this binary is one that translates or is used as a springboard to discuss the binary and how it is being understood,” she said.

Closing the session, Dr. Weinstein considered the importance of South Asia’s historical works of art even today, helping us question the way we see things and understand the fluidity of these binaries over time. “I hope this book is an invitation to challenge instincts or knee-jerk thoughts about how we categorize works of art and the people who made them. I hope it shows the relevance of art to today’s politically urgent concepts about gender or religious identity, or the secular and the sacred. I like the idea that these historic works of art can allow us to take a look at contemporary issues through the historic lens and look at the ways they have changed, how the binaries aren’t universal, and there’s validity and possibility and the roles of these concepts shift,” she said.