Religions Come Alive at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

By Michaela Eskew, Ph.D. student in Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union. Michaela comes to Berkeley with a Masters of Divinity and Masters of Arts in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is passionate about the intersection of theology and the arts and its purpose in spiritual creation and contemplation.

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Students view art at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Last Spring, I took my class “Religion and Art Meet the World” to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to experience the art of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam first hand. My students looked forward to an experience of art outside the classroom walls and away from two-dimensional PowerPoint slides. Upon entering the museum, one of the students already exclaimed that they were excited to see the pieces they had seen in class in person and that the chance to get out of the classroom to learn was inspiring and refreshing.

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The Hindu deity Shiva as destroyer of the three cities of the demons, 1000-1100. Central India. Sandstone. The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

My class of thirteen students traveled by car and BART to the Asian Art Museum on a crisp Wednesday morning in May. I waited in the pearly entrance for all of the students to come together, some coming with me from Berkeley, some from the South Bay, and some from right in San Francisco. We grabbed maps and charted our course through the Asian Art Museum’s standard collection. Once we had all arrived, we began our journey through decades of religious history and art.

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The Bodhisattva Maitreya, 100–300. Pakistan; ancient region of Gandhara. Schist. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco.

We began on the third floor collection galleries where we saw the Bodhisattva Maitreya from the Buddhist tradition. This beautiful work depicts the Buddha of the future. He holds in his hand the liquid of immortality, recognizing his purpose in the next age to teach enlightenment. He is dressed in royal adornment with flowing robes, bracelets, necklaces, and threads containing amulet boxes. From the Hindu tradition, we saw a fragment of a four-faced linga from the 9th-10th century and a vision of Shiva the Destroyer defeating the three cities of the demons from the 10th-11th century. This four-faced linga shows three of the four principle characteristics of Shiva: his fearsome form, his sensuous and feminine side, and his benevolent side with a third eye revealing his hand in existence. The second depiction of Shiva we saw was as the destroyer of the three cities of demons. In this depiction he takes on his fiercest form, wielding many weapons including the bow and arrow that he releases at the perfect time to smite the three cities. In this depiction we also see Shiva’s elephant-headed son, the beloved Ganesha. Ganesha is a favorite in the Hindu religion, as well as amongst my students. A few students wrote their reflections on the charming depictions of Ganesha at the museum.

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Two faces of a four-faced linga (Vamadeva and Sadyojata), 900-1000. Central India. Sandstone. The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Finally, before exiting the third floor we sat to watch the video installation Ascend by Shiva Ahmadi and Sharad Patel, which explores the sobering and contemporary image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy’s body washed up on the beach in Turkey. It draws from Persian painting traditions and seeks to explore the relationship between religion, war, and eternal hope. This was also a popular piece for my student’s reflections and one that engaged many contemporary examples of religion and art coming together to find an answer to life’s greatest suffering.

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Still from Shiva Ahmadi’s Ascend. The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

After taking some time to view the third floor gallery respectfully, we headed down to the second floor to view a Japanese Ink Painting from the Zen Buddhist tradition. We spoke of the splashed-ink technique and the way that loading the brush with ink and then applying it in broad rapid strokes spoke to the paradoxes of legibility and abstraction, spontaneity and artistic talent that represent the Zen Buddhist ideals of enlightenment and a worldly point of view.

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Splashed Ink Landscape. Soga Sojo (active 1490–approx.1512). Japan. Hanging scroll. Ink on paper. Gift and purchase from the Harry G. C. Packard Collection Charitable Trust in honor of Dr. Shujiro Shimada. The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Finally, we explored the special exhibit “Divine Bodies,” which was a special treat for our class. Within this exhibit we saw many more depictions of Buddha and the Hindu deities from all over the world. In this special exhibit that ran from March 9th – July 29th the Asian Art Museum, “Divine Bodies,” placed their focus on the question, “How can we see the human in the divine and the divine in the human?” This was incredibly powerful and stirring for my students as they put this experience alongside a semester-long’s study on how religion and art meet the suffering world. How could the Hindu deities, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas speak to a world that is suffering and potentially absent of that divine spark?

This special exhibit and the entire Asian Art Museum collection allowed my students to reflect upon their work in the classroom and engage the way their religious tradition and the traditions of others seek to make sense and provide consolation to those who are suffering today. Those students that were not able to join the class on our trip went on their own and wrote about their experience and about pieces that spoke to them in regards to our wider classroom discussions. These reflections, as well as the discussions we had for the remainder of the course, were inspired by this question, “How can we see the human in the divine and the divine in the human?” Where is the divine spark in ourselves, in our religious communities, and in the brothers and sisters of other neighboring religious communities? Where does our religion and art meet the world? Where does yours?

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