SPAN: July/August 1999

Page 28

ndian Art at the mithsonian


A fast-growing center of Indian art appreciation nestles in the embrace of the vast Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The 1990s have seen the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer galleries adjust their East Asian focus to include South Asian art in a big way.

It is a blue-skied Saturday in May, and six-year-old Rielly Wall plans to spend the afternoon playing baseball. But, first, he has a goddess to make. Sitting at a table in the ImaginAsia program of the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Rielly and his grandmother are fashioning the silhouette of a kneeling human figure out of a thick blue length of wire. "She'll look really beautiful," says Rielly. "She'll have jewels everywhere, even on her feet. And," he adds, "I want to make her 10 arms." At a nearby table, five-year-old Matthew Shonman is equally busy. His wire goddess has five heads, six arms and, as he points out, "a flower as a mouth. And you know what this is?" he asks his father, pointing to a tiny bit of wire that pokes up through the Styrofoam base. When his father shakes his head, Matthew exclaims: "It's a person!" And, by comparison, his goddess swells to cosmic proportions. They may be made of simple wire, but Matthew and Rielly's goddesses capture key aspects of the stunning metal and stone statues of goddesses on display down the hall. In the process, they illustrate the depth of the Smithsonian's commitment to bringing the art and culture of India to life for Americans of all ages. Funded by the U.S. Government, the Smithsonian includes museums dedicated to just about every branch of learning and art imaginable. Among them are two museums devoted to Asian art-the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler

Gallery-which explore various aspects of Asia through film and lecture series, demonstrations of traditional arts and dance, ImaginAsia activities for schoolchildren, ExplorAsia for two- to sevenyear-olds, and the cornerstone of it all, ambitious shows like Devi: The Great Goddess on view at the Sackler through September 6. Until the early 1990s, the two museums concentrated primarily on Chinese and Japanese art, reflecting the interests of their founders and the art market at the time they were collected. But if there was once a scarcity of Indian art in the nation's capital, the Sackler and Freer have more than made up for it. This summer alone, three shows center on India, in addition to displays in each museum showcasing Indian selections from their respective permanent collections. The reason there are two museums devoted to Asian art is simple: Charles Lang Freer, who donated both his collection and the elegant, Italian-inspired building in which it is housed, stipulated that no part of its collection could ever be loaned and no loaned objects ever be shown within its walls. This posed no problem in 1923, when the Freer-the Smithsonian's first fine arts museum--{)pened its doors to the public. But in this age of traveling shows, the restriction proved crippling. Or rather would have, had collector Arthur M. Sackler not stepped forward in the 1980s and donated a second museum. As a result, the Smithsonian now has two venues in which to exhibit Asian