Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…

YogaCityNYC ~ article on Body & Spirit / Tibetan Medical Paintings


I navigated my way through the American Museum of Natural History past throngs of excited young summer day campers anticipating an audience with those museum divas, the dinosaurs. My destination was off the beaten path: the Body and Spirit exhibit of Tibetan medical paintings.

In the Audubon Gallery, hushed walls hung with rare and meticulously hand-painted reproductions of traditional scroll painting lured me into the 17th century world of Tibet. Nearly 8000 images (mostly two inches high) on 64 paintings begged to be pored over, with their precise diagrammatic yet stylized detail. I am an illustrator with a background in fashion, so I know about decorative detail. But not on this level. Initially overwhelmed, I adjusted my mental and visual focus, calibrated the balance between my right and left brain, and immersed myself in the mesmerizing exhibit.

A visual history of medicine surrounded me with scenes depicting the causes, diagnostic techniques, and treatments of illness, as well as human anatomy. Originally painted 300 years ago as a teaching aid for the Blue Beryl, a vital commentary on the classic Tibetan medical text The Four Tantras, the collection has been reproduced twice. The current exhibit was painted in the late 1990s by self-taught Nepalese artist Romio Shrestha and his students. No copyright infringement issues here; according to Laurel Kendall, curator and chair of the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, “Both the art of reproduction and the information on Tibetan medicine contained in the paintings represent conscious acts of transmission across time and space, the living work of culture.”

Arranged diagrammatically in rows, tiny tableaux lead the viewer through the theme of each of the 64 medical paintings. Ranging from human embryology to dream prognosis to metaphors of the human body, the themes cover the corporal and spiritual concerns of mankind from birth to death and beyond. They include snippets of scenes from everyday life, as well as structured charts with mathematical grids dividing the body. Disarming in their visual charm, they also inspire awe with their ability to convey important medical information. Almost too much information, if viewing sex, gore, and bodily functions is not your cup of green tea. Bloodletting is represented in jewel-like droplets, as artfully arranged as a pattern of paisley. A coil of body waste is a decorative escargot shell. Rendered in any other style, a parental advisory label might have been posted at the entrance.

My friend that attended the show with me is a fellow artist and cancer survivor who has been following a Tibetan healing regimen since 1999. About the same time these artists dipped their fine-haired brushes into mineral and vegetable dyes, she began to swallow her “precious pills,” as they are called. Under the care of a Tibetan doctor in India as well as one in New York City, she receives her prescription from India: sari silk-lined envelopes contain pills wrapped individually in tiny silk pouches. Even in the packaging the practical mingles with the aesthetic; the mixture of minerals is light-sensitive. My friend admits that logic laced with a leap of faith got her onto this Tibetan healing path, and so far it has served her well. Some conflicted thoughts arise in me, having not yet been confronted by a major illness. I know that some of this traditional medicine has contributed to the near extinction of animals such as the rhinoceros and musk deer. But I am in the moment happily sharing her company which coexists with our art background past, as I envision holding and even drawing little silk pouches with medicinal pearls.

There is so much to process in this exhibit: intellectually, ethically, and artistically. In the end, the right side of my brain trumps the left, natural balance restored, and the visuals of this Tibetan treat dance in my head.

(published 8/2011)

photo credit: AMNH

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