Arts and Entertainment | Art

Early Southeast Asia on display in ‘Lost Kingdoms’

How much do you really know about the region “after India and before China”? The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century,” is the first international loan exhibition that showcases art from some of the earliest civilizations in Southeast Asia. 

“Lost Kingdoms” explores intersectionality of Hinduism, Buddhism, indigenous populations, and the growth of civilizations and more complex political systems across centuries. The exhibition uses religious art and artifacts as lenses through which viewers can see how these early kingdoms were the underpinnings of Southeast Asia’s current political climate. 

The exhibit engages with these topics by utilizing a wide array of mediums. Historical artifacts, religious sculptures, black and white photomurals, statues, and maps all come together into an interactive exhibit to describe the political, cultural, and religious elements at play during this time period. 

“The exhibition tracks the movement of Hinduism and Buddhism from Southeast Asia, revealing the vast flow of ideas, imagery, artistic styles, and political structures across the region during the first millennium,” Tom Campbell, director of the Met, said at the exhibit’s press opening. 

The exhibit is notable for the sheer number of works that have been collected from Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as from France, England, and the United States. 

Upon entering the exhibit, viewers are confronted with a stone dharmachakra, one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. The stone wheel, a few feet in diameter, is placed on a pedestal to recreate the way the dharmachakra would have been displayed in its original context. 

After the foyer, the exhibit is organized around various themes in Hinduism and Buddhism. Most of the artifacts are presented in a way that highlights the influence that both religions had on each other while tracking Buddhism’s rise to cultural prominence. 

“There’s really no exhibition of this complexity that examines the history of Southeast Asia,” said John Guy, the Met’s Florence and Herbert Irving curator of the arts of South and Southeast Asia. “This is a new venture … and it’s most appropriate that the Met has pioneered this.” 

One of the first themes addressed by the exhibit is the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism. This is most evident in one room that features a double-sided stele. One side of the stele depicts Hindu imagery, while the other side depicts an empty throne which frequently symbolizes the Buddha. 

After presenting museumgoers with the intermingling of Hinduism and Buddhism, the exhibit confronts viewers with a towering slab of marble, which was the cover of a relic chamber in one of Myanmar’s earliest stupas. This room focuses on the rise of Buddhism and presents several historical artifacts alongside religious sculptures of the Buddha. 

In one of the most stunning visual displays of the exhibit, the room invokes the shape of the stupa and presents four different life-sized statues of the Buddha around a circular pedestal—from the Indian Buddha as a hero figure to the meditative Thai Buddha. The statues are supplemented with a photomural that spans one of the room’s walls.

“We tried to be quite selective of the photomurals we used,” Guy said in a tour. For example, one room features a large photomural of a seventh-century relief of Shiva on limestone, which was carved into the wall of a cave and could not be removed for the exhibit. 

“‘Lost Kingdoms’ is an exhibit that only the Met can do,” Campbell said. “These kingdoms will be new to many but deeply relevant, as they broadly outline the modern political map of the region today.” 

neha.sundaram@columbiaspectator.com | @neha_sundaram

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