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“Sacred art is everywhere”: An interview with Ann Shaftel

“When you leave Bhutan, you return home with a renewed inspiration of what art is.”

Ann Shaftel would know – she’s visited Bhutan six times in her life, during the course of her career as one of the world’s foremost experts on Buddhist sacred art and thangkas.

Ann at Dzong thimphu

Ann at Dzong thimphu

Ann’s the Director and lead instructor of Treasure Caretaker Training, an award-winning project that combines scientific and traditional techniques to conserve and protect Buddhist sacred art. She’s conducted workshops and lectures at universities and monasteries across the world, including Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Art Institute of Chicago, Royal Ontario Museum, Yale Beinecke Library and Rubin Museum of Art. 

Alongside Bhutan’s exceptional natural beauty is its striking art – art that permeates every facet of culture and society. As Ann explains, sacred art is intimately woven into Buddhist spirituality and every day life.

It’s for this reason that we’ve chosen Ann to lead our 2018 Bhutan tour. It’s hard to think of a more intimate way to experience and learn about Bhutan than through Ann’s rich insight on sacred art. Her close friendships with Bhutanese people – from the best natural dyers to venerated Buddhist teachers and officials in Bhutan’s Department of Culture — ensure a superlative travel experience. 

We spoke to Ann about her interest in thangkas and textiles, how art permeates Bhutanese society, and her favourite memories of Bhutan.

Ann at Zulikha Nunnery

What is a thangka? What are they used for?

Thangkas are three-dimensional artworks that depict iconography, consisting of a central panel (painted, woven, or applique) surrounded by a textile mounting, with wooden dowels in the top and bottom, and sometimes a cover.

Even before we had cars or airplanes, the great Buddhist teachers would travel through far away areas of the Himalayas to teach dharma [Buddhist teachings]. It was a nomadic culture that was closely bound up with the seasons, and they travelled with everything in tents. Everything the great teachers travelled with – their entourage of monks, their bedding, their sacred art, their food – it all had to travel. Therefore, the thangkas had to be portable too – they were rolled up to travel on yaks.

Most of the traditional pigments came from the mountains – so you have, basically, primary colours: azurite, malachite, etcetera. The primary colours represent different energies that we, as humans, experience. When we get to Bhutan, I have a very special Rinpoche friend, a Buddhist teacher, who can explain Buddhist iconography to our group in more detail.

All through Bhutan you see amazing paintings of Buddhist iconography: on thangkas, all over the walls of temples, and even on the outside of some traditional buildings.

Visit to Nunnery in Bhutan in 2015, looking at a thangka

Visit to Nunnery in Bhutan in 2015, looking at a thangka

When did you first become interested in thangkas?

I grew up in New York City, and my parents used to bring me to museums as a tiny child; they’d bring me in a stroller. And then, in second grade, my school class had a trip to a museum, the Museum of Natural History, that had thangkas – and I remember thangkas from then. Now, that museum is one of my clients; I was just there recently leading a professional study group on thangka and textile storage techniques.

I learned Christian meditation from the Quaker tradition, and I meditated from a young age, and then in college I learned about Buddhist meditation. In 1970, my father took me to India and Nepal, and we went around to monasteries and museums, and we met wise Buddhist teachers and artists, and we talked about thangkas, and how they were created and utilized in traditional culture.

Since then, I’ve served as a conservator and advisor for major museums, governments, Buddhist monasteries, and private collectors, concerning their thangkas.

Ann teaching thangka preservation in New York City March 2017

Ann teaching thangka preservation in New York City March 2017

I’m curious about the ways in which thangkas challenge our assumptions or inherited ways of thinking about Western art. For example, is the author of a thangka important in the same way as a famous Western painter?

There are some identifiable thangka painters through the centuries. But generally, it was the iconography that was more important than the personal recognition of the painter. The painters were trained as apprentices for many years in comprehensive iconographies – for example, how to portray the iconography of Guru Rinpoche. We will see Guru Rinpoche thangkas and statues in Bhutan. Artists are trained in colours appropriate to the iconography, as well as proportions.

For example, often when an older thangka was damaged though use, a thangka painter would be called in to paint a copy of it – and the original thangka would still be respected as is. So copying was very much within the tradition.

Do you have favourite museums in Bhutan?

In Toronto or New York, you go to a museum to see art. However, in Bhutan, what we call “art” is everywhere. In other words, every shop has a thangka or two, every home has a thangka or statues. What we designate as “art” is so much within the culture that you don’t just go to a museum to look at art – sacred art is everywhere, it’s part of everyday life.

That being said, I’d also like to bring the group to a gallery of modern art, because there are innovative and approachable Bhutanese contemporary artists who are referencing traditional sacred art.

Ann examining thangkas at Yale Beinecke Collection

Ann examining thangkas at Yale Beinecke Collection

What’s the most impressive piece of art you’ve seen in Bhutan?

Because it is a sacred art, I am careful to not judge it by the criteria of a “masterpiece” like we do in the West. But in almost every monastery, nunnery, or home, there is something that just…draws you to it. You may experience being attracted to its history, or the way it is displayed in the home: with such respect. When you leave Bhutan, you leave with a renewed inspiration of what art is – it’s not just something we go to museums for. It is something that we live with.

Can you tell me about some of the people you’ve met through your work in Bhutan?

Working in Bhutan, friendship and work go together: museum directors, cultural officers and archivists, craftspeople and painters. I treasure my friendships with traditional Buddhist teachers. And I keep in touch with monks and nuns, for example, that I first taught thangka preservation to in 2005 and then again in 2008. I look forward to seeing them again. With everybody I know there, it feels like a second home.

The last time I was in Bhutan was two years ago, and I taught a Preservation of Monastery Treasures workshop at the Royal University of Bhutan with UNESCO – we taught monks, nuns, and Department of Culture staff about the preservation of monastery treasures from a scientific point of view – including risk assessment and disaster mitigation. The Royal Government of Bhutan is doing an excellent job in documenting the sacred art all through Bhutan, keeping records of it, working towards preservation.

I will be delighted to introduce you to some of my favourite thangka painters, to my friend, an accomplished natural dyer, and to weavers and sculptors. It wouldn’t be just a package tour; we will get to meet them, and talk to them.

Ann teaching thangka preservation in Bhutan in 2008

Ann teaching thangka preservation in Bhutan in 2008

What are you most excited about for this itinerary?

To share my friendships and appreciation of the cultural richness of Bhutan with everyone on the tour.  I look forward to walking through museums and monasteries and sharing Buddhist art with our tour guests, from the unique point of view of an art conservator. I look forward to discussions about conservation, restoration, preservation as well as iconography.

An opportunity you won’t want to miss

Bhutan with Ann Shaftel: Feb 18–28, 2018.

Contact us to sign up!


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