Touch of Tibetan history

By Anissa V. Rivera, Pasadena Star News, November 15, 2004

Museum exhibit features ancient tables, trunks

PASADENA, Calif. (USA) -- The stories they could tell: the 14-foot- long red altar cupboard that housed religious items in some faraway monastery; the intricately carved wooden trunks with Chinese-inspired motifs; and the low, wooden tables painted with dragon faces or skulls.

More than 1,000 years of furniture, from the 11th to 19th centuries, are gathered in three galleries at the Pacific Asia Museum through Feb. 13, the first exhibition of its kind to draw attention to a little known aspect of Tibetan culture its furniture.

"Wooden Wonders: Tibetan Furniture in Secular and Religious Life,' sheds light on the evolving lifestyles, traditions and beliefs of Tibetans.

"I've been working on this exhibit for 15 years,' said David L. Kamansky, senior curator and director emeritus at the museum. "The reason it took so long is we had to get funding for it and the finest furniture only came out recently.'

Kamansky, who has been to Tibet 29 times (he will make another trip next year), has also written the first book on the subject.

Along with 11 scholars, Kamansky explores the history and use of more than 148 pieces of Tibetan furniture, most made of wood, but some executed in silver, cooper, brass and even inlaid with precious metals. There are also some leather trunks and boxes.

"This is really something totally new,' said Italian scholar Luca Corona, who wrote an essay, "Tibetan Furniture, Its Construction and Use in Tibetan Society,' for the exhibit catalog. "Most of the items here are from monasteries or from villages where the Chinese gave them away after the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They considered it utilitarian items so they didn't destroy them.'

The items also detail the influence of neighboring areas such as China, India, Kashmir, Nepal and Mongolia.

Geshe Lobzang Tsetan, a monk from Ladakh, Tibet, and a part- time lecturer at Smith College in Massachusetts, said the exhibit encourages visitors to think about the people who used the pieces or even carved or decorated each one.

Museum staff have planned educational programs in conjunction with the exhibit, including a teacher's workshop, "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Art,' from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday; a slide lecture, "Symbols of Transformation on Tibetan Buddhist Art,' from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday; "Beyond Suffering and Death: Auspicious Messages on Tibetan Furniture, a Collector's View,' from 2 to 3 p.m. Dec. 4; and a curator's tour led by Kamansky from 2 to 3 p.m. Jan. 22. Some fees apply.

For more information, call (626)449-2742, Ext. 31.