Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: Buddhist Cave Temples, Gandhara, Fiona in Peshawar

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The Buddhist Cave Temples at Xiangtangshan show at Smithsonian's Freer Sackler

Washington DC.  I like walk-in tours. The Freer & Sackler on Independence SW does them better than most.  This one’s The Buddhist Cave Temples at Xiangtangshan. To me that’s ancient Chinese sculpture - an extraordinary display of artifacts in a digital age. Specialist? No. Nothing so mysterious is specialist. Makes you think. Some of the work was being done when we were just out of cave painting. That puts us in perspective.

But the bigger story is the fact that I can just walk in whenever the Sackler is doing a free show.  I can then walk out at any time. I can then get a coffee. Not get a coffee. Pick up dry cleaning. Not pick up dry cleaning.  Take a cab ride without checking out the driver. The shorthand is freedom. Which is why New Yorkers are about to see something very special (or get a latte). A lot of other people could get suicide bombed or worse just trying.

I know. I’ve been there.

Gold Market Fiona Graham-Mackay.jpgA summer or so past, I was painting up on the Afghan-Pak border. AK-47s and suicide bombing just part of the daily deal.  I went down to Peshawar and sketched in the Gold Market. Not long after I left, Taliban blew a chunk of it and a lot of very innocent people to smithereens, along with the two hotels in which I happened to have stayed. I was told it wouldn’t be wise to go back.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, maybe nobody should, says the State Department. But one person has done so and, done so again. She’s a very elegant and a very determined lady, Melissa Chiu.  The astonishing result may be seen from 9 August in New York at the Asia Society exhibition of nearly 70 pieces of Buddhist art from Pakistan.

gandhara_1.jpgWith utter determination and seemingly against all odds, Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum director, has brought these sculpture, architectural reliefs and works of gold and bronze, produced from the third century BC to fifth century AD to New York. 

The last exhibition of Gandhara art in the US at Asia Society was in 1960. With the bureaucracy, corruption, lack of communications this has been some undertaking, and at times, a potentially dangerous one.

We should be impressed by Ms. Chiu’s dedication and commitment to show the cultural heritage of Pakistan at a time when US-Pak relations are at their lowest. Just imagine what the artists and craftsmen who created these pieces so long ago, wouldTaliban Fiona Graham-Mackay.jpg have thought about it all. 

After the Gold Market, the locked home of these treasures in Pakistan was opened for me.  I wondered at it all and then I was whisked away. Even I, an innocent painter, needed close protection. Ironically, of all my paintings and sketches among those lovely people and their breathtakingly beautiful country, a small sketch of a Taliban fighter was the most sought after. Prints still are.

Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all but that is the role of the artist and true art stands many tests. Try a walk-in at the Seckler. Try a walk-in at the Asia Society. Or if you wish, try a skinny latte and pick up the dry-cleaning. Up to you. We call that "freedom." Until 30 October at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue.

ArtScene Quote of the Week

I have been asked what inspires me to paint - it’s an inner urge to be creative. Pakistani artist Moin Shah

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments are…

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