Artwork: Shen Yongping. Offering Bodhisattva (Mogao Cave 248, Nothern Wei Dynasty), Dizhang (mineral pigment on earthen plaster) 24 x 32 inches.
The oldest surviving Chinese silk in the West was discovered in Egypt, and dated to 1070 BC. However, as silk degrades rapidly, it cannot be known just how far back the trade between ancient kingdoms goes. But it is known that throughout the course of history, the East and West were in regular dialogue with expeditions traveling to and fro across the Silk Road, bringing together the peoples of Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, India, China, and Java. As kingdoms rose and fell, control changed hands but what always remained was the desire to do business.
The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, is an oasis strategically located at the crossroads of the Silk Road in the Gansu province of Northwest China. First dug out in 336 AD as a place for Buddhist meditation and worship, the caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art made over a period of 1,000 years, 45,000 square meters of wall paintings, rock cut sculpture, paintings, printed images, textiles, and manuscripts
From the fourth century to the fourteenth century, the caves were in use as a place of sacred pilgrimage for those of Buddhist faith. But when the Silk Road was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty, Duhuang became depopulated and forgotten, and the caves were sealed.
It was not until the late nineteen the century that the ancient Silk Road came back into vogue, as Western explorers embraced the Romantic celebration of fallen worlds. The caves were rediscovered in 1900, but not given proper regard until 1943, when painter Zhang Daqian invested himself in repair and copy of the murals. By 1987, they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987; now, some three decades later, their glories are finally coming to the light in A Silk Road Legacy on view at Huayan Art at Spectrum Miami through December 4, 2016.
Michael Zhu, Director of Huayan Art, explains that the paintings on view are faithful reproductions made by artist Shen Yongping, who has lived near the caves for thirty years. “He is one of the few persons, one of three, who know how the Dizhang techniques used to make the original cave mural paintings for years ago.”
The term Dizhang refers to applying layers of soil onto a rough surface to prepare it for painting, an essential process in the original dry fresco creation in the caves. Zhu reveals, “The mineral pigments as elements to Dizhabng painting can last one thousand years and never fade. This makes them very collectible. The artist copied the works exactly, putting the same cracks of the cave on the artwork.”
The paintings are deeply moving, devotional works that evoke the ethos of Buddhism with aesthetic grace. Scenes of Bohisattvas, celestial magicians, and heavenly kings swirl with joy and peace, visually easing the pain of suffering central that is at the center of life itself. Reaching beyond the verbal world, the paintings convey the essence of the Noble path to our soul.
Also including in A Silk Road Legacy are a selection of Suzhou embroidery pieces by artist Wang Lihua, works of art so fine and precise you would swear they are photographs. Zhu explains, “There are four categories of embroidery in China; Suzhou is the top level and we have selected the number one artist in China to exhibit. Not a lot of people get a chance to look at the work. They are always collected by the royal and noble families in China.”
An art that dates back two thousand years, Suzhou embroidery is made from silk threads that are 1/8 the thickness of human hair. It is a practice exclusive to women; the technique is passed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. “It is a lot of detail work—great for females,” Zhu observes.
The embroideries are so precise that they easily fool the naked eye into believing that they are photographic likenesses of the subjects they portray. Included in the exhibition are embroideries of classic Chinese art, still lifes, and portraits of animals, each of which will blow you away.
Taken as a whole, A Silk Road Legacy reveals what travelers have known for thousands of years: the gifts of China are to be shared with the world.
All artwork: ©Huayan Art, New York
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.