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Lost Art From The First Millennium

Shanoor Seervai interviews Met curator John Guy on ancient Hindu and Buddhist art, excavating shipwrecks, and the growing influence of Eastern art in the West.

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The exhibit included first-ever loans of sculpture from Myanmar.
Photo by Flickr user Guillén Pérez.

The ancient arts of the Hindu and Buddhist worlds have been at the center of John Guy’s work for three decades. Guy, curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has worked on numerous land and sea excavations, unearthing ceramics and bronze sculptures that were important to traders in the first millennium. “I have a little mantra that I operate by, which is ‘I will not lecture or speak about a place that I’ve not been to,’” says Guy. “I think it’s terribly important to have actually experienced the place, even if what is there today is a mere shadow of what made this place important a thousand years ago.”

The British curator recently visited India to speak about the earliest influences of Indian traders in Southeast Asia. Guy’s most recent show, “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century,” explored the contact between the two civilizations at a time when relatively unknown rulers in Southeast Asia started to adopt elements of Indic religion, including sculpture and ritual. The show was the first international loan exhibition to explore the sculptural art produced in Southeast Asia’s earliest kingdoms. The New York Times described the art “as rich as a massed chorale and as haunting as a single-voice chant,” adding, “no institution on earth can produce more impressive results.”

I met Guy in Mumbai in February. The soft-spoken curator is a repository of knowledge about the sublime sculpture that shapes our understanding of these largely ignored ancient kingdoms. Chatting with him was like traveling back in time to witness a bygone globalization of sailing ships, regal courts, and borders too porous to keep nations apart, and then looking into the future to predict where new artistic boundaries might be drawn.

Shanoor Seervai for Guernica

Guernica: Tell me about the enormous effort that went into bringing the works for the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition from Southeast Asia to the Met.

John Guy: “Lost Kingdoms” assembled 160 monumental objects from six Southeast Asian countries to present new interpretations of how we read early Southeast Asian history and its relationship to South Asia in the first millennium. The exhibition tried to explore the dialogue that went on with South Asia throughout the first millennium, how that found expression in Southeast Asia, how it was acculturated, transformed, and readapted to their own purposes. What you see in Southeast Asia in the first millennium in no sense could be mistaken for religious imagery produced in the subcontinent. But it’s obviously exploring the same sets of religious ideas.

The exhibition itself was something of a diplomatic marathon. We negotiated with six countries—Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore—and over a couple of years were able to win their trust and confidence to the extent we were able to borrow objects of national importance, and in some cases, objects that were listed as national treasures. Each of the countries lent in excess of twenty objects, and we got the first-ever loans that were negotiated with Myanmar to come out of that country.

Most of the collections I was drawing on I’d first seen twenty-five or thirty years ago in some cases. In the generic process of curating an exhibition, there’s the genesis of an idea, then you put together a wish list: in an ideal world what objects you’d love to have. Then you assess the plausibility of these objects coming—first for their physical welfare, which is the primary concern. I wouldn’t put the object at risk in any way by traveling.

In most cases, the loans required cabinet approval, and in some the prime minister’s approval. It’s a complicated process—one had to wear two hats simultaneously. On the one hand you were the scholar or researcher and on the other you were a foot soldier and diplomat, negotiating these loans.

For this exhibition, the surviving corpus only runs to a few hundred objects globally, on planet earth. We borrowed 160 of the finest works from a very small corpus.

What’s remarkable about something like this exhibition and the 160 objects that we had is that the scale of the total corpus of material that has survived is surprisingly small. If you were doing an exhibition of European Romanesque art, you’d have many thousands of objects to choose from, from England, Southern France, Spain, Italy. For this exhibition, the surviving corpus only runs to a few hundred objects globally, on planet earth. We borrowed 160 of the finest works from a very small corpus.

These were small countries with very small populations. One of the principal reasons people went to war historically in Southeast Asia was not to secure territory—because borders were very fluid, and there was no such thing as a national border, it was a permeable space. The great prize really was people, you know, to populate and settle your territories. Preferably skilled artisans—an asset to your state if you had them under your control.

Guernica: You’re obviously steeped in the history of this region. But how do audiences at the Met respond, for whom much of this art must be so unfamiliar?

John Guy: The Met has something in excess of 6.2 million visitors a year. The core audience is from the greater New York area, but something like 40 percent of our visitors are international, and for the most part, they’re very highly educated. Something like the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition surprised a lot of people because many visitors thought they had a good handle on all the major cultures of the world, and suddenly realized that here was one they’d missed, that had slipped under the radar and had never really been presented in an exhibition before.

There have been exhibitions on a single country, just on Thailand or Vietnam, for example. But this is the first time the region has been treated as a single cultural sphere, ignoring modern political boundaries, and looking at the archeological record of really early state formation in Southeast Asia and the emergence of kingship based on Indic models. Brahminism and Buddhism have set an indelible mark on this region to this day.

It’s a curious hybrid legacy that’s come down, and this exhibition looked at it from the beginning: Not the beginning of contact between the regions, because that’s very hard to document, but where the archeological record kicks in, the 5th century AD. There were stray objects and contact much earlier, but systematic contact started then—like local rulers giving themselves Indic names and having Brahmins at their court performing Vedic rituals for their protection, and leaving Sanskrit inscriptions [in stone]. This is pretty formal stuff that reached a high level of engagement with a foreign culture. To a large degree the principal kingdoms of the first millennium—I focused on six main kingdoms in this exhibition—have more or less persisted down into the modern political entities even today, roughly speaking.

Guernica: What have you found in your archeological work in parts of the subcontinent that are racked by conflict?

John Guy: I’ve done some work in Kashmir—Indian Kashmir—but I’ve not worked in Pakistan. In Kashmir, the border tensions between India and Pakistan have clearly made field archeology problematic. It’s been difficult and dangerous in some cases. But as far as I’m aware, sites have not been systematically attacked. You just want things to survive and be here in another generation’s time. If there’s simply no activity, then you can wait and do the archeology later, in another generation. It’s the destruction of sites that’s really tragic, and the knowledge that’s lost.

What’s happening in Afghanistan is certainly tragic. What’s been lost in terms of human legacy is part of a shared cultural history that’s no more.

What’s happening in Afghanistan is certainly tragic, Bamiyan [where the Taliban has destroyed 6th century statues of the Buddha] being the biggest site. Not to mention the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. What’s been lost in terms of human legacy is part of a shared cultural history that’s no more.

Guernica: What was a particularly memorable excavation that you’ve been on?

John Guy: Probably the most spectacular was the excavation of a late Tang dynasty shipwreck in the Java Sea. This cargo, which we date back to the first quarter of the ninth century, was discovered in 1998-1999 near Sumatra in the western Java Sea. They recovered something like 66,000 artifacts—and that wasn’t everything on the seabed. It’s the largest time capsule we have of late Tang material culture, and tells us a lot about the Chinese export industry at that time. This was the way the Chinese paid for all those consumables they were desperate for—the aromatics, to support Buddhist temple practices, early frankincense and camphor and sandalwood; spices of course; and one thing that’s not talked about, which is very fine Indian textiles. China has always been poor in terms of cotton production; its strength, of course, is silk. India is the home of the best cotton goods in the world—it has been for nearly 2000 years—and so that was clearly a very important import.

This is the first evidence we have, the first proof of what the texts tell us: that there were Arab dhows operating from the Persian Gulf to China.

The spectacular aspect to it beyond the cargo is that the ship was identified as an Arab dhow. This is the first evidence we have, the first proof of what the texts tell us: that there were Arab dhows operating from the Persian Gulf to China. The ships went from Basra and Siraf, historic ports of Iraq and Iran, and other sites on the Persian Gulf, along the longest sea route in history, to China. This ship was on its homeward journey, loaded up in China, on its way back to the Persian Gulf, and was lost in the Java Sea. That Arab dhows and Arab-speaking traders operated on those routes we know about from Arabic sources and also from Chinese sources, but this is the first archeological proof we have of that. It’s the first Arab dhow to have been found archeologically outside the Arabian Peninsula.

Guernica: The “New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia” at the Met is a fairly recent addition to the museum. Does this reflect a growing interest in the region, or something about the changing demographics of the United States?

John Guy: We’re trying to build the South Asian collections. Not so much that we’re expanding the collection radically at all, but the reverse—the collection grows very modestly, but we’re trying to celebrate the collection, and exploit it in many new ways in terms of our programming, exhibitions, and increasingly through our website.

What we’ve been doing in recent years is trying to involve the ever-expanding South Asian diaspora in the US, particularly in the greater New York area. There are a lot of highly successful South Asian businessmen and women we’re encouraging to participate in the life of the museum, to contribute to building the profile of South Asia through the Met.

There’s a whole US-born generation of children with South Asian parents, fully educated in the US, who want to reconnect with their own cultural identity. There are much older Chinese immigrant communities in the US, and some of the younger generations are actively involved in the life of the museum. We’re trying to build that same sort of mindset amongst South Asians who are US-born or educated in the US and have made their life there.

Guernica: Let’s look ahead at contemporary South Asian art and the way it’s being marketed to the rest of the globe. Do you think that mirrors the long-standing interest that’s existed in ancient South Asian cultures?

John Guy: South Asian artists who trained in New York or London are very much concerned with current, contemporary issues, but through a South Asian filter. Their terms of reference are often historical Indian material. When I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum—I spent twenty-four years there before coming to the Met in 2008—contemporary artists who were in residence used the historic collections to develop ideas for their own work. Setting up those conversations is quite important and something museums can offer to the contemporary art world.

A buoyant contemporary art scene is partly related to the state of an economy. Particularly the Indian art market, with the India Art Fair in Delhi and other things happening, is symptomatic of the very buoyant domestic market that is supporting the work of these artists. People are taking risks, which is the only way the contemporary world operates. You buy someone’s work (a) because you like it, and (b) because you think the person won’t fade away over time and will become more established. But that’s not guaranteed so you’ve got to really care about what you’re acquiring. That takes a certain capacity and a certain surplus as well, to have the luxury to do that.

Things are happening in all the major centers in India these days in the contemporary art world on a regular basis. There’s also a very well established biennale network in Southeast Asia that extends from Australia to Japan, and includes Singapore, Bangkok, and so on. What I’ve not seen a lot of is those two connecting. And that might be the next step—the Southeast Asian contemporary art scene, which is very vibrant, connecting with what’s happening in India. It’s what they call South-South, and if they start to integrate more, that could be a very interesting dynamic as well.

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