Sculptures from ‘Lost Kingdoms’ at the Met
Renee Minus White | 4/17/2014, 4:59 p.m.
This holiday season is the perfect time to take youngsters to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to view “Lost Kingdoms.” The place was packed with visitors, and lots of folks were sitting on the museum’s front steps, at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue, just enjoying the sun. The exhibition “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia 5th to 8th Century,” is on view at the Met now through July 27. It’s an extraordinary exhibit of sculptures, big and small pieces, telling an amazing story.
During the first millennium, a series of kingdoms emerged in Southeast Asia for the first time in the recorded history of the region. Described by early Western geographers as the place “beyond India before China,” the region was seen as lacking an identity of its own. However, the first real understanding by the Chinese was that Southeast Asia boasted a stirring of emerging states, but their identities have been largely lost to history.
This exhibition introduces the sculptural traditions of these early kingdoms. The mere existence of the cultures that produced the art of these regions is noted in Chinese tribute records and, later, in local Sanskrit inscriptions. The names are unfamiliar to most: Pyu in Myanmar, My Kedah in Malaysia, Furnan in southern Vietnam, Zhenia in Cambodia, Champa in central Vietnam, Dvarvati in Thailand and Srivijaya in Sumatra. These early political entities mark the beginning of state formation in Southeast Asia, and their archaeological footprints broadly define the political map of the region today. The defining corpus of early religious art is our principal window into these cultures.
Five-year-old Soraya Randolph (my granddaughter) asked, “Why are some sculptures broken, without arms, legs and even heads?” While being transported, some of these ancient sculptures were chipped and broken, here and there. In a moment while walking through the exhibition, she sat on the floor with her legs crossed and eyes closed to experience the positions of the sculptures.
The first coastal port states that emerged allowed access to the riches of the hinterlands. This access linked ports to the long-distance trading systems. Through this economic stimulus, overlaid with a powerful set of Indic ideas and imagery concerning statecraft, kingships and divine order, the earliest known polities of Southeast Asia emerged into historical daylight. With them came a powerful aesthetic to express devotion to the newly introduced religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.