SAN FRANCISCO — As part of its golden jubilee celebrations, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has put together several special exhibits, including one inspired by gold and another by the epic Sanskrit poem the “Ramayana,” which will go on display over the course of the new year.
Contemporary Indian American artist Ranu Mukherjee’s exhibit on gold mining, “Extracted,” began the examination of gold Nov. 6 with the first of three installations.
The second and third installations, which will build upon one another, will open Jan. 26, 2016 and May 3, 2016, respectively.
Jeff Durham, the museum’s assistant curator of Himalayan art, explained how the concept behind the pan-Asian “Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art” exhibit, scheduled to be on display from March 4 to May 8, 2016, and the way it is set up are inspired by traditional gold coins that juxtapose the sacred and secular.
“On one side you have a symbol of secular authority, King Kanishka for example or Chandragupta I,” Durham told India-West. “But then on the other side you have a symbol of divine authority.”
He said this relationship between the sacred and secular tends emerges when observing almost any gold coinage, which will be featured prominently in the exhibit.
“It’s as if the two are mutually attesting to each other’s genuineness,” he said. “And so it was that idea that gave rise to the idea of constructing this exhibition, which has a central section with sacred objects and two wings with secular objects.”
One of the two secular wings will contain gold objects associated with the home and family life, including wedding gifts and textiles, while the other will contain luxurious and opulent objects associated with the palace, power and hierarchy.
The more dimly lit central section will include sacred objects and representations of the divine.
“This unique physical quality of gold, that it doesn’t tarnish, makes it perfect for symbolizing anything you don’t want to die — like your dynasty or your family as well as immortality that you find in religion and such.”
In addition to the objects from India, Durham told India-West the emphasis on gold is to highlight its history in Asia and how its presence in California led to a mass migration from there.
To examine gold in a more contemporary context, the museum commissioned Mukherjee to create a mixed-media piece, which will have three installations over the course of the year, addressing the themes of speculation on, attraction to and extraction of gold.
Inspired by a trip she took to Nevada City, Nevada, “Extracted” deals with many different themes and topics, including Chinese mythology, the Gold Rush, its social and ecological impacts, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the transformation of earth elements to ephemeral market-driven currency, among other things.
“My work tends to be made from a neo-futurist perspective,” Mukherjee told India-West. “So I’m thinking about the ways the future comes to us in the present.”
The artist said she believes in order to progress ecologically, we must identify with a much wider spectrum of matter, so she hopes to open up spaces that allow people to think imaginatively about concrete things.
Using works on paper, collage-like videos composed of countless layers and textiles, Mukherjee mingles fact and fiction and the past and future to explore gold as a form of energy, the moment of its production and its trajectory.
“It’s very exciting to me because it establishes this continuity between Asia and gold in the past and what’s going on with this new gold in San Francisco in the present,” Durham said, referring to the financial allure of Silicon Valley and the recent influx of Asians in the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe” exhibit, which will be on display from Oct. 21, 2016 to Jan. 15, 2017, will include 135 works from around the world ranging from the traditional to the more modern.
“There have been exhibitions on the Rama epic before,” Forrest McGill, chief curator at the museum, told India-West, “but there are a couple of things that make ours different.”
McGill explained that the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit will not only include pieces from around the world, including India and southeast Asia, starting from 1,500 years ago to the present, but the exhibit will also focus on the perspectives of four of the characters — Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana.
“Because the stories are so huge, for our general public you can’t do the whole story,” he said. “So we’re focusing on four characters … because we think the general public can get the idea of the hero, the heroine, the hero’s ally and the hero’s adversary.”
The exhibit will be split across four rooms representing each character’s point of view, personality and the crossroads he or she faced.
There will be depictions of important scenes for each character from various time periods and locations, illustrating the differences in the way the story has been received and which elements have been given significance.
McGill pointed out there are artists today who are reexamining the myth from Sita’s perspective to reinterpret and represent it from her point of view, as well as artists, such as American Rajasthan-based artist Waswo X. Waswo, who are looking at Hanuman in a contemporary light.
As far back as 1893, French artist Odilon Redon was reimagining Sita in a portrait also included in the exhibit and borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago.
“These are traditions that India has really shared with the rest of the world now,” McGill told India-West, “and are part of the world’s cultural heritage as well as India’s.”