If you think flexibility and patience are important in yoga class, perhaps the staff of the new Smithsonian exhibit, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” could tell you how important it was to them as they worked diligently to complete the final touches for the exhibit opens Saturday, October 19, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC.
“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” is the first exhibit about the visual history of yoga explores the diverse transformations of yoga during the past 2,000 years – from sculptures of Hindu goddesses to 20th century posters depicting a yogi with special powers. It’s a celebration of the mysterious, the sacred, and even the weird.
Just 24-hours prior to opening, on-site workers were still installing last-minute lighting, and attending to small details that exhibit Curator Debra Diamond said would have been completed had the shutdown not occurred.
“This is almost a very authentic Indian experience. A little chaotic,” said Diamond pointing to a few exhibit signs still hung by tape, and a few exposed metal holders beneath some of the frames. “It took a lot of flexibility and patience from the staff to open this exhibit on time.”
Leave it to an exhibit on the history of yoga, however, to have good enough karma to open on schedule, despite the recent 16-day government shutdown that ended just three days prior to the grand opening.
Yoga practice and traditions at the exhibit.
In addition to the flurry of final touches the day before the opening, the exhibit area was abuzz with not only staff and reporters, but an actual yoga class lead by teacher, Hilaria Baldwin (wife of actor Alec Baldwin) for over 20 students from the local Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC.
Additional free yoga classes around the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” will be held throughout the exhibition at the Smithsonian in tandem with special workshops on Wednesdays and weekends for students interested in learning about both the imagery and yoga. Classes will combine a docent and a yoga teacher who will work together to focus on certain artworks and develop thematic classes around the pieces for students to experience through yoga.
Yoga enthusiasts and the curious are also invited to a free public festival, “Diwali and the Art of Yoga,” on Saturday, October 26, at the Smithsonian, which will mark both the opening of the exhibition which coincides with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Games, workshops, Indian tradition story tellers, and yoga classes will continue throughout the day. The evening will conclude with a traditional lamp-lighting ceremony with the Indian ambassador and a classical Indian music concert.
Centuries of a visual history of yoga.
The exhibit includes more than 130 works dating from the second to the early 20th century. Ancient masterpieces of sculpture and painting are featured in the exhibit, as well as modern photographs, films, and books on yoga as medicine, reveal how yoga has been growing over the centuries, despite their previous reputations as spies and warriors.
According to Diamond, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” brings together amazing works created over two thousand years. Yoga is a household word the world over, but scholars have not holistically explored its visual culture which provides new insights to broad audiences.”
Why is this exhibit relevant now?
Diamond stated, “Yoga has gained widespread recognition and unprecedented popularity around the world as a regimen for health, spirituality and exercise. Many are aware of its origins in India, but the profound aspirations that compelled countless individuals to pursue yogic paths are little known outside of scholar and advanced practitioner circles.”
One bifolio on display at the exhibit was described by Sanskrit scholar, Sir James Mallinson, PhD, as depicting “gangs of yogi warriors” gathering during auspicious days at sacred sites around India for bathing and ensuring power and protection for their territories. A gathering now known as the Kumbh Mela and now considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world – rather than a gathering of warriors. Mallinson is also featured in a new film “Mystic Journey: Kumbh Mela” which documents the Hindu pilgrimage.
The Yogini of yesterday.
One featured sculpture titled, “Yogini," created between the seventh and twelfth centuries, depicts a voluptuous, four-armed goddess who sits on an owl and brandishing a sword, and is depicted opening her mouth to emit a piercing whistle.
Centuries ago, the term “yogini” referred to both fierce flying goddesses and the mortal women who ritually became those deities.
Not at all like the 21st century athletic, Lululemon-clad yoginis.
A full range of public programs, concerts and family activities, including a November symposium, will accompany the exhibition at the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery, which runs through January 26, 2014. Information is available on the official exhibit web site.
The exhibition has also published a catalog (which is more like a beautiful coffee table book) about Yoga: The Art of Transformation” which is the first publication on the visual history of yoga.
Following its Washington, D.C., debut, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” will travel to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum (February 21 – May 25, 2014) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22 – September 7, 2014).