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Remembering scholars of Nepalese Art Mary Slusser and Dina Bangdel

With the recent passing of two preeminent art history scholars in the field of Nepalese art, the Rubin Museum of Art honors their legacies and the fond memories they leave behind. Colleagues, friends, and admirers of the two great scholars Mary Slusser and Dina Bangdel, shared their thoughts and memories with us. Read their words below and visit the listed resources to learn more.


Remembering Mary Slusser

Mary Slusser photographing at Panauti, December 2, 2007. Photo by Ian Alsop.
Mary Slusser photographing at Panauti, December 2, 2007. Photo by Ian Alsop.

From Patrick Sears, Executive Director of the Rubin Museum:

I had the great pleasure of knowing Mary Slusser for over three decades. As many who know her will attest, she was an extraordinary person, a gifted scholar and writer possessed of a work ethic - even into her 90s - that would run circles around those a third her age. I was never once disappointed in her advice, her attention, her patience, and her kindness.

I once traveled with Mary to the Kathmandu Valley to work with her on aspects of the soon-to-be museum on the Durbar Square of Patan。 While most of the specifics of our time together in Nepal are now obscured, two moments remain vivid:

Mary spent the first few days of our trip introducing me to the sights, sounds, personalities, locales and art。 One morning, we were hiking to a small shrine between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur and we happened upon youngsters taunting a starving dog。 This diminutive American lit into these Nepali kids with a fury I hadn’t imagined she possessed。 While I’m certain none in the group understood a single word, they never-the-less heard her loud and clear。 Then she did an extraordinary thing。 She gathered the kids around her and gave them a big group hug。 We kept on moving and then the entire group joined in to follow their Pied Piper for the rest of our walk。 Always forthright, but with a big heart。

As a pre-trip present, she gave me a tremendously advanced (and very expensive) flashlight, telling me “You’ll need this. You’ll see.” And she was right. Almost 30 years later that flashlight is still in use today. And I remember her every time it lights my way.


From Dr. Amy Heller, Tibetologist and art historian affiliated with CRCAO, Paris:

I first visited Kathmandu in 1995, with a xerox of Nepal Mandala in hand to use as maps to visit all the Licchavi sites Mary had photographed. Mary had explored so many temples, so many courtyards, finding sculptures, carved reliefs in stone and wood, and caitya. Shortly after, we started to correspond, a letter-email relationship which lasted more than 20 years. Her insights and mentorship will be sorely missed.

Mary Slusser has been a beacon of scholarship, methodology and mentorship for me since many years. I admired her finely honed artistic observations, elegant prose giving precise descriptions as keys to appreciate subtle differentiations – which she documented by her fine photography, in situ. She developed the methodology of working in tandem with Nepalese scholars whose perspective enhanced her own historic assessments, and she brought the Nepalese scholars to the forefront of academia. She was generous in sharing the fruits of her research and the critical questions of her inquisitive mind. I remain tremendously grateful for her guidance, criticism and wit.


From Dr. Gautama Vajracharya, Scholar of Newar Art and Sanskrit:

With typical modesty, Mary described herself as an enthusiast who ached to unravel the past. But her extraordinary contributions on the complex subject of Newar art and culture of the Kathmandu Valley are so significant that it is difficult to find any work on those subjects without reference to her contributions. Her two volumes magnum opus, Nepal Mandala is indeed an irreplaceable work. As I mentioned a few years ago, only a scholar of the younger generation who chooses to undertake a similarly ambitious project, with same spirit and enthusiasm, will understand the gravity and depth of her lifelong passion.


From Alexander von Rospatt, Professor for Buddhist and South Asian Studies, and director of the Group in Buddhist Studies, University of California, Berkeley:

Mary Slusser laid the foundations for the study of Nepalese art, culture and religion。 Her monumental two-volume study “Nepal Mandala” remains to this day the authority for introducing the history of Nepal and its rich artistic and religious heritage。 The thoroughness of her research, her eye for detail and the graceful prose with which she communicates her enchantment with Nepal make this study not only an indispensable reference tool but also a source of inspiration, and a joy to read。 Mary was blessed with a long and productive life, and the field of Nepalese studies will be forever indebted to the foundations she laid with her learned, broad-ranging and incisive writings。


From Michelle Bennett Simorella, Head of Collections Management and Registration at the Rubin Museum of Art:

As an undergraduate and graduate art history student fascinated with Nepalese Art, I enthusiastically studied Mary Slusser’s publications on Nepal. Years later, when the Rubin Museum’s Director asked me if I would like to meet Mary and take her up to the galleries, I was thrilled (and a bit star struck). As we were standing in front of one of my favorite pieces in the collection, a 13th century Nepalese bronze Durga Mahisasuramardini, I was stunned when Mary began to tell me the story of how her sister had acquired the work while visiting her in Kathmandu in 1967. Mary recounted “As was the custom, one evening one of the dealers came by with a few things while she was there. Among them was the Durga image. Thick with grime and offerings of ritual pastes, powders, and food, it very likely had come directly from some family’s private chapel. The asking price was a thousand dollars but after bargaining would likely have dropped to three or four hundred. But to my shock, my impetuous sister said at once “I’ll take it” and paid the full price.” She went on to say that her sister brought the sculpture back to the Cleveland, had it conserved, and it was simply magnificent. She later sent me a written account of the experience and the provenance since her sister’s passing, as well as photos of before and after conservation from her archive. Hearing an eye witness account of the acquisition and provenance of such an important work, to both the Rubin Museum’s collection, as well as to me personally, was the highlight of my career.

The Durga Mahisasuramardini sculpture before cleaning and conservation. Photo provided by Mary Slusser.
The Durga Mahisasuramardini sculpture before cleaning and conservation. Photo provided by Mary Slusser.
The Durga Mahisasuramardini sculpture on display at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo by David DeArmas.
The Durga Mahisasuramardini sculpture on display at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo by David DeArmas.


Additional articles and resources:

Mary Slusser is celebrated for her professional achievements, and for the unique role she played in bringing Nepali art and culture to a wider audience.

Mary’s own account of her accomplished and full life, from growing up in small-town Michigan to her 36 years overseas in the foreign service.

Mary Slusser is eulogized as ‘a gentle authority of Nepal’s art and iconography,’ and remembered for her contributions to post-earthquake restoration efforts.


Remembering Dina Bangdel

Dina Bangdel (right) with Aju Dharma Ratna Shakya (left) at Kwa Baha, Patan, Nepal. Photo © Kerry Lucinda Brown
Dina Bangdel (right) with Aju Dharma Ratna Shakya (left) at Kwa Baha, Patan, Nepal. Photo © Kerry Lucinda Brown

From Kerry Lucinda Brown, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Asian Studies, Randolph-Macon College:

Dina Bangdel was an amazing scholar, mentor, and friend. My interest in studying Newar art and culture was sparked by a course Dina taught at The Ohio State University on the Arts of Nepal nearly twenty years ago. While I intended to focus my graduate career on studying Buddhist art and architecture, it was Dina’s passion and enthusiasm for the art, ritual, and cultural traditions of the Kathmandu Valley that shifted my attention to Nepal. Dina encouraged my study of Nepalese art and ritual culture at every stage. I followed Dina to Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue my PhD in South Asian and Himalayan art in the Department of Art History. Looking back, as much as Dina encouraged my academic study of Nepalese art, she also fostered a love for the people of Nepal and the rich heritage of the Kathmandu Valley. I was fortunate to have traveled to Nepal with Dina on several occasions over the last seventeen years, documenting art and festivals, interviewing artists and practitioners, and sharing more than a few plates of momos. Dina’s passion for Nepalese art – both ancient and contemporary – was infectious. Dina will be remembered for her dedication to her students, her research, her community, and her family. The field of Nepalese art has lost a tremendous scholar, but her work and legacy will continue with everyone she inspired.


From Dr. Gautama Vajracharya, Scholar of Newar Art and Sanskrit:

When Dina was here at the Department of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, she took advanced Sanskrit classes from me for four semesters. Later, at the Ohio State University, her adviser John Huntington trained her to be a specialist of Newar Buddhist art. She demonstrated her leading intellectual ability when she curated the exhibition, Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art and wrote the catalog for the exhibition together with her adviser and classmates. Subsequently, after establishing herself as an art history professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University, she played a huge role in helping contemporary Nepali artists to achieve the international recognition that they so deserved. She was busy with this new responsibility when she died unexpectedly like the vernal flowering plant, with plenty of buds that never got a chance to blossom.


From Alexander von Rospatt, Professor for Buddhist and South Asian Studies, and director of the Group in Buddhist Studies, University of California, Berkeley:

Dina Bangdel did not only study Nepalese art in its myriad manifestations but she was also deeply invested in curating, protecting and promoting the arts of her home country, and in repatriating stolen objects。 In her engagement with Nepalese art Dina always paid close attention to the religious and cultural context, and she was particularly invested in the study of the Newar Buddhist tradition。 She studied art objects not as dead material culture but as living objects which the faithful imbue with meaning。 Accordingly, she invited a large group of Buddhist Vajracarya priests to perform an elaborate mandala puja at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when she curated the magnificent exhibition “Circle of Bliss,” dedicated to the artistic heritage of the tantric traditions of Nepal。

Dina maintained close contacts not only with Newar Buddhists, but also with contemporary artists, whose work she keenly studied and supported, and with Nepalese academics, whom she hosted at her home institution, the Virginia Commonwealth University。 Through all this she came to serve as a bridge between her native Nepal and the Western academic world, to which she professionally belonged。 It was only logical that she eventually moved from the US to Doha (where she directed the art history department on the Qatar campus of her university) so as to be in greater proximity to Nepal and intensify her work there。 Dina was indefatigable and full of energy, sparkle and enthusiasm。 Her premature death took her from this world as she was in the midst of organizing a major show of Nepalese art that was to show in Paris, Singapore and elsewhere。 No other contemporary scholar has done more for the study and promotion of Nepalese art, and her passing leaves a gaping hole。


From Kathmandu-based artist Sheelasha Rajbhandari:

In mid-January 2017, I travelled to Doha with Hit Man Gurung and Mekh for the ‘Built / Unbuilt: Home / City ’ project, something Dina had been planning with us for some years. At that time, she was intensely engaged in multiple activities, from the opening the Bangdel Foundation, to writing books, to organizing several exhibitions and handling numerous responsibilities as director and board member of various organizations. But never had we imagined that the project we were working on would be Dina’s very last one. Dr Bangdel appeared in public for the last time on March 26, 2017 on the opening of the exhibition ‘Built / Unbuilt: Home / City,’ collateral to Kathmandu Triennale at Kathmandu. She travelled for the event from the United States, even though she had recently undergone surgery.

Dina will be missed as a scholar, art historian, curator, mentor, art enthusiast, and as a determined and compassionate human being. But her contributions will always be with us.


Kathmandu-based artist Ashmina Ranjit:

Dina existed between worlds, living and working abroad yet having a strong sense of identity and bond to Nepal. She spoke many languages and lived outside Nepal for half her life but she never left it behind, and even talked with pride about her Nepali accent, the index of her origins.

Dina was ambitious in all aspects of her life。 She always managed to engage in several personal and professional projects at once。 Her expertise was exceptionally varied, having vast knowledge of both traditional and contemporary art。

Dina’s wish was to bring Nepali art into dialogue with a broader, global art community. Traditional and contemporary Nepali art and artists were not merely peripheral examples of ‘Third World art,’ Dina professed, but living traditions in intellectual conversation with art both inside and outside of Nepal.


Additional articles and resources:

An op-ed in Nepali Times celebrates the breadth of Dina’s knowledge and contributions to the field, particularly with repatriation efforts.

The Kathmandu Post obituary recounts Dina’s limitless passion and commitment to Nepal in this touching and personal obituary.

Virginia Commonwealth University announces the sad news of the passing of their dear colleague and friend Dr. Dina Bangdel, who served as the Director of VCU Qatar’s art history department.

The College Art Association expresses their thanks for Dina’s contributions to CAA’s board.

An interview with the scholar from 2013 on traditional and contemporary art, being a foreign student, the female perspective, and more.

(Pages 26-29) Ashmina Ranjit, artist, collaborator, and Dr. Bangel’s longtime friend, reflects on her passing.


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Thomas Kelly
Posted on September 28, 2017

Thank you for acknowledging the extraordinary scholarly work of Mary and Dina。 As the photographer of Himalayan Style, I took inspiration from both Mary and Dina。

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