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Frist-Organized Exhibition Opens Feb. 19, 2011, With Free Community Preview
NASHVILLE, TENN. – (December 23, 2010) – Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, the first major museum exhibition to focus on the Hindu deity Vishnu has been organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and will open with a free community preview day Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011. The exhibition will open to the public as a ticketed exhibition Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, and remain on view in the Ingram Gallery through
May 29, 2011.

This exhibition, guest curated by Joan Cummins, Ph.D., Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, introduces one of Hinduism’s primary deities to broad audiences through more than 170 paintings, textiles, prints and sculptures created in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between the third and twentieth centuries. The exhibition represents a variety of periods, regions and art styles and reveals the many ways that Vishnu has been portrayed and celebrated. The works of art included in the exhibition were chosen for their artistic merit and for the novel or unusual treatments of their subject matter.

Vishnu has been worshipped for more than 2,000 years throughout India, and today, his devotees, known as Vaishnavas, can be found the world over. The god and his avatars have been the inspirations for countless great works of art and literature as well as music, dance and theatrical traditions. The exhibition covers much of the history of art in India and reveals the remarkable intellectual, technical and aesthetic sophistication of ancient Indian tradition. The exhibition introduces non-Hindu audiences to the beauty and cultural meaning contained in works of art relating to the Vaishnava tradition while offering Hindu audiences the opportunity to share and celebrate the traditional expressions of their spiritual beliefs.

Hindu Home Shrines: Creating Space for Personal Contemplation, a companion exhibition organized by the Frist Center Education Department, will explore ways several Nashville Hindu families incorporate their faith into their home lives.

Because the narratives associated with Vishnu and his avatars are entertaining and appealing to all ages, the Frist Center will offer an array of special educational programs for families, as well as music and dance performances and film.

“We are honored to organize and present Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, the first major exhibition to explore the Vaishnava tradition in art,” said Frist Center Executive Director Susan H. Edwards, Ph.D. “The material is incredibly deep and rich. We hope to reach broad audiences, from armchair travelers, to local and regional South Asian communities, to those who simply enjoy cultural exploration.

“This exhibition comes at a particularly interesting time. As the influence of India grows in the global culture, we believe the exhibition will answer many questions often asked about Hinduism.

“We have been gratified at the response we have received from the Indian community in Middle Tennessee who have guided us in the planning of this exhibition and the planning of our attendant programs,” Edwards concluded.

As word of the exhibition has spread, the Indian community, worldwide, has been enthusiastic in its support. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, commented that it is “a laudable step for the Frist Center to provide opportunity to the world to further explore Hinduism and its concepts.”

Curator Joan Cummins, Ph.D., says ”The art of India is relatively little known in the U.S., which is a shame because it’s a tremendously rich tradition that gives form to thousands of years of spiritual inspiration through sophisticated craftsmanship. The diversity of Indian art and imagery is mind-boggling, and we hope to do justice to it with the selection of objects in the show. But we also hope to alleviate some of the misconceptions and confusion about Hinduism that I think a lot of Americans have. We hope that people will come away from the show wanting to know more about India and its neighboring countries. The time is right for this kind of introduction to Indian art, culture and religion.”

An Introduction to Vishnu
Hindu worship can be divided into three broad groups: those who worship Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer or Devi the Great Goddess. Each of these groups believes its god or goddess is responsible for creating and maintaining the cycle of life and serves as the portal to ultimate salvation.

Of the three supreme deities, Vishnu is the most multifaceted. Although he is celebrated as the great creator of the cosmos, he most often serves as its savior, descending from heaven to save the world—and lesser gods—from powerful demons and myriad threats. He assumes many shapes in his quest to maintain balance and order. Sometimes he appears in primary form, with four arms, flying on his eagle, Garuda. On other occasions, he takes a more limited, mortal body to live on earth as an animal or man. These earthly bodies, or avatars, have their own talents and personalities but share Vishnu’s blue skin tone. This feature distinguishes them from mere mortals and reflects Vishnu’s associations with the sea and sky and his cool, tranquil approach to saving the world.

The Exhibition
The first section of the exhibition, Images of Vishnu, introduces Vishnu in his primary form with subsections dedicated to his attributes, consorts and legends. Known as Hinduism’s gentle god, Vishnu is easily recognized in paintings by his blue skin. In sculpture, he is recognized by his upright posture, which signifies his constant effort to maintain balance in the cosmos. In addition to his blue skin and straight posture, Vishnu can be identified by the four objects he holds—the discus or wheel (chakra), the lotus, the conch shell and a club-like weapon called a mace (gada). Two of the earliest works in the show, sandstone sculptures dating from the fourth and fifth centuries on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum, are examples of Vishnu in his primary form.

Subsections introduce Vishnu’s favorite weapons; Garuda the eagle, whom he rides when sweeping down from heaven; and his wives. Most Hindu gods have at least one wife or consort whose personality reflects and balances that of the god. Vishnu’s primary wife is Lakshmi, an extremely popular goddess who promotes wealth and good fortune. Several works demonstrate the intimate relationship between the god and goddess, including the painting Lakshmi Massaging the Feet of Vishnu made in the Punjab Hills region about 1765–70 and the tenth-century sculpture Lakshmi-Narayana from Rajasthan (Narayana is another name for Vishnu) .

The second section of the exhibition, The Avatars of Vishnu, is devoted to Vishnu’s avatars explored as a group as well as individually. An interesting figure in his primary form, the complexity of Vishnu’s character becomes clear when he assumes new forms in order to save the earth from myriad dangers. Although they share some of the characteristics of Vishnu, the avatars are a more limited manifestation of the god. They are less glorious, have finite bodies, sometimes display human weaknesses and are usually mortal. When Vishnu descends from the heavens in the form of an avatar, it is as if he is reaching his hand down: the hand may be fully Vishnu, but it is not the god in full.

Hindu texts differ on the number of times that Vishnu has descended to earth in avatar form, but the most standard list includes nine past avatars and one scheduled to arrive in the future. The list of ten is as follows: Matsya the fish; Kurma the tortoise; Varaha the boar; Narasimha the half-man half-lion; Vamana the dwarf; Parashurama the Brahmin; Rama the king; Krishna the cowherd prince; Balarama the brother of Krishna (or Buddha the preacher) and Kalki the avatar of the future. The stories of all ten avatars will be recounted in the exhibition.

Those avatars more frequently celebrated in art will be more fully represented in the exhibition, with substantial subsections dedicated to Rama and Krishna, including a bronze sculpture of Rama from the Chola period on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the paintings Krishna and Radha in a Grove, ca. 1720 on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, ca. 1775 from a private collection.

The third section, Worshiping Vishnu, explores some of the ways the deity has been venerated throughout the centuries. It includes images that depict the people who pray to Vishnu and the places where they pray. It also examines objects used during prayer such as jewel-encrusted gold shrines for images of gods. This section includes examinations of select sectarian traditions within Vaishnavism that feature special images of Vishnu (or Krishna), most notably the icon of Shri Nathaji in Rajasthan and the icons of Jagannatha and his siblings in Orissa. Depictions of these icons, as well as other works of art made for the devotees of these sects, appear next to early examples of the chromolithographic prints that are perhaps more familiar to modern audiences. These mass-produced, full-color images of Hindu deities, produced starting in the early 20th century, can be found in many home and office shrines today and they serve as a postscript to the more than 1,600 years of Hindu artistic tradition represented in the exhibition.

Curator Joan Cummins, Ph.D, notes, “We’ve worked hard to make this complex subject as approachable and as enlightening as possible for the novice viewer. We recognize that even though the works of art are beautiful, it can be difficult to appreciate them fully without an understanding of the stories they tell and the ideals they reflect. The stories are indeed wonderful: we think it will be a great show for young audiences because Vishnu’s avatars take such a wide range of forms. They are involved in all sorts of intrigue, action and romance—and the good guys always win in the end.”

The Frist Center convened an advisory panel comprising Hindu leaders, educators and members of Middle Tennessee’s Hindu community to assist in planning educational activities, programs and community events during the exhibition.

Hindu Home Shrines: Creating Space for Personal Contemplation
In conjunction with Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, the Frist Center Education Department has organized Hindu Home Shrines: Creating Space for Personal Contemplation, a companion exhibition that explores the many ways members of the Hindu faith incorporate worship in their lives. With no single authoritative scripture or code, manner of Hindu worship is wholly individual, and reverence for the divine is embraced and demonstrated in many ways. Most Hindu homes include a shrine, which can be simple or quite elaborate. Hindu Home Shrines looks at five shrines from Nashville’s Hindu community.

Exhibition-related Programs:

Saturday, Feb. 12 Kids Club: Divine Dreamscapes
10:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m.
Frist Center Studios
Registration required. Call (615)744-3357 to reserve a space.

Featured activity: Explore stories connected to the Hindu religion. Inspired by the upcoming Vishnu exhibition, participants will incorporate stylistic elements of Indian art to create colorful dreamscapes. This activity will focus on the god Vishnu, who is believed to have created the universe from his dreams!

Designed for 5–10 year olds, the Frist Center Kids Club offers exciting opportunities for children to discover, explore and create art. Free membership includes a Kids Club card, rewards for participation, hands-on activities in the Martin ArtQuest Gallery, and monthly projects in the art studios.

Saturday, Feb. 19 Curator’s Perspective: Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-
11:00 a.m. Skinned Savior
Auditorium Joan Cummins, Ph.D.
Free; Seating is
first come, first served.

Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, Brooklyn Museum and curator of Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, will introduce the god Vishnu, his role within the larger religion of Hinduism and the many forms he is said to assume when saving the world. Vishnu is first mentioned in Hindu scriptures around 1000 BCE and he is still widely worshipped today. The god’s rich mythology has long inspired artists and patrons of the arts, resulting in a rich array of sculptures in stone and metal, paintings on paper and cloth, and ritual objects both grand and humble. This talk will discuss the historic, regional, and religious contexts of some key objects in the exhibition while re-telling some of the great legends of Vishnu the blue-skinned savior.

Saturday, February 19 Dance Performance
1:00 p.m.

Monica Cooley and Kala Nivedanam Dance Company will tell the stories of Vishnu through classical Indian dance.

Thursday, Feb. 24 Lecture: “Vishnu During the European Enlightenment”
6:30 p.m. by Robert J. Del Bontà, Ph.D.
Seating is first come, first served.

In this lecture, Robert J. Del Bontà will discuss European interests in the subject of India and its religions, as well as European Enlightenment views of Indian religious practices and their relationship with the religions of the West. India has intrigued Westerners for centuries; this is evident in the existence of early classical references to the country, as well as the memoirs and artistic renderings created once foreigners were able to travel and gain first-hand experience there. Del Bontà will trace the evolution of European knowledge of India by comparing early accounts of the country’s religions (including those principles we now label as Hindu) to those written later. From the fifteenth through the early seventeenth century, only mere hints were made of the many gods worshipped on the subcontinent. Later, however, more nuanced accounts developed as Indian materials, such as paintings combined with scholarly accounts of them, were brought back to Europe. In these materials, images of the Hindu god Vishnu were especially prominent, assuring that by the close of the seventeenth century, not only had Europe acquired a pretty good understanding of India’s religious practices, but an understanding of Vishnu and his many incarnations as well.

Del Bontà received his A.B. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971 and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1978. His dissertation concerned Hoysala artists and architecture from twelfth and thirteenth centuries Karnataka. He has worked with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco since 1978 where he has taught courses in South and Southeast Asian art, including Nepalese and Tibetan art, and has curated many shows of Indian painting.

Thursday, March 10 Curator’s Tour: Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned
12:00 p.m. Savior
Meet at information desk
Free with gallery admission

Join Katie Delmez, curator at the Frist Center, for a tour of this exhibition that will introduce the art depicting Vishnu, his attributes, and the many legends that have developed about him. Complete your afternoon with lunch or visiting with friends in the café.

Saturday, March 12 Kids Club: Magnificent Mandalas

10:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m.
Frist Center Studios
Registration required. Call (615) 744-3357 to reserve a space.

Featured activity: Drawing on works of art from the exhibition Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue Skinned Savior, participants will use bold color and precise geometry to create beautiful and elaborate patterns out of simple materials. Investigate how line and design are connected to art making in the Indian tradition.

Designed for 5–10 year olds, the Frist Center Kids Club offers exciting opportunities for children to discover, explore, and create art. Free membership includes a Kids Club card, rewards for participation, hands-on activities in the Martin ArtQuest Gallery, and monthly projects in the art studios.

Thursday, March 17 Lecture: “Of God and Gods: En-visioning Ultimate
6:30 p.m. Reality in Hindu Traditions” by John Thatanamil, Ph.D.,
Auditorium assistant professor of theology, Vanderbilt University
Free; Seating is first come,
first served.

Hindu traditions have various ways of conceptualizing and en-visioning ultimate reality. Some Hindu traditions take ultimate reality to be a transpersonal world-ground, Being Itself, underlying and sustaining all things without being one of those things. Still, others take ultimate reality to be an Infinite Being, like Vishnu, who is both personal and transpersonal. Almost all Hindu traditions also believe that ultimate reality can reveal itself in variety of multiple forms—330 million of them by some accounts! In this lecture, John Thatanamil, Ph.D., will examine different conceptions of ultimate reality/divinity that can be found in Hindu traditions. He will also pay special attention to vision in Hindu traditions since the vast majority of Hindu traditions believe that divinity can be seen and depicted in visual form. Questions to be addressed include: What does it mean to see and more importantly to be seen by the divine in Hindu traditions? How is divinity encountered by the senses, and particularly by the medium of sight? And what does it mean to en-vision Ultimate Reality in Hindu traditions?

Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior will travel to the Brooklyn Museum June 24–October 2, 2011.

Exhibition Catalog
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalog with introductory essay and object entries by Joan Cummins, Ph.D. and scholarly essays by Leslie C. Orr, Ph.D., associate professor of religion, Concordia University; Cynthia Packert, Ph.D. professor of art history, Middlebury College; and Doris Meth Srinivasan, Ph.D., research fellow, SUNY Stony Brook. The catalog is published by Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, India.

Exhibition Sponsors
The Frist Center gratefully acknowledges the exhibition sponsors:
Platinum Sponsor: The HCA Foundation on behalf of HCA and the TriStar Family of Hospitals
Gold Sponsor: First Tennessee
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission and the Tennessee Arts Commission.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts thanks the Vishnu Advisory Committee and Friends of Vishnu for their support of this exhibition.
This exhibition is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Frist Center
Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., is an art exhibition center dedicated to presenting the finest visual art from local, regional, U.S. and international sources in a program of changing exhibitions. The Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features 21 interactive stations relating to Frist Center exhibitions. Gallery admission to the Frist Center is free for visitors 18 and under and to Frist Center members. Frist Center admission is $10.00 for adults, $7.00 for seniors, military and college students with ID. Thursday and Friday evenings, 5:00 – 9:00 p.m., admission is free for college students with a valid college ID. Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation by calling (615) 744-3246. The Frist Center is open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; and Sundays, 1:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., with the Café opening at noon. Additional information is available by calling (615) 244-3340 or by visiting our Web site at

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