August 2014 Issue
Mind & Body
We recently talked to Sonya Quintanilla, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s George P. Bickford curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art about “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” The exhibition is the first dedicated to yoga’s visual history, and you can see it at the Cleveland Museum of Art through Sept. 8.
Why were you excited about bringing this exhibition to Cleveland?
It draws wonderful attention to the collection itself. The Cleveland [Museum of Art’s] holdings of Indian and Southeast Asian art are some of the best in the country, and we just reopened the galleries [on Jan. 1, 2014] after being closed for eight years. To then feature the art of India as the major summer special exhibition is a great way to draw attention to how proud we are of that segment of our collection … the Cleveland collection is so spectacularly represented throughout [“Yoga: The Art of Transformation”]. Some of the key and linchpin objects throughout this traveling show, which includes objects from 27 different lenders — the main ones are from Cleveland. To see our own collection so spectacularly represented on an international scale is such an honor. And we also are very confident with the scholarship behind this project. I’ve known the curator [Debra Diamond] for the last 15 years and remember when she initially conceived the idea for this exhibition, and all of us in the field have been very much anticipating its fruition. To have it all come together is something we’re very proud to be a part of.
This exhibition covers such a large span of time and different types of art. For someone who sees the name of the exhibition and isn’t quite sure what to expect, how would you explain it? What would you tell them to expect?
I would tell them to expect a surprise, because I think the objects they will see here will put yoga in a whole new series of perspectives that they never would anticipate from the yoga mat in the gym today. But the story does unfold over the last 2,000 years, and I think the exhibition presents it very tidily in thematic groupings to give a sense of this wide diversity but also while using objects of the highest quality.
I assume with a number of Cleveland Museum of Art pieces represented in this exhibition, the museum has been involved with this for some time. What does it takes assemble an exhibition like this?
The credit really has to go to the curator at the Sackler [Gallery] and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Debra Diamond is the one who did all the research and traveled to collections all over the world — India, Europe, the U.S., private collections, public institutions — to find the exact object that would illustrate certain key elements of the development of yoga. It’s not necessarily a comprehensive history of yoga. … She chose important, specific objects that would talk about austerities; that would talk about meditation and how [yoga] postures were used mostly for those purposes for the first thousand years, basically. … Also, she herself is a practitioner of yoga and has spent a lot of time in India with different teachers and different gurus, and then also she had important partnerships with other interdisciplinary scholars, so scholars who were translators of yoga sutra … and religious studies professors and social historians to understand the social place of yogis throughout Indian society as it changed over time. It’s a tremendous enterprise of travel, research and collaboration by the originating curator.
For someone who comes to explore what the exhibition has to offer, what do you hope they take away?
Yoga is a kind of universal practice. It’s not very specific to one particular sect or group that it came be used by — in the ancient times in India — by Buddhists by Jains by sects of Hindus even though they had totally different goals or aims for their practice of yoga. It can be used to achieve any of these goals and this is why yoga became so successful in the modern world globally. You don’t have to need to achieve oneness with a god like Shiva to find benefit … whatever your goal might be. It could be a goal of physical health or greater flexibility or even some other kind of religious end that uses meditation and physical discipline to achieve. So, it is open to everyone, and because it has had such staying power … there does seem to be some real efficacy to it. … It’s very much relevant or can be taken in and become relevant to absolutely anyone.
For more information about “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” visit clevelandart.org.