Silk Road Makes Appearance on the Shanghai Art Scene

December 17, 2010

The transmission of Buddhism from India to China via the Silk Road and the consequent role that Buddhism has played in shaping Chinese culture inextricably ties the histories of the two nations together. However, while many in China are aware of India’s historical past, they are not as in touch with the accomplishments of modern Indian culture, arts, or scholarship.

Nilima Sheikh's installation, "Open Air", was inspired by sites along the Silk Road.

This is the problem that curator and scholar of contemporary Chinese art Johnson Chang hopes to ameliorate with “West Heavens”, an ongoing series of art exhibitions and seminars in Shanghai. Chang sees this as an opportunity to promote cross-cultural exchange between the two nations and to start the discussion in China about the negotiation of cultural preservation and modernity. “How do modernity and history, history with multi-layered complexity, coexist?” writes Chang. “…to go beyond the experience of the modern West, to return to our own histories, a myopic obsession with the past, is unrealistic. To truly open up the future, local history, and reality must be shown to have global significance.”

For one of the featured artists, Nilima Sheikh, it is the discipline of art history that informs her artistic production. Sheikh’s current “West Heavens” installation is named “Open Land” and is composed of a collection of fourteen silk and paper banners hung from a lofty ceiling. In colorful painted and stenciled images, the banners depict dragons, poems, and flowers inspired by the Silk Road, reports a NYTimes article.

Sheikh's banners create a striking focal point in the former consul chapel.

“Looking at prayer flags fluttering over land in Himalayan Buddhist sites, I have often wondered what words and pictures in the air do? [Do] they incant prayers, send messages across? I feel attracted to the simplicity of this visual telegraphy, of hope. I thought I too could practice sending messages. Not in the habit of the religious codes. I need to develop my own conventions of sharing: to speak of the yours and ours, of histories of regions understood by small conversations, and, with lessons from the great pictorial traditions of China, learn to inhabit the air.” – Nilima Sheikh

– Gabrielle Niu