Two details of Sonam Dolma Brauen’s sculpture “My Father’s Death” (2010). At left, 49 used monks’ robes meticulously folded to create a square with an open interior space; at right, view of the interior with nine molded plaster tsa tsa. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, gift of Sonam Dolma and Martin Brauen in honor of Leesa Fanning, 2020.19.1-60. image: Martin Brauen, Bern, Switzerland)
While death may not be a topic many embrace with enthusiasm, Tibetan-Swiss artist Sonam Dolma Brauen’s sculpture “My Father’s Death” opens an engaging dialogue between contemporary artistic and spiritual practice and historical ritual. Born in Tibet, Sonam escaped Chinese-occupied Tibet as a child with her family, arriving in India as a refugee. She ultimately emigrated with her mother to Switzerland after her father and sister died.
“My Father’s Death,” a Nelson-Atkins 2020 acquisition, is the centerpiece of this eponymous exhibition, where it appears with multiple Nepalese and Tibetan objects from the museum’s collection, including a scroll with Tibetan Buddhist mantras, burnt grain offerings, bundled paper and human hair, and tiny devotional scrolls. The museum consulted with community advisors when working with the hair and the scrolls, some of which were opened for examination. Paint and traces of saffron — prized throughout history for its spiritual and physical properties — seem to appear in several of the cloth fragments. The small sculptures include the 15th-century “Portrait of Milarepa, a Monk and Poet,” a ceramic miniature Buddha, a votive Buddha and a sculpture of Akshobhya, one of the five wisdom Buddhas from the late 19th early 20th century. The exhibit was curated by Kimberly Masteller, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian Art.
Brauen’s materials have included Buddhist monks’ robes, teeth, spent ammunition shells, paint, textiles and other objects, including her own body in performance. However, here the central sculpture comprises 49 monks’ robes the artist meticulously folds to create a square with an open interior space. Significantly, 49 represents the number of days that prayers should be read after a death. Because Sonam’s father was a Buddhist monk, this piece feels particularly resonant. The protected interior space holds nine tsa tsa — plaster votives in the form of small stupa mounds — which the artist cast from her family’s brass model, one of the few items of spiritual practice they were able to keep when they escaped Tibet. Often used as reliquaries, tsa tsa are typically used during funeral rituals in memory of the departed, and sometimes include ashes.
Sonam’s work offers a unifying place between the past and the present, and what we may consider as the actual world and the ephemeral, spiritual world. The robes are not simply robes she bought or found but worn robes she received from Buddhist monks. These used robes, like all used garments, carry with them the essence of the wearer and, in this instance, their spiritual paths. Their identity is no longer fixed, but recrafted and reborn. Is “My Father’s Death” a Buddhist contemplation of the illusory nature of the world? Perhaps, but it also marks time on this terrestrial plain; here, material and spiritual worlds flux in a dynamic continuum.
Sonam Dolma Brauen, “My Father’s Death” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through Nov. 11, 2024. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Exhibition programming includes curator talks, an artist-led workshop, an artist talk, a video and more. For more information, www.nelson-atkins.org