Arts + Culture

‘The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia’ Opens at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History Oct. 5


Rice is a staple food for more than 3 billion people, mostlyin Asia, but this staggering statistic only hints at the immense culturalsignificance this grain has for Asian peoples. In many Asian languages, wheninquiring if a guest is hungry, the literal translation is, "Have you eatenrice?" In fact, the growing and eating of rice have become intimately bound to aspects of personal identity; notionsof family, community and state; systems of religious belief and ritualactivity; and forms of expression ranging from the courtly to the popular, fromthe past to the present.

"TheArt of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia" — on view at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History from Oct. 5 until April25, 2004 — is a wide-ranging, traveling exhibition that examinesthe interplay between rice and culture in Asian society through a study of thevisual arts, including works from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Korea,Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian countries.

More than 200 objects on view range from Japanese Zenpaintings to intricate Indonesian textiles to modern works created for popularfestivals of the agricultural cycle, and include ceramics, sculptures, puppets,paintings, prints, textiles, furnishings, architectural elements and ritualparaphernalia. The exhibition includes a "festival theater" showing videofootage of many Asian rice festivals, such as the offering of the first grainsof the new harvest to Buddha in a Northern Thai monastery.

Visitors to "The Art of Rice" aregreeted with a scene from a shadow puppet play that depicts a key moment fromJavanese mythology, when the beloved rice goddess, Dewi Sri, creates the sacredgrain. In Javanese agricultural communities, this play was traditionallyperformed annually at harvest time. These puppets, commissioned for theexhibition from puppet master Kik Soleh Adi Promono and made by Daniel Mulyana, cast a striking landscape inblack and white in the exhibition entry, and their fine craftsmanship isdisplayed in the final gallery of the exhibition, where visitors are treated tothe puppet-master's view.

The opening gallery features twodisplays in rotation. The first is a Japanese screen dating from the Edo period(1603–1868), depictingrice plants heavy with grain in the autumn. The screen epitomizes the conceptof seasonality in Japanese art and the Japanese reverence for rice agricultureas an idealized landscape. It is so delicate that it can be exhibited for onlysix weeks.

In December thescreen will be replaced with another exceptional work: 10 Chinese woodblockprints (c. 1723–35) made during the early Qing dynasty. These famousscenes of rice agriculture, known as the Gengzhi tu, were first paintedby Lou Chou during the Song dynasty, but his original paintings no longerexist. During the Qing dynasty, the Gengzhi tu was reproduced in manyforms, most notably as a series of woodblock prints like the ones on display.So important was the Gengzhi tu — both practically as a farmingreference and symbolically as a metaphor for a well-ordered Confucian society —that each successive emperor produced new editions of these illustrations morethan 500 years after the scenes were first painted.

Over a vast region stretching fromIndia to Japan, rice agriculture regulates the rhythms of rural life. In manycultures, the "months" are named for agricultural activities or rituals thattake place during that period of time. A Balinese calendar painting illustratesthat the 210-day cycle of the rice plant defines the human calendar in Bali, aswell. (Ironically, new fast-growing grains created by modern agriculturalscience have now played havoc with this traditional growing cycle.)

The consideration that goes intothe making of functional objects on display — like harvesting tools, such asdelicate knives once used to reap rice one stalk at a time, and an exquisitelycarved wooden mortar from Borneo — further attests to the tremendoussignificance of rice.

Vessels, from humble ceramic potsto wooden rice chests and granaries that look like miniature homes, also playan integral role as containers of the precious grain. Exhibited are numerous examples of granaries from acrossAsia, including a full-size, beautifully carved and painted wood granary facademade by the Toraja peoples from Sulawesi, Indonesia. A gallery that exploresrice as a sacred food displays a delightful, seldom-seen collection ofJapanese sake bottles from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

In many Asian countries, theorigin of rice is attributed to a goddess who bestows the sacred grain tohumans. Though details of the stories of the rice goddess differ from cultureto culture, she is generally considered the personification of the spirit ofrice. Throughout India, Lakshmiis known as the goddess of prosperity, but sheis also associated with rice. Inari,a Japanese deity for rice, has also morphed into a deity for corporate successin modern times. A gallery in "The Art ofRice" features numerous representations of Asian rice goddesses as well asfigures made as receptacles for them, and includes popular commercial prints,figures made of coins and commissioned life-size sculptures depicting ascene of Bengali deity Annapurna givingrice to Shiva.

The pervasiveness of rice cultureis underscored by examining lifecycle and domestic objects like an early20th-century Japanese bridal robe decorated with sake imps (shojo)sipping from giant cups, and a pair of Chinese Han dynasty funerary jars thatwould sometimes be filled with rice and placed in the tombs of the wealthy.Even a 40-foot-long partition wall from a large Javanese house, elaboratelycarved and painted, mimics the recessed "bridal chamber" in the rear of acentral Javanese farmhouse, where bundles of rice representing rice deitieswould be installed after the harvest.

Contemporary pieces — like the mixed media work "Golf Plan"by Alfredo Esquillo Jr. of the Philippines and the painting "Mr. Rhu in EunhangDong" by Korean artist Jonggu Lee — comment on the role of rice agriculture inmodern society to complete this comprehensive exploration of Asian art, food, culture, philosophy, religion, historyand economics.

"The Art of Rice" is the result of six years of research by aninternational group of 24 anthropologists, arts and museum specialists, andartists, under the direction of the curator of this exhibition, Roy Hamilton,curator of Asian and Pacific Collections at the UCLA Fowler Museum of CulturalHistory. After its Fowler debut, this exhibition is scheduled to travel toother venues, including Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Artsin Napa, Calif., and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

This exhibition is made possible by major funding from theNational Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the GettyGrant Program, the Henry Luce Foundation and the UC Pacific Rim ResearchProgram. Educational programs and outreach are made possible by the YvonneLenart Public Programs Fund and UCLArts.

"The Artof Rice" will be on view Wednesdays throughSundays, noon to 5 p.m.; and on Thursdays, noon until 8 p.m. The museum isclosed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA's School of theArts and Architecture, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus.Admission is free. Parking is available for $7 in Lot 4. For more information,the public may call (310) 825-4361.

Related Events:

12–5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 19

Rice Fest!

An afternoon of rice-related culture and creativity,featuring:

Chinese erhu virtuoso Chi Li, art-making workshops,classical Indian dance (kuchipudi) by Sumathy Kaushal, Korean farmer'sband music directed by ethnomusicologist DongSuk Kim, rice candy sculptureswith Chan the Candy Man, your name on a grain of rice! and rice tastings. Free;no reservations required.

For Rice Fest! information, the public may call (310) 825-8655.

2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 9

Slide Lecture: "Who Is the Goddess of Rice?"

Murder! Incest! Immolation!

Join "The Art of Rice" curator RoyHamilton at this slide lecture presentation as he tells the stories of Asia'srice goddesses and explores their origins in the spirit beliefs and rituals ofrice farming communities. Free; no reservations required.

Beginningat 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 23

The Taste of Rice: A Culinary and Cultural Tour of AsianSoCal

Exclusive toFowler Museum members.

Fowler staff and "The Art of Rice" curator, Roy Hamilton,will lead a series of tours exploring the culinary and cultural traditions offour Asian communities in the greater Los Angeles area: Little India,(Artesia), the "New Chinatown" (San Gabriel Valley), Little Saigon (Westminster)and Koreatown (Mid-Wilshire District, led by Korean food specialist CeciliaHae-Jin Lee).

Each outing includes transportation from UCLA, a specialbanquet and guided explorations of these communities. Tours will last approximately four hours and will be held on Sundayafternoons leaving from the museum at 3 p.m. Participants must purchase aninclusive ticket to four dinner-tours at $200 per person. First tour ison Nov. 23 to Little India. Call(310) 825-8655 for reservations and information. Membership information:(310) 206-0306.



Media Contact