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Day four of a Buddhist sand-mandala ritual at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Florida earlier this year. (Photo: Lee Lawrence)

Until relatively recently, if you were not a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the chances of seeing a sand mandala were slim. Today, however, opportunities abound. In July alone, monks from the Atlanta-based Mystical Arts of Tibet will create shimmering, colorful sand mandalas in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As I discovered earlier this year at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, even more entrancing than the end result is the three-to-five-day process: A slow-paced feast of religious ritual, symbolism, performance and temporal art.

It begins with sound: Preternaturally low, vibrating notes energizing the air like the complex tones of a pipe organ. They emanate from nine Tibetan Buddhist monks dressed in dark red and golden saffron, eyes lowered. Punctuated by the wail of horns and the clash of cymbals, their rhythmic chanting dispels harmful spirits and invites the blessing of the Buddha—for it is here that they will build him a palace.

When the senior monk, or vajra master, steps forward, he visualizes the symbolic rendering of that divine abode. The chanting then drops away, the horns, cymbals and drums are stored, and the monks embark on a transfixing exercise in memory, precision and what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness, a state of being present in the moment.


Lee Lawrence
Wall Street Journal


A visitor looks at antique tribal masks revered as sacred ritual artifacts by a Native American tribe in Arizona which are displayed at an auction house in Paris. (Photo: Reuters)

A contested auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks went ahead Friday afternoon following a Paris court ruling, in spite of appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and the U.S. government.

About 2-1/2 hours after the court announced its decision, auctioneers began selling dozens of brilliantly colored masks made of wood, leather, horse hair and feathers across town at Druout auction house.
The auctioneer argued that blocking the sale would have tremendous implications and potentially force French museums to empty their collections. Arizona’s Hopi Indians want the masks returned, insisting they have a special status and are more than art — representing their dead ancestors’ spirits. Hopis feed and nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.
In its ruling, the court noted the Hopis ascribe “sacred value” to the masks but “clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed” — the sale of which would be banned in France.


Thomas Adamson

Excavators in Mes Aynak

A rescue operation is underway to save as much as possible from ancient Buddhist monasteries in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, before the mountains become an open-cast mine and the site is destroyed. In what is now the world’s largest archaeological dig, around 1,000 workers are trying to excavate artefacts from the country’s second most important Buddhist site (along with Hadda), after Bamiyan.

The site, a former training camp of Osama bin Laden, has been leased to a Chinese mining company for copper production. Only what can be excavated and removed to safety will be saved.

Despite the impending archaeological loss, Mes Aynak has received scant attention internationally. Moreover, Afghanistan’s heritage has suffered much in recent years from civil war, looting and the vandalism of the Taliban.

Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.


Martin Bailey
Art Newspaper

Left, “Wild Man of the Woods” mask has been attributed to the carver Willie Seaweed. Right, Jennifer Pray working on the newly reopened American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum. Denver Art Museum. Matthew Staver for The New York Times

When the Denver Art Museum’s signature American Indian art galleries reopened last week after a seven-month overhaul, the biggest change wasn’t the new display cases or the dramatic lighting. Rather, it was in a less obvious place: the wall labels.

For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.


Judith H. Dobrzynski
New York Times

An anthropomorphic stele of the 4th millennium B.C. shown as part of the ‘Routes of Arabia’ exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Photo: Michael Harvey/Musee du Louvre, via European Pressphoto Agency)

The most novel show of the year is now on view at the Louvre. “Routes d’Arabie” (Roads of Arabia) sets off the viewer’s mind dreaming like none other.

The revelations to be found in hundreds of artifacts never before seen outside Saudi Arabia are startling.

Forget about Arabia as a land without figural representation. It was already there in the fourth millennium B.C. In a small village near Ha’il, three sandstone steles were dug up within the last four decades. The geometric stylization of one, a standing man with two straps across his chest and a long dagger with split blade, would have appealed to Western avant-garde sculptors of the 20th century. Another stele represents the bust of a man, arms pressed against his chest, reduced to a nearly rectangular volume. By contrast, the head is extraordinarily expressive with its lips bitterly pressed and one eyebrow slightly raised, as if in puzzlement.


Souren Melikian
New York Times

Characters in a Kentucky cave that may be the earliest examples of the script (Fred Coy and Andras Nagy)

The illiterate Cherokee known as Sequoyah watched in awe as white settlers made marks on paper, convinced that these “talking leaves” were the source of white power and success. This inspired the consuming ambition of his life: to create a Cherokee written language.

Born around 1770 near present-day Knoxville, Tenn., he was given the name George Gist (or Guess) by his father, an English fur trader, and his mother, a daughter of a prominent Cherokee family. But it was as Sequoyah that around 1809 he started devising a writing system for the spoken Cherokee language.


Ten years later, despite the ridicule of friends who thought him crazed, he completed the script, in which each of the 85 characters represented a distinct sound in the spoken tongue, and combinations of these syllables spelled words. Within a few years, most Cherokees had adopted this syllabary, and Sequoyah became a folk hero as the inventor of the first Native American script in North America.

It may be, as is often noted, that his achievement is the only known instance of an individual’s single-handedly creating an entirely new system of writing.

An archaeologist and explorer of caves has now found what he thinks are the earliest known examples of the Sequoyah syllabary. The characters are cut into the wall of a cave in southeastern Kentucky, a place sacred to the Cherokee as the traditional burial site of a revered chief. The archaeologist, Kenneth B. Tankersley of the University of Cincinnati, said in an interview recently that this was “one of the most fascinating and important finds in my career,” yielding likely insights into “the genius of Sequoyah.”

Roughly inscribed on the limestone wall, Dr. Tankersley said, were 15 identifiable characters from the syllabary. They are accompanied by a date, apparently carved by the same hand. Part of the date is hard to read, but it appears to be either 1818 or 1808, at least a year earlier than any previously known records of the script.

Dr. Tankersley discovered the cave writing in 2001 and in years of subsequent research established that Sequoyah often visited caves for inspiration while working on the syllabary and made several visits to the region, close to the Tennessee border in what is now Clay County. He had relatives there, the archaeologist said, and could have left the marks there himself.

Dr. Tankersley referred to the discovery in a paper on Cherokee rock art presented last year at a meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. Further details and interpretation were reported in an article in the current issue of Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America.

If the date proves to be 1808, Dr. Tankersley said, Sequoyah was probably the only one then with knowledge of the writing and so must have carved the characters himself. If it was 1818, he said, it was possible that someone he taught had made the characters.

Specialists in Cherokee writing have yet to analyze the findings. William D. Welge, director of research at the Oklahoma Historical Society, who oversees an extensive archive of Cherokee records, said it “was reasonable to think that Sequoyah or one of his students carved these writing symbols.”

Any new findings about Sequoyah, Mr. Welge said, are important because his invention of Cherokee writing promoted rapid strides in education and the culture of one of the largest Native American populations. Some crucial early steps in his development of the script had been lost, the archivist said, because Sequoyah’s wife had destroyed examples of his early efforts, thinking this “the devil’s work.”

Dr. Tankersley was especially intrigued by some petroglyphs carved on the wall alongside the Cherokee characters. He said the glyphs appeared to include ancient Cherokee symbols as well as drawings representing bears, deer and birds.

Dr. Tankersley is a member of the Cherokee Nation who traces his ancestry to Red Bird, the murdered chief once buried in the cave. He said that he was investigating possible links between the traditional glyphs and a few of the symbols in Sequoyah’s script. If a link can be established, he added, the inscription may be “our Rosetta stone, enabling us to see where prehistory meets history.”


John Noble Wilford
New York Times