The Collective on Gender, Religion, and the Arts of Asia (GRAA) held its inaugural conference via Zoom on June 2 and 3, 2022. Bringing together professors and researchers from 13 colleges and universities, the event consisted of three panels that addressed the topics of embodiment, patronage, and the sacred feminine with respect to Buddhist artistic production throughout Asia. After each presentation, questions were solicited from conference participants and audience members. Each conference panel then concluded with a period of discussion facilitated by a moderator.
Moderated by Kevin Carr, the first panel considered questions of embodied Buddhist ritual practice, the relationship between theatrical performance and icon veneration, and the close connection between art making and the body itself. Youn-mi Kim addressed a corpus of Choson garments stamped with talismans by laywomen that were later enshrined within statues, the paper arguing that this practice served as a medium for prayer and ritual offering that extended the body of the practitioner into that of the icon itself. Yuhang Li’s writing situated an image of Cundi Bodhisattva by Chen Hongshou within late Ming doctrinal, material, and theatrical practices as observed in the Lower Yangtze River Delta, revealing the icon’s meaning to be located in this broader cultural matrix. Subsequently, Carolyn Wargula’s essay engaged Kamakura period Japanese embroideries of Amida’s Welcoming Descent, positing that the inclusion of human hair within the textile served as a means for female practitioners to negotiate the boundary between an impure self and a divine body. Lastly, Melissa McCormick discussed the pottery and poetic practices of the Japanese Buddhist nun-artist Otagaki Rengetsu, arguing that the formal and literary qualities of Rengetsu’s inscribed verses suggest a haptic Buddhist poetics that allow for an embodied experience of a self otherwise negated.
The conference’s second panel was moderated by Lara Blanchard and considered questions related to female patronage in Buddhist art making. Jinah Kim presented a series of visual and epigraphic case studies that reveal the nature of female patronage and donation in medieval eastern India and Nepal. Mickey McCory’s essay considered the portrait of a Tangut Buddhist nun in Mogao Cave 61, weaving together histories of astrological divination and Tangut women’s participation in artistic production. Through a series of early medieval Chinese case studies, Kate Lingely discussed the ways by which Buddhism created space for public engagement for early medieval women that had previously been denied. Finally, Talia Andrea traced the iconographic program of a painting depicting a nun invoking the deity Uho Doji to the fundraising efforts of Keikoin, a notable late-medieval Japanese nunnery.
Held on June 3, the final panel was moderated by Janet Gyatso and considered questions of the sacred feminine. Through a close reading of several early translations, Ryuichi Abe argued that the Dragon Princess as depicted in the Lotus Sutra can be re-read as being of equal significance to the Buddha within the text’s central narrative. Thereafter, Ikumi Kaminishi addressed the tensions inherent in images of prostitutes who took the tonsure and became devote Buddhist practitioners. Megan Bryson introduced the multifaceted identities of the goddess Baijie Shengfei, a deity worshiped in the Dali region of China’s Yunnan province. Lastly, Ashely Thompson reflected upon the theoretical implications of devotional objects from the Cambodian region of Srei Santhor, suggesting that the feminized forms seen in the region posit a category of queerness that demands formlessness.