Watercolor paintings reveal region’s link with surroundings

On a wall bordering the entrance to Robert Powell’s exhibit at the Sackler Gallery hangs an eight-foot photograph of a stretch of the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal. Snow-battered, barren and erupting dramatically into the sky, the enormous mountains dwarf the spot-sized dwellings. On the other side of the wall, Powell’s watercolor paintings zoom in on the structural specks to reveal an organic architecture imbued with Buddhist notions of design and washed with soft but strikingly symbolic colors.

The inhabitants of Mustang – a Himalayan region that geographically and culturally belongs to Tibet but is politically part of modern-day Nepal – responded to the severe terrain by building monasteries, gateways and houses of unparalleled beauty. Powell’s collection of paintings, entitled “Behind the Himalayas: Paintings of Mustang,” captures not only the aesthetic appeal but also the spiritual essence of Mustang’s architecture.

Each of Powell’s watercolor paintings acts as a chapter in the ancient and continuing tale of a Himalayan society’s struggle to protect itself from its hostile mountain landscape and the potentially evil, threatening spirits believed to inhabit it. The collection reflects two great triumphs – Mustang’s people breath incredible artistry into what Joseph Conrad would deem one of the earth’s “dark places,” and Powell successfully captures the region’s harmonious relationship with nature through paint and paper.

An Australian architect, Powell moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1980. He traveled to Mustang in 1992, when the region first opened to foreigners, as part of a team funded by the German Research Foundation to study the area’s traditional architecture. Required to produce scaled mechanical drawings of two Buddhist monasteries for the project, Powell returned twice to Mustang to sketch its structures for his own work. At his studio in Kathmandu, he used the sketches to paint scores of watercolors that presented the architecture in less technical terms. The exhibit consists of 19 of those watercolors, which depict Mustang’s structures as a spiritual dialogue between the locals and their natural surroundings.

One of the collection’s most brilliant paintings, “Blood of the Ogress, Drakmar,” exemplifies Powell’s mission. The scene presents a section of wind-sculpted cliffs, glowing red and riddled with ancient manmade caves believed to be nearly 3,000 years old. Illustrating a Tibetan myth, the site provides the setting of legendary Guru Rimpoche’s murder of a massive demoness, the Balmo. The cliffs, soaked in her mythical red blood and bearing prayer inscriptions, are a testament to the inhabitants’ historically seamless tie with their environment.

In “Wall of the Protectors, Lo Manthang,” the subject is a house fa?ade that bears the typical style of Tibetan and Mustang buildings. White clay-washed walls lined with a thick band of firewood, a single-block wood window from which flow two trails of dry yellow and gray paint (protective colors of Tibetan Buddhism), two ritualistic skull ornaments hanging on either side of the window – Powell’s painting unites these elements to present the house as a distinct personality. His rendering invites the viewer to examine the work as a portrait and to consider the face of the building as a mask to something more esoteric.

The exhibit continues at the Sackler Gallery through Sept. 26.

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