Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds is a rollicking romp through the many ways that Asian visual cultures have imagined the afterlife of the condemned over time. Paintings, sculptures, maps, puppets, and religious objects from India, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines offer a colorful variety of visions of the underworld, ranging from the serious to the light-hearted. “There is a presumption that all representations of Hell across Asian cultures are the same or continuous,” says Jeff Durham, Curator of Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum, “but in fact, whether they appear in ancient traditions or the work of contemporary artists, depictions of Hell have been extraordinarily diverse: some are terrifying and gruesome, but many are humorous and playful.”
The exhibition is organized as a journey: beginning at the gates of Hell, the visitor passes through various conceptions of the underworld, finally arriving at depictions of the ways one might potentially make an escape or exit from Hell. “This exhibition is like a rollercoaster,” says Durham, “taking the visitor from excitement to relief; in the end, it shows that Hell is only as bad as we imagine it to be.” The majority of the 48 works on view are on loan from other institutions and collections; of the pieces from the museum collection, several are newly acquired and are being shown here for the first time.
Image: detail of Utagawa Yoshifuji, Newly Published Comic Picture of Cats (Shinpan neko no giga), Japan, 1883. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Susan L. and C. J. Peters. Photograph by Tom Dubrock.