'The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka' at LACMA through June 23

LOS ANGELES - The land formerly known as Ceylon is more than India's Teardrop - Sri Lanka is also home to some of the most precious gemstones in the world. A research paper published by the Gemological Institute of America hailed Sri Lanka as "one of the meccas of gemology," a country rich with history "as a gem producer and trade center." A sampling of Sri Lanka's "mecca" of a gem market - and other curated art pieces - are currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA.

"The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka" formally opened to the public on Dec. 9, 2018 and runs until June 23. The curated exhibition is the "first comprehensive survey of Sri Lankan art organized by an American museum," according to LACMA. Nearly two millennia of Sri Lankan history are on display at the exhibition, through 250 or so pieces. The exhibition's curator created a balanced and modest display of jewels/gems, old photographs and ancient relics of Sri Lanka's ornated past. Also on display are religious artworks, representing the South Asian island nation's Buddhist history through images of dieties and sacred sites. Don't expect to walk away an expert on Sri Lanka's ambitious gemstone history and rich cultural background - what's on display only gives you a broad sampling of the country's history. "The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka," if anything, serves more of a reminder of the island nation's unique identity. Sri Lanka is not Indian by virtue of her proximity to India.


As you walk through the exhibition you'll come across intricately designed textiles, furnishing used by colonial Europeans (such as the Dutch and Portuguese) and other inanimate objects representing Sri Lanka's evolving past. The country's connections to the Indians, Dutch, British and Portuguese are all on prominent display - but the exhibition also reminds viewers of this: Sri Lanka, despite a variety of foreign influences within its own land, has always maintained its own, unique identity and heritage.

It's fitting, identity and heritage aside, for the exhibition to be titled "The Jeweled Isle," as gems play a significant role in the land formerly known as Ceylon. The GIA study referenced above stated India's Teardrop was once known a "Ratna Dweepa" in Sanskrit. The phrase translates as "Island of Jewels." Sapphire and cat's eye chrysoberyl are two Sri Lanka's most historically and economically notable gems.

"Between 500 and 1500 AD, during the rule of ancient and medieval Sinhala kings, the mining, possession, and commerce of precious stones was controlled by the monarch," authors of the GIA published research paper stated. "Arab and Persian merchants purchased many fine gemstones. During the periods of European colonization—Portuguese (1505–1656), Dutch (1656–1796), and British (1796–1948)—gem commerce expanded beyond the royal family, as the Europeans were solely interested in trading and profit.

"European traders brought more of these goods to the West and furthered the island’s reputation as a source of gemstones and trade expertise," GIA's researchers continued in their paper, which was titled 'Sri Lanka: Expedition to the Island of Jewels.'

Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 22 million people; a vast majority of the country is ethnically Sinhalese. Other ethnic groups are Moors and Tamils. Roughly 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. Hindus, Muslims and Christians account for nearly 20 percent of the population.

"The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka" is at Resnick Pavilion and open to ticketed LACMA members and guests during the museum's usual opening hours. LACMA staff suggests patron set aside one hour to view the full exhibition.

Opening the exhibition are 21 precious gemstones, mined in Sri Lanka. Visitors will then navigate through three sections, chronoligically organized by period: Anuradhapra (3rd century BCE to 10th century CE); Polonnaruva (11th to 13th century); and, Kandy (15th to 19th century).

"These sections address themes such as the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Buddhism’s accommodation of indigenous deities and beliefs, the interaction between Hinduism and Buddhism, and the connection of Sri Lankan kingship to the possession of Shakyamuni Buddha’s tooth relic, which remains the most venerated object in Sri Lanka," LACMA staff explained about the exhibition's organization.

Dr. Robert L. Brown and Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, of LACMA’s South and Southeast Asian Art Department curated the exhibition. Los Angeles-based architecture firm Escher GuneWardena Architecture designed the exhibition. Visit www.lacma.org/jeweledisle for more information "The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka."