Buddha out of context
Buddhism through 108 objects in Scotland: Object 3 – Amida Buddha Statue in the National Museum of Scotland
This statue in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland is a Japanese depiction of the Amida Buddha.
It was bought in 1902 by the Scottish trader James Douglas Fletcher to decorate his large estate, Rosehaugh, in Avoch (near Inverness). This picture shows that it stood in the garden, until the house was sold in 1954 and the statue was donated to the museum.
The practice of using Buddha statues as garden ornaments or other forms of decoration is very widespread in Europe and North America nowadays. The popularity of the Buddhist aesthetic surged due to the spread of ‘new age’ spirituality since the 1970s, but, as can be seen from Fletcher’s example, this trend goes back much further. This use of the image of Buddha is often seen as disrespectful and problematic, as discussed in the “Supermarket Buddhas” post.
However, in 2013 Prof. Kawai Masamoto of Keio University, Japan, studied the sculpture and mentioned that it does not display the customary casting technique of large-scale Buddhist sculpture. He suggested the sculpture was made in the late 19th century, when Japan was already open for international trade, and that it was probably produced for the export market.
This places the sculpture, and the discussion on cultural appropriation, in a new light. If this statue was specifically produced for export, that illustrates the role the Japanese played themselves in marketing the Buddhist aesthetic to Europe. It shows that cultural appropriation is not always a one-sided action, in which the ‘appropriated’ side helplessly get their culture stolen from them. Even in situations with unequal power relations, it is necessary to consider the agency of the ‘appropriated’ side.
Post written by Marjolein De Raat, Japan Foundation Assistant Curator, National Museum of Scotland.