A Buddha from Pakistan visits Zurich as a messenger of peace

Article, 20.12.2018

With its exhibition 'Next Stop Nirvana – Approaches to Buddhism', the Rietberg Museum invites its visitors to explore Buddhism and Buddhist culture. The exhibition's centrepiece is a monumental stone sculpture of the Buddha from Pakistan which, thanks to the work of the SDC, can be seen abroad for the first time ever. In this interview, Géraldine Zeuner explains how the SDC supports and promotes culture.

A stone Buddha statue lies encased in a wooden shipping crate secured by a belt.
The monumental Buddha sculpture from Peshawar arrives in Zurich safely encased in a wooden shipping crate. © Rietberg Museum / Rainer Wolfsberger

How does a statue of Buddha from Pakistan come to Switzerland, and how was the SDC involved? 

The exhibition of this monumental work of art is one of the tangible results of the extensive cooperation between the Rietberg Museum and the culture authorities in Pakistan, which was made possible thanks to the SDC. We are delighted that we were able to facilitate this long-term partnership, which is primarily about an exchange of experts, experience and expertise. It's also about building a bridge and giving greater visibility to Pakistan's cultural heritage. When you think about Pakistan, a statue of Buddha probably isn't the first thing that springs to mind. But it is also part of the country's rich history. Museums help people access history and better understand the roots of their identity. They also foster cultural pride and reinforce people's ties to their country. This is an opportunity for Pakistan to show another side of itself to the world, making this first-ever exhibition of the statue abroad a messenger of hope and tolerance from a socially divided country.

Is this project typical of the SDC's activities in the culture field? 

Not necessarily. But the preservation of cultural heritage has huge significance for a society, which is why the SDC supports such projects from time to time. Like when it took part in the reconstruction of destroyed mausoleums in Mali together with UNESCO. And in Bosnia we're working with a historical museum where events from the recent war are being processed. But the SDC's main focus in this field is contemporary culture. An example of this is our South Caucasus programme, which uses documentary films to encourage people to reflect on themes that are critical of their society. Part of the programme is to promote cooperation between film-makers in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, too. We focus on theatre productions in western Africa, where plays are an excellent way to get the public to look critically at their societies.

Portrait photo of Géraldine Zeuner
Géraldine Zeuner, Head of Culture and Development at the SDC. © SDC

What is the scope and impact of the SDC's work in the culture field? 

The SDC has culture programmes in each of the 40 or so countries where it works, each including several projects. The programmes are relatively small-scale but effective. The SDC's work to promote art and culture strengthens its partner countries – their societies, the social fabric, people's freedom of expression, good governance and the democratisation process. Like over here, artists in these countries often have an influence in social processes. They are drivers of social change. In addition, the culture programmes give prospects to young people facing unemployment and help them to strengthen their identities. It is these young artists in particular who look for answers and are committed to creating a better future in their homelands.

Extensive cooperation with Pakistan kicks off

As specialists in non-European art and culture, the Rietberg Museum's everyday work includes establishing partnerships with institutions abroad. But the SDC-facilitated collaboration with the Pakistani culture authorities went beyond the usual framework – just like the dimensions of the sculpture on loan: the approximately 2,000 year-old Buddha statue from the Gandhara region being brought to Zurich for the exhibition measures 3.5 metres in height and weighs 1.5 tonnes. 'Next Stop Nirvana – Approaches to Buddhism' uses 2,500 years of art and culture to shed light on Buddhist rituals, teachings, values, stories and legends, as well as the spread of Buddhism. “When I saw this amazing statue for the first time, I knew straight away that we had to try it,” says Johannes Beltz, deputy head of the museum. But for Beltz, the statue represents a lot more. “It also symbolises the start of our extensive cooperation.” Other projects have been planned, such as joint exhibitions, publications and knowledge sharing on both sides. “At the end of the day, it's about working together to preserve the cultural heritage of the whole of humanity,” adds Beltz.