Illustrator Andrea Nguyen's rendering of Hanuman, one of the epic's protagonists. (Courtesy of Asian Art Museum)

Bay Area Illustrators Jazz Up 2,500-Year-Old Hindu Epic at Asian Art Museum

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What do the Smurfs, a ten-headed demon king and San Francisco's tech titans all share in common? The answer is on vivid display this month at the Asian Art Museum's fall blockbuster exhibit, where over 100 artworks from around the world pay tribute to the classic Hindu tale known as The Rama Epic.


Divided into four key episodes, the exhibit charts Prince Rama's mythic quest to win back his wife, the beautiful Princess Sita, from his rival, King Ravana, with the aid of a wise lieutenant named Hanuman. Oh, and Ravana also happens to be a ten-headed, twenty-armed demon, and Hanuman, a monkey. Since its ancient inception, the story has been interpreted in countless ways throughout the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, from temple sculptures and court paintings to dance dramas and Bollywood productions. Now, five Bay Area comic illustrators are joining in the artistic tradition, offering their distinctive takes on the beloved legend.


Four of the chosen illustrators were assigned an episode from the myth to interpret, and the fifth designed the jacket cover for the limited edition booklet of illustrations that was released at the exhibit's launch last week. While these snappy numbers aren't part of the exhibit itself, the booklets will be available starting October 21 at the Asian Art Museum store.


Wesley Allsbrook

Ravana's abduction of Sita by Wesley Allsbrook.(Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Portrait of Ravana(Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Nationally recognized for her ink, digital and comic illustrations for clients such as The New York Times, Wired and McSweeney's, Allsbrook was commissioned to depict Ravana's abduction of Sita. "Ravana's hubris is appealing and recognizable everywhere in myself and in the Bay Area at large," says the Rhode Island School of Design alumna. "I liked thinking of him as a sort of abstracted tech prince." In Allsbrook's single-panel drawing, the evil king appears in the guises of a golden deer, an ascetic and a Lyft car—replete with impressive Lyft 'stache—trailing a cloud of emojis as he flies Sita to his palace. // wesleyallsbrook.com


Sophia Foster-Dimino

Sita's trial by fire by Sophia Foster-Dimino.(Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Sympathy was the guiding impetus behind former Google doodler Sophia's portrayal of Sita's trial by fire—an ordeal Rama demands to ascertain Sita's chastity. "I felt her dismay and frustration at having her fidelity doubted," shares Foster-Dimino, whose work has appeared in Lucky Peach and The New Yorker. The Mission resident looked up passage-by-passage translations from the original Sanskrit, but also turned to more contemporary artists such as Alvin Lustig, Joost Swarte and Moebius for inspiration. "I've always wanted to draw from mythology—Norse, Greek, Hindu—so this was incredibly fun." // hellophia.com


Jon Adams

Rama's defeat of Ravana by Jon Adams.(Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

"It's hard to bond with blue Gods," admits Adams, a prolific art director and designer, when asked to conjure a traditionally blue-skinned Rama for Rama's defeat of Ravana. Then, Adams remembered his childhood love for Smurfs. "In my panel, Ravana represents Gargamel, and the demons fighting at his side are the many facets of Azrael. Sita is Smurfette." Currently writing The Enchanted Tiki Room for Marvel, Adams' portfolio includes the comic "Friendship Town" for The San Francisco Chronicle, cartoon shorts for MTV, and graphics for The Perennial. // hisportfolio.com


Andrea Nguyen

Hanuman's many adventures by Andrea Nguyen. (Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Portrait of Hanuman. (Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

In her rendition of Hanuman's colorful escapades, Nguyen chose to cast the monkey lieutenant in five different movie genres: sci-fi, film noir, western, superhero and action (peek the artist at work here). A designer at Airbnb by day, the recent Rhode Island School of Design graduate also works on a variety of side projects such as motion graphics animation—which probably explains her cinematic interpretation of the epic. "I enjoyed dropping Hanuman into different movie scenes and envisioning how his same, core personality would act in each world," says Nguyen. You can find her on Sunday mornings snacking her way across Clement Street (Good Luck Dim Sum and Schubert's Bakery are favorites). // andrealikes.to


Sanaa Khan

Jacket cover for illustration booklet by Sanaa Khan.(Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Co-founder of Berkeley print shop Max's Garage Press, Khan was asked to execute the cover image for the crew's booklet of drawings. Since the cover also functions as a keepsake foldout picture, the Bay Area native looked to "embody a certain dramatic and lush sensibility found in old movie posters the world over." Using rich jewel tones and detailed brushwork, Khan enjoyed coming up with Ravana's many faces the most. "I wanted to convey somewhat literally Ravana's multifaceted nature," she explained. "Even though Ravana is Rama's adversary, he has many exemplary qualities of his own." // sanaakhan.com


// The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe" runs Oct. 21, 2016 to Jan. 25, 2017 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. (Civic Center), asianart.org/regular/rama-epic-programs

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