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Bates Museum of Art features collage, shaman objects from Vietnam

Paper masks used in shaman rituals of the Yao people of Vietnam.

Paper masks used in shaman rituals of the Yao people of Vietnam.

In an exhibition believed to be the most extensive of its kind in the United States, the Bates College Museum of Art will present in January an extraordinary selection of painted scrolls, masks and other objects used in the shamanist ceremonies of five ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam.

“How to Make the Universe Right: The Art of the Shaman in Vietnam and Southern China” will open at 6 p.m. on Thursday, January 23, with a talk by Trian Nguyen, associate professor of art and visual culture at Bates, in Room 104 of Olin Arts Center. The exhibition is based upon recent research by Nguyen. A reception will follow the lecture.

Showing simultaneously with “How to Make the Universe Right” will be “Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center,” a wide-ranging survey of collages curated by the Center and William Low of the Bates Museum of Art. Pavel Zoubok, founder of the ICC, will presents a lecture on the exhibition at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 5, also in Room 104 of Olin Arts Center.

The exhibitions will be on display through March 21. The museum and its programs are open to the public at no cost from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and until 7 p.m. Wednesdays while Bates is in session. The museum is located in Olin Arts Center at 75 Russell Street. For more information, call 786-6158.

Among Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities are five that migrated to the mountainous north from southern China starting as early as the 11th century: the Yao, Tày, Sán Dìu, Cao Làn, and Nùng.

These groups followed a rich and diverse tradition of shamanist practices encompassing Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, animist and other religious beliefs. Their religious ceremonies made use of ritual objects ranging from talismans to musical instruments to painted scrolls.

“How to Make the Universe Right” presents an extraordinary selection of shaman scrolls and other objects from those five minorities, most prominently the Yao.

“This exhibition includes more than 350 objects from what may be the most significant collection of its kind in the U.S.,” says museum director Dan Mills. “This will be the most extensive exhibition of its kind ever organized in this country.”

Mills curated the exhibition in conjunction with Nguyen, whose research forms the scholarly foundation for the show, and with Barry Kitnick of Santa Barbara, CA, from whose collection the show has been assembled.

Kitnick engaged Nguyen to research his collection of shaman objects based on the Bates professor’s extensive knowledge of Asian art, languages and culture. His research will take the shape of an illustrated nine-chapter publication that’s likely to be the first authoritative work in English on the subject. (The book will not appear until after the Bates exhibition.)

A fourth partner in creating the exhibition is the Art, Design and Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to which the show will travel late next year.

“This exhibition will appeal to those interested not only in beautiful art and material culture, but also in history, spiritual beliefs, and storytelling, because these objects are so rich with stories,” Mills added.

While vestiges of the shamanist traditions linger on, political and social change has largely effaced them from northern Vietnam. “This exhibition creates a remarkable opportunity to see extraordinary works of art that represent people little-known in the West whose spiritual lives really revolved around shamanism,” says Mills.

The shamans, Nguyen explains, are community leaders in more than the spiritual realm. They are also the healers and intelligentsia of their culture.

“They are the most educated people,” says Nguyen. “They know how to read and write Chinese. They pass knowledge from one generation to another. And they are really highly honored within their community.”

A manikin dressed as a Yao shaman will greet visitors to the exhibition. Displayed in an alcove in the museum’s first-floor gallery will be a shrine composed of a typical array of hanging scrolls and ceremonial objects. The bulk of the exhibition will group objects by type.

The scrolls, composed of ink and water-based paint on rice paper, are the focus of the exhibition. The 80-plus scrolls on display will represent a wide diversity of ethnic origins, aesthetic approaches and levels of artistic accomplishment.?One horizontal scroll is 50 feet long.

In the Daoism-based tradition of the Yao, the scrolls were used in ceremonies for ordination, healing and funerals. Many depict deities. Once consecrated by the shaman, such scrolls were believed to be inhabited by the deities, and the shaman could communicate to them, and through them to worshippers’ ancestors.

On display concurrently with “How to Make the Universe Right” will be a second exhibition, “Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center,” emphasizing contemporary works in the fertile field of collage.

“‘Remix’ is an exhibition of works by more than 50 artists whose diverse approaches to collage illustrate the incredible range of the medium,” says exhibit curator William Low of the Bates Museum of Art. “The result is a dynamic and engaging show.”

“Collage is an important movement throughout Modern and contemporary art, but is often overlooked and under-appreciated,” said Low.

Although its basic techniques are much older, this art form is thought to have “arrived” about a century ago with Modernist artists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. They were the first to use the word “collage,” a form of the French word “coller,” meaning “to glue,” to describe their assemblages of disparate found objects.

“Remix” is a touring exhibition produced by the ICC. Based in Milton, PA, the center is dedicated to the appreciation of collage and its related forms, from Modernism to the digital age. The ICC maintains a permanent lending and research collection, and its programming promotes community and scholarship within the field and beyond.

Linking historical and contemporary approaches to collage, “Remix” explores seven dominant themes in the field, including the relationship between collage and poetry, collage as an extension of painting, and the use of collage in cultural, social and political resistance.

The engine of collage, the manipulation and juxtaposition of appropriated materials, affords expressive possibilities rarely found in other art forms. “There are great opportunities for interpretation and discovery,” Low says. “Process is evident when viewing collage. This provides opportunities to relate to other media and other forms of art making.”

Finally, Low says, collage is a distinctively topical art form. “It’s often a way for artists to depict ideas that are present or relevant in their time. It’s a window to contemporary cultural issues.”

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