Now on view at the Bates College Museum of Art is an exhibition titled “How to make the Universe Right: The Art of the Shaman in Vietnam and Southern China.”
Make no mistake: This is an art exhibition rather than some snoozy anthropological procedure soaked in the textbook tedium of pedantic pedagogy.
“Art of the Shaman” is revealing both insofar as it dovetails with Western art and spiritual culture and diverges away from our history of spiritual and artistic practices. It features no fewer than 350 painted scrolls, masks, robes, ritual weapons, musical instruments and other sacred art objects of Yao and Tay shamans – small ethnic populations that emigrated from China to Vietnam during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Rising to the level of Bowdoin’s extraordinary 2011 exhibition of Chinese ritual bronzes and Colby’s gorgeous current show of Chinese art, the Bates show is even more accessible both because the work is a bit more homespun and because it gives the viewer a process to follow: the development of a shaman as evidenced by her expanding system of cultural accoutrements.
“Art of the Shaman” begins with a manikin dressed in the full garb of a Yao shaman. It then moves to an outstanding example of the fundamental trio of painted scrolls that serve as the basis for the other sets within the exhibition. (A graduating shaman commissions a specific trio of scrolls and adds to these systematically over time until the set is complete.) The next stop is a shrine installation that illustrates how they are presented and used.
I suggest visitors read the first three blocks of (prolific) label copy; after that, it’s enough just to check in. The exhibition’s accompanying texts go into depth about the cultures and shamanistic practices; they cover the background well enough that we don’t have to translate it here.
While ancient Asian painting styles might look decidedly non-Western, their cartoon-like clarity makes them eminently accessible to us. Their rhythmic outlines, bold flat colors, stylized features, compressed proportions and their pressed-up-to-the-surface presence are not that different – in a graphic sense – from what we are used to seeing on Saturday morning television or in the Sunday paper comics.
Where this art diverges from contemporary expectations, the difference can often be illustrated by our art historical past. For example, icons were a common type of Christian devotional painting believed to have genuine power channeled by the pictured saint or holy being. To the extent a painter could replicate an icon precisely, that power could be imbued in the copies.
Iconography (from “icon”) is the set of symbols used to designate any given Christian saint. For example, images of Saint Jerome show him with a lion and Saint Sebastian is predictably depicted tied to a post and shot through with arrows. If you take this approach (Sherlock Holmes or Where’s Waldo? – your choice), “Art of the Shaman” is fun. My nine-year old picked out the Minor Hoi Fan (God of the Sea) in several different painting series: Hoi Fan is depicted with sword in hand and missing his right boot which is on the tail of a sea serpent.
“The Administration” is an extraordinary set of three scrolls commissioned by a shaman in 1899. One features Tai Wai (“the High Constable”), and another Hoi Fan, while the other – “The Ancestors” – is similar to Christian All-Saints paintings such as Durer’s “Solemnity of All Saints.”
Hoi Fan is depicted as described above in a Chinese-based style similar to what we associate with Japanese prints. Like the others, it is a tall, vertical image topped by three large spirals and lavishly decorated. Lined with snaking borders, the highly active images appear on a crisscrossed ground divided with the main image above a secondary image of Tai Wai and Hoi Fan as generals on horseback facing right – a point that cannot be fully comprehended until you see a complete set of scrolls hung together. While each is a fascinating composition, it is made with an eye to the symmetry of the much larger system to which it ultimately belongs.
Very broadly, shamans are able intermediaries between people and spirits. The Yao shaman looked to Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and ancestor worship; and so their sacred objects use many familiar symbols and forms. While we might push this such religious activity away as quaint or archaic, this kind of thinking is not foreign to Western culture such as the Christian history of assigning numinous power to icons (Saint Christopher medals are hardly uncommon), sacred Jewish objects such as Torahs, or Mormon undergarments (“temple garments”).
Let’s not forget that Western painting was almost completely devoted to the Church for centuries. Michelangelo, Raphael and their peers all worked mostly for the Church. A common theme of “Art of the Shaman” is the Ten Kings of Hell, and some of the most entertaining images immediately recall the visions of Hell painted by Bosch and Bruegel.
While this is an unprecedented show in the United States, it is not an over-precious scholarly endeavor. Because they are treated like art, these objects don’t feel like desacrilized anthropological relics. Like most good art, these works assert themselves.
Whether you are interested in shamanism, religious practice, Asian peoples, diasporic culture or art, “Art of the Shaman” is a worthy show.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org