The exhibition How to Make the Universe Right: The Art of the Shaman in Vietnam and Southern China, which is on view at the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture (AD&A) Museum January 17-May 1, consists of scroll paintings, musical instruments, clothing, and ceremonial objects from the collection of Santa Barbara residents Jill and Barry Kitnick. It represents the greatest scholarly effort to date to organize and present full sets of these objects in context, and thanks to the curatorial team of Barry Kitnick, Dan Mills, and Bates College professor of art history Trian Nguyen, there’s a splendid catalogue to preserve it, as well.
Based primarily in Daoism, but with elements drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and animism, these spectacular objects and images reveal a way of life that has existed for millennia, but which is today threatened as never before due to recent historical events in the regions where these people live. From 1954-1990, the Communist governments of China and North Vietnam suppressed shamanism, and in the process thousands of important religious artifacts were destroyed as symbols of an outdated form of superstition. In addition to this pressure to modernize, there was considerable disruption and poverty as a result of the Vietnam War. The culture of the Yao and other ethnic Chinese minorities living in North Vietnam was already at risk due to the precarious relation between their everyday spoken language of Vietnamese and the scholarly Chinese and Nom writing necessary to understand and enact shamanic rituals. Finally, because these are not merely aesthetic objects to their makers, but rather the personal ritual tools of individual shamans, they are sometimes destroyed by members of the shaman’s own family upon his death in order to protect his spirit and that of his family from potential misuse.
For Barry Kitnick, who studied anthropology at UCLA and has been collecting these artifacts seriously since 2001, the adventure began reluctantly. “Originally I never wanted to go to Vietnam,” he explained. “My entire cohort was decimated by the Vietnam War, and although I was very interested in Asia, that was one place I did not feel like going. It was my wife, Jill, who finally convinced me to go by saying, ‘It’s a country, not a war — let’s see it.’” From the Kitnicks’ first visit, Barry and Jill became enamored of the culture, and in particular, they became interested in the art associated with these ethnic Chinese minorities. As they continued to visit the country, they began to collect what they perceived as “people’s art — as opposed to imperial art.” The appeal was twofold: This was an important field of East Asian art that was not yet valued appropriately, and the ritual shamanism in which these objects were used radiated a positive attitude the Kitnicks found appealing. The exhibition’s title expresses the mission of these shamanic practices — to make the universe right — and that message is one that clearly continues to resonate with Barry, who identifies with it, saying, “We must rebalance, and these people had the courage to believe that it could be accomplished.”
The acquisition of the collection, while challenging enough in its own right, was only phase one of what has grown into a full-time project many years in the making. The next phase was to find the right scholar to make sense of what had been acquired. Very few scholars of Asian art knew much about these works, and only a handful had the linguistic skills to decipher them. Fortunately for the Kitnicks, the right person for the job did eventually come into view. Today, Trian Nguyen is a distinguished professor at a prestigious liberal arts college, but before he came to this country, he was an ordained Buddhist minister in North Vietnam. As a young man, he learned to read Chinese and French in addition to Nom, the Chinese-derived character system used to write the Vietnamese language prior to the switch to the Latin alphabet that was made there in the 1920s.
Professor Nguyen would prove to be an ideal partner in what has become an international project of outstanding scope and impact. Sections of these scrolls that he was not able to translate were copied and sent to Beijing, where other scholars were recruited to assist. In tandem with Barry’s dedication to assembling complete sets of ritual paintings, such as the 18 images that make up the pantheon of a fully ordained Yao shaman, Nguyen’s scholarship affords a fascinating glimpse of the intensity required to keep a complex 2,500-year-old ritual tradition alive without the benefit of permanent sanctuaries such as churches or temples. Each shaman was entrusted to conduct funerals, prayers for the sick, and even exorcisms based on his ability to create a makeshift shrine or altar out of these portable elements. Passed from generation to generation by direct descent, these dazzling sacred objects were very nearly lost to posterity. Through the efforts of those responsible for How to Make the Universe Right, that catastrophe has been averted, and these images are now available to the public.
How to Make the Universe Right is at UCSB’s AD&A Museum January 17-May 1. For information and museum hours, visit www.museum.ucsb.edu.