The Art Blog by Wovensouls

Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra

A Glimpse of Heaven | Antique Yao Paintings

Imagine a small community of two million people spread across a few thousand kilometers, living a life that straddles two radically different worlds – the life of their ancestors and the lives of mobile phones & internet.

If their traditions and customs are closer to the median customs of the environment in which they live, physical environment as well as intellectual, then the pressure to change will not be much. Or if they all lived together in one place their numbers would protect them to some extent from being culturally washed away by the tsunami of external influences.

But this is not to be and the genocide of minority cultures is unstoppable.

And so when an outsider – an explorer [even if only an arm-chair explorer] encounters the arts of a vanishing culture that contain the fragrance of their life-model, their traditions and their beliefs, these art objects take on a huge significance. They become the footprint trail along which the core of the culture can be explored.

And fortunately we live in times when we still have so much diversity of culture that from any starting point, just few hundred kilometers of travel in a new direction can lead us to a fresh vanishing culture with its own unique array of arts. [True for much of Asia].

And it is easy to find a new object of passion.

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” – The Great Gatsby

The only word I would change is “repelled”. I am not repelled. I am distraught with the thought that in this lifetime I will not be able to see all the cultural variety that is waiting to be seen.

***

Being reunited with the Yao paintings that I thought I had misplaced focused my attention on their beauty.

Many are absolutely stunning works of art – just from the art point of view seeing the finesse and style with which they have been executed. But all are intriguing and fascinating because of the cultural stories held within them.

The Yao, are a non Chinese minority people, who first migrated many centuries ago to the southern Chinese provinces such as Yunnan, most probably from the Yangtze basin. It is believed that some then began to move onwards and migrate to North Vietnam, Laos and Thailand at some time in the 13th century. About 9 or 10 centuries ago they became Taoist, and adherence to this religion has helped them to survive as a small but sophisticated society, with strong traditions, customs and culture but no country to call their own.

Yao paintings are used in various ceremonies during which they are hung up on the walls.  When the paintings are not displayed for ceremonial use they are rolled inside a piece of red or white cloth and stored inside a special cylindrical rattan basket next to the house alter.

When commissioning a set of Yao paintings, after a painter was chosen a price would have been agreed, a small chamber would be built next to the main house with the walls covered with white cotton for the painter to work in.

Upon completion a ritual called ‘opening the eyes’ would be performed to invite the gods enter the new paintings through the eyes.

ANTIQUE YAO CEREMONIAL PAINTING

These scrolls are not merely depictions of these gods – in fact, the paintings are considered to be the abode of the gods who are present within them.

When the paintings became old after generations of use and another set was needed, another ritual was performed to request the gods and spirits to leave these paintings and reside elsewhere.

A complete set of Mien paintings consist of 17 pictures, each containing specific deities. The full set of 17 paintings is usually accompanied by four smaller paintings and a long paper ‘bridge’ used for transporting souls and called the dragon bridge (see below). Also a paper crown representing the Three Pure ones (see below). When the paintings are not displayed for ceremonial use they are rolled inside a piece of red or white cloth and stored inside a special cylindrical rattan basket next to the house alter.

A few gorgeous examples of late 19th / early 20th century Yao art that are significantly younger than the ones in the previous post about Yao paintings but they are equally beautiful!

    ANTIQUE YAO CEREMONIAL PAINTING ANTIQUE YAO CEREMONIAL PAINTING ANTIQUE YAO CEREMONIAL PAINTING

What I find remarkable is that the concept in both these rituals – the invitation to reside, the eyes as the doorway and the request to leave the painting –  is identical to the rituals followed for the Phad in Rajasthan. [see a note on Phads here].

Curious isn’t it?

From the WOVENSOULS collection.

jm

April 2015

WOVENSOULS GALLERY OF ANTIQUE TEXTILES FROM VANISHING CULTURES

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