By Monica Chapman
One of the world's largest collections of Daoist ritual paintings has found a home at Ohio University.
A gift from Frederick Harris and collecting partners Robert Fallon and Nguyen Thi Diu, the Yao Ceremonial Artifacts Collection includes more than 2,000 pieces of ceremonial and temple art of the Yao minority people of North Vietnam.
The artifacts comprise the largest collection of Yao Daoist ritual paintings in the U.S. and one of the largest such collections in the world, according to an assessment by Stephen Little, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts and a leading expert on Asian art.
The Yao exhibit will debut Saturday, Sept. 19, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the Frederick and Kazuko Harris Fine Arts Library on the third floor of Vernon R. Alden Library. Ohio University President Emeritus Vernon R. Alden will preside over the opening reception, which is being run in conjunction with the Ohio Fellows Reunion, a leadership symposium during which Ohio Fellows will share insights and expertise with the university's current crop of Appalachian, Cutler, Urban and Templeton scholars.
"What most don't realize is that it's more of a research collection than an art collection. It is ceremonial art, but at this point it exists to be studied," said Fine Arts Librarian Gary Ginther, who will oversee the display pieces in their new home.
The Yao Ceremonial Artifacts Collection includes Daoist ritual paintings, painted masks, priests' robes, banners, a ritual crown and ritual books -- all of which have been acquired legitimately and have been appropriately deconsecrated, Ginther noted.
About 25 pieces -- primarily hanging scrolls -- will be displayed in the Fine Arts Reading Room. The remainder of the collection will be stored at the library annex, where it will be available to scholars, faculty members and graduate students. Others may utilize the collection with permission from the curator.
Later in 2009, a significant portion of the collection will also be available online via ARTstor, an online image database which can be accessed through ALICE, the University Libraries' online catalog. A sample of images can also be viewed at www.library.ohiou.edu/finearts/nemc_sampler.html.
Harris, Fallon and Diu purchased the Yao Ceremonial Artifacts Collection from Vietnamese collector Nguyen Manh Duc , of the North Vietnam Ha Bac province. According to Fallon, Duc held the buyers to two conditions: that the collection would be kept intact and that it would ultimately have an institutional home. Fallon said Ohio University was a natural fit.
"We just felt OU was a school that would not only appreciate it but a school with expertise through its Southeast Asian Studies program," said Fallon, who graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor of arts in 1969. "I think this collection is going to be one of the key aspects of the Southeast Asia Collection at the OHIO library and a focal point for scholars of (Daoist art)."
According to Ginther, the collection has captured the attention of the handful of Yao scholars who exist worldwide. Several scholars have already visited the collection, including experts with a Yao cultural center in Oakland, who assisted with the interpretation of some of the texts.
According to Little's assessment, the majority of the paintings date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the period of French colonial control of Vietnam. The collection, he notes, "documents an extraordinary number of deities and provides a wealth of original material for scholarly research on Yao artistic and ritual practices."
From art to anthropology, Ginther said the collection will support the research needs of programs and departments campus-wide, "building crosswalks between disciplines and encouraging new dialogue."
As for the meaning of the individual pieces: "That discussion will never end," he said.