The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Asia Society, New York will present an unprecedented exhibition of ancient art from Viet Nam—the first in the U.S. to address the historical, geographic and cultural contexts of pre-colonial Vietnamese art in depth.
Throughout its long history, Viet Nam served as a central hub for trade routes connecting the regions of Asia and the West, with travelers and merchants traversing its long open plains and trade vessels from as far west as India and Rome finding safe haven in its harbors. Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea will introduce new scholarship on the history of Vietnamese art.
Approximately 110 objects dating from the first millennium B.C. through the seventeenth century on rare loan from Viet Nam’s leading museums will be on view. Highlights of the exhibition include ritual bronzes, terracotta burial wares, fine gold jewelry, Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and ornaments made of jade, lapis lazuli, crystal and carnelian. The works have never been exhibited in the United States and many have never traveled outside of Viet Nam. Arts of Ancient Viet Nam will premiere in Houston on September 13, 2009 and will remain on view at the MFAH through January 3, 2010. The exhibition will be presented at Asia Society in New York from February 2 through May 2, 2010.
The exhibition is co-organized by Asia Society, New York and the MFAH. Independent scholar Dr. Nancy Tingley is curator of the exhibition. MFAH curator of Asian art, Christine Starkman is in-house curator for the show in Houston. In New York, Dr. Adriana Proser, Asia Society’s John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, is in-house curator.
“Most audiences are familiar with Vietnamese history of the twentieth century, but for many this is the first opportunity to explore the richness of Vietnamese art in its deserved depth,” said MFAH director Dr. Peter C. Marzio. “For nearly three thousand years, Viet Nam has been home to a host of international and intercultural influences that have made for a truly remarkable artistic legacy. Asian art is one of our most important and growing focuses as a museum—we are currently in the middle of a dramatic expansion and reinstallation of our Asian art galleries—and we are extremely pleased to work with our colleagues in Viet Nam and at Asia Society to share these great treasures with U.S. audiences for the first time.”
“Asia Society has a long history of organizing exhibitions that present new scholarship on Asian art, both traditional and contemporary,” notes Asia Society Museum Director Dr. Melissa Chiu. “We gratefully acknowledge Viet Nam’s Ministry of Culture and our colleagues in Vietnamese museums for their collaboration on this important project. Having worked with them and Dr. Tingley for over five years, it is extremely gratifying to see the exhibition come to fruition, and to be working with our colleagues at MFAH on the exhibition’s stateside presentation.”
“The works in this exhibition are of truly global significance, and evidence of a shared history that predates colonialism by several thousand years,” said Dr. Tingley. “Unfortunately, modern scholarship and archaeological research were interrupted and delayed by the tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. Further, as this exhibition required international cooperation at such a large scale, it has been several decades in the making. We are very much looking forward to bringing these works to American audiences at long last.”
Works are on loan from ten leading museums in Viet Nam, including the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Ha Noi and the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City. The exhibition guides the viewer through critical periods in the region’s history, beginning with ancient burial items from the fifth century B.C., continuing with intricate jewelry and religious statues of the first millennium A.D. and culminating with the fine ceramics of the seventeenth century. Arts of Ancient Viet Nam examines this work in light of complex patterns of trade and cultural exchange in southern, central and northern Viet Nam. The varied influence of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Rome and even northern Europe are explored.
The exhibition is divided into four roughly chronological sections, each of which explores the art of the period’s most prominent civilizations:
Early Cultures (first millennium B.C.–second century A.D.) will explore Viet Nam’s first “Golden Age,” which was dominated by two now legendary civilizations, the Sa Huynh in central and south Viet Nam and their contemporaries in the north, the Dong Son. Particular highlights of this section are the burial wares of the Sa Huynh people, who entombed their dead in large upright jars, the bodies positioned in crouched postures with precious offerings, weapons and smaller pottery vessels enclosed as well. This rare practice was not shared by the Dong Son culture in the north, who are better known for their ornamental bronze drums. Other highlights from the exhibition include iron axes, jewelry, beads of semiprecious stones, glass and gold.
The Archaeology of Fu Nan in the Mekong River Delta (A.D. first–eighth century) examines the great first-millennium civilization known as Fu Nan, which comprised several major cities connected by an advanced network of canals across southern Viet Nam and into Cambodia. The exhibition will focus on the walled city of Oc Eo, one of the civilization’s wealthiest, located at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Roman, Indian and Chinese empires. The city was a main center of manufacture, notable for its superior-quality gold jewelry inset with semi-precious and precious stones. The exhibition presents this jewelry alongside imported goods from Rome, India and China from the same period.
Champa (fifth–fifteenth century) explores the art of the seafaring Cham people, whose central coastal kingdoms became the locus of power in the sixth century A.D. The exhibition features Cham ceramics, metalwork and sculpture, which demonstrate artistic and cultural exchange between coastal Viet Nam, Indonesia, the Philippine kingdom of Butuan, and other regions of Southeast Asia and India.
Ceramic Trade and Exchange (twelfth–seventeenth century) explores the city of Hoi An, also known as Faifo, which served as one of Southeast Asia’s primary international ports for two centuries. Located in central Viet Nam about 18 miles from modern Da Nang, Hoi An commanded the center of the ceramic trade between China, Japan and Europe. The exhibition will present ceramic wares produced in northern and central Viet Nam, and will explore the influence of Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese traders who settled in Hoi An during the period.
Image: Simhamukha” Architectural Ornament. Oc Eo site, An Giang Province. 6th century. Terra cotta. Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 1751