As China marked the beginning of the Year of the Dragon with lion and dragon dances and fireworks last week, Brown University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology was debuting "Taoist Gods from China: Ceremonial Paintings from the Mien" (21 Prospect Street, Providence, through summer) as part of Brown's "Year of China" programs, which aim to illuminate the country's past and future. In concert with Brown's project, the RISD Museum is exhibiting "From the Land of the Immortals" (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through April 22), a show of 18th- and 19th-century Chinese Taoist textiles.
FOLKSY VERVE A detail from a banner in “Taoist Gods from China.”
Like many faiths, Taoism is, as RISD explains, "concerned with both the position of humanity in the cosmos and the attainment of longevity and immortality, physical or otherwise." The RISD and Brown shows are small, one-room introductions to their topics that provide brief intros to Taoism that will leave the uninitiated somewhat bewildered. Instead, we're mainly invited engage the paintings and textiles in the language of aesthetics.
But, wow, what aesthetics. In "From the Land of the Immortals," RISD curator Kate Irvin and associate professor Paola Dematte (with help from Dematte's students) have assembled dazzling priests' robes that deploy cosmic motifs to symbolize how, in ritual, the priest is believed to become an axis of the universe.
Representative is a rose and gold 19th-century Jiangyi (robe of descent) of silk, gilt paper, metallic-wrapped yarn, and satin weave that a community leading grand master would have worn for funerals or public ceremonies that honored gods. It has a square shape, echoing the depiction of the earth in traditional Chinese cosmology. At the back's top center is a large medallion with red flames bordering a towering red, blue, and white pagoda symbolizing the Gate or Palace of Heaven. Above it the moon and sun, with a rabbit and rooster inside, respectively, frame three gold circles representing the Three Heavens where the Three Purities, the most important Taoist deities, reside. Five dragons, with gold scales and clawed feet, circle the medallion in a wild dance amidst phoenixes and auspicious bats, clouds, and flames. The dragons likely symbolize the five Chinese directions: north, south, east, west, and center. In a horizontal band near the bottom, waves splash up around five mountains that may be the "five islands of immortality" that are said to lay in the sea east of China. At the very bottom, a band is decorated with lotuses and symbols from the I-Ching that hover above cosmic waters.
COSMIC MOTIFS Detail from a priest’s robe in “From the Land of the Immortals.”
The RISD robes are examples of exquisite refinement, while Brown's 17 Mien painted bamboo banners, all but one from a set dated to 1670, have more folksy verve. The Mien are one of the hill tribes from southern China. Haffenreffer curator Thierry Gentis says that Taoist ceremonies are often public events around temples, while the Mien's version tend to be private rituals of purification, exorcism, funeral, or priestly initiation in people's homes temporarily decorated with banners. The banners here, painted in a flat and cartoony style, evidence how they combined their animist traditions with Chinese Taoism — as well as Chinese imperial hats and dragon robes. For the Mien, Gentis explains, "The gods come down and inhabit these paintings so they are actually present in the temple."