By: Jenna Curry
Most Americans only think of Vietnam as the place where their country fought its longest war, but the Southeast Asian nation has a far richer and more diverse cultural history. Scholars believe Vietnam has been inhabited since the Stone Age. In precolonial times, because of Vietnam’s unique coastline, which extends 2,133 miles from north to south, the area became an active central hub connecting Asia with the West, for trade that included religious works and other art objects.
A group of 110 Vietnamese objects never before exhibited in the U.S. will be brought together in Arts of Ancient Vietnam: From River Plain to Open Sea, a show cosponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (on view Sept. 13–Jan. 3) and the Asia Society in New York (Feb. 2–May 2). Viewers will be guided through critical periods in the country’s history, represented by objects from fifth-century B.C. burial items to the detailed jewelry and religious art of the first millennium A.D. to the ceramics of the 17th century. Among the materials used in these artifacts are bronze, terra-cotta, fine gold, jade, lapis lazuli, crystal and carnelian.
“My sense of Vietnam, in some ways, is that if you were to stick a shovel in the ground just about anywhere, you would come up with some sort of artifact,” says Nancy Tingley, independent curator of the exhibition, which was about 20 years in the making.
Both Indian and Chinese cultures and religious influences are visible in Vietnamese art. However, says Tingley, none of the works are exact copies from any other culture: “You might find a Vishnu (made in Vietnam) that is distinctly a Vishnu sculpture, but it wouldn’t be like a contemporary Indian version.”