times & ticket prices:
Admission is free with the purchase of tickets to
2015 exhibit dates:
Lee J. Chinalai
I believe I was enthralled with the Yao way before I had a basket of flaming offerings placed on my head by a Yao shaman; before I attended much of an exhilarating but exhausting five-day Yao wedding that took place in the cold mountains of northern Thailand at every auspicious hour of day or night; and before I fell in love with the legend of Pan Hu, the tiger-striped talking dog, 'father' of the Yao people, and began collecting small carved effigies of him that sanctify Yao rituals.
An upcoming exhibition, DEEPLY YAO, to take place at El Museo Cultural at the Railyard in Santa Fe in conjunction with Objects of Art Santa Fe and The Antique American Indian Art Shows from August 12th to 20th, 2015, is the culmination of this decades-long fascination, shared by my husband and co-curator, Vichai.
Why the fascination? Before answering, let me tell something about this large and remarkable Hill Tribe group. Also known as the Mien, Lan Tan, Mun, Pu Nu, Lu Ngien, Lak Kja, Zao and Dao according to clan and country, the Yao are descendants of people who lived in the mountains around the Changjiang River Basin in China during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE to 220 AD). Today Yao people, with a population of over two and a half million, are found throughout southwest China and mainland Southeast Asia.
Their history begins with Pan Gu, the first man, who out of chaos built the world, separating earth and sky, then expanded his body to form the universe. After his death his head became the mountains of the earth, his breath the wind and clouds, his limbs the four corners of the world, his blood the rivers, flesh soil, beard the constellations, skin and hair trees and herbs, teeth metal, bones and marrow rocks and precious stones, sweat raindrops, and the insects creeping through his body us… human beings. This was something out of Kafka: I was hooked.
Yao religion is an intriguing amalgamation of Taoism, ancestor worship and animism. Yao Taoism is laced with magic, prophesy and the supernatural. Ancestor spirits are informed, consulted and supplicated through every rite of passage. An orderly relationship with the spirits of nature must be maintained through deference and the show of gratitude. Throughout all of this, the Yao priest or shaman is charged with upholding cosmic safety and order.
The Yao are unique among the Hill Tribes in that they recorded and copied their history and religious heritage throughout the centuries in Chinese characters in books and scrolls, some of which will be on display in the exhibit. Along with these will be a variety of spiritual and functional artifacts representing Yao material culture, including antique textiles and clothing, headdresses, silver jewelry, religious paintings, and priests' and shamans' paraphernalia.