In 2011, the National Gallery of Australia acquired a collection of twenty-four ceremonial paintings made for and used by the Mien Yao people of northern Vietnam. While their fascinating subject and bold imagery made them a particularly suitable addition to the Asian art collection, their poor condition—resulting from age and extensive ritual use—precluded their display at the time. However, through the efforts of the Gallery’s highly trained paper conservators, a number of these paintings from 1810 have now been fully conserved.
Originally from central China, the Yao are believed to have migrated to China’s southern-most provinces before travelling into northern areas of present-day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. According to texts documenting their origins, the Yao are descended from an original divine ancestor, King P’an, who assists his people when they are in urgent need. Legend tells how King P’an was elevated to regal status when, in his previous form as the Five-Coloured Dragon Dog P’an Hung, he eliminated the emperor’s troublesome enemy. Rewarded with a royal bride and kingdom, King P’an fathered twelve sons and daughters who established the Yao clans. These histories further tell how King P’an assisted his blessed descendants on their journey from China to northern Vietnam at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Paintings known as mien fang play an integral role in the complex Taoist rituals performed among Yao communities to ensure the salvation of the soul in the afterlife and to ward off malevolent spirits that inflict disease and misfortune. Each image is produced according to exacting rules and, following an awakening ceremony, is inhabited by the god depicted. This enables Yao priests to commune with the gods during lifecycle rituals and exorcisms. In the event that a set of paintings is no longer required, a ritual is performed to remove the deities’ presence. The Gallery’s paintings range from small masks worn by Yao priests when channelling deities to larger vertical hangings depicting the Taoist pantheon and their magical feats.
Eight of the twenty-four paintings that have now undergone conservation were in poor condition from extensive ritual use—they were torn, dirty, abraded and encrusted with bird and insect droppings, soot and smoke. The adhesive used to attach the scroll painting to its layered paper support was failing, resulting in delamination and separation. Numerous crude repairs had been affected and movement, handling and degradation of the binding media had resulted in considerable paint loss.
To carry out conservation treatment, each painting was first disassembled by unstitching the top and bottom edges, removing the original hanging rods and carefully peeling back each paper layer of the support one by one. Surface cleaning with a soft brush removed dust and debris before the paintings were cleaned and chemically stabilised by the controlled application of water. This allowed soluble grime and other products causing degradation to be drawn onto a dampened blotter. Removing ingrained dirt also restored the brilliance of the natural mineral pigments.
Particles of loose and cracking pigment were re-adhered with a natural seaweed solution that left the colour or gloss of the painted areas unchanged. The paintings were sympathetically relined and reassembled in their original format. With only minimal retouching required the accumulated patina of age and use so vital to the context of these works was retained.
Included among the newly conserved works are depictions of the Three Pure Ones, or Fam Ts’ing: Yen Si, To Ta and Leng Pu. The highest deities of the Taoist pantheon, these beings are the embodiment of the Tao, or Way, the divine force underpinning the universe and everything in it. Seated upon a throne, each crowned figure is adorned in an elaborate dragon and phoenix robe, a signifier of imperial rank. Yen Si is identified by his black robe and hand gesture indicating his possession of the pill of immortality (the means by which are souls are granted eternity in heaven), To Ta by his white hair and fan, and Leng Pu by the sceptre held in both hands.
In keeping with strict compositional conventions for Yao paintings, the altar scroll High constable Tai Wai depicts the Taoist god brandishing a sword astride his white steed. Tai Wai, also depicted in a paper mask worn by Yao priests, is accompanied by the horsemen Shang Yuan and Hsien Fong. Together, they are responsible for leading the celestial armies and guarding the family altar from troublesome spirits. The intricate detailing and pigments used for this painting suggest a different artist, a commonplace occurrence in mien fang sets, which often require replacement paintings for those examples too worn for continued use.
A selection of these impressive Yao paintings can be seen on display in the Southeast Asian galleries, and the Gallery looks forward to exhibiting more newly conserved examples in coming months.
Niki van den Heuvel Assistant Curator, Asian Art, and James Ward Paper Conservator
in artonview, issue 75, Spring 2013