Opening - Naxi art @ Rubin Museum of Art, NY

In 1939, at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, a 19-year-old Harvard art history student set off for the remote region of Lijiang, China, in search of the mysterious ancient culture of the Naxi (Nah-shee). Launched on his quest after receiving a gift of a 40-foot Naxi funeral scroll depicting a soul’s journey through heaven and hell in a pictographic script, Quentin Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, traveled for four months before he finally reached the mountainous region on the Tibetan border. There, with the help of the Reverend James Andrews, a family friend and Pentecostal missionary based in Lijiang, he spent 10 days assembling what was to become one of the most complete collections of Naxi art outside of China.

This first-ever exhibition of the collection of Naxi art that the young Roosevelt gathered on his journey of discovery will open at the Rubin Museum of Art in NY on May 13. Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi will unite the Roosevelt collection with that of legendary botanist-explorer Joseph Rock, the first Western explorer to extensively study the complex religious and linguistic traditions of the Naxi, and whose collection has also never been publicly displayed.

The exhibition includes 147 works showcasing the art central to the Naxi Dongba religion, a highly-structured tradition comprising approximately one thousand ceremonies and sub-ceremonies. Much of the art is adorned with a pictographic script that is unique to the Naxi, and possesses a freshness and spontaneity that suggests a focus on content rather than artistic labor. Among the highlights are: Ceremonial funeral scrolls, which are central to the Dongba religion as they act as bridges for souls to reach the realm of the gods; Ritual cards were used in the many Dongba ceremonies; and ceremonial Manuscripts written by Dongba priests in a pictographic script and contain the entire religion’s corpus in about one thousand ceremonial books.

Residing in a remote mountainous region between Tibet and the south-western Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, the Naxi—one of China's fifty-five ethnic minority nationalities—traditionally practiced the Dongba religion. Dongba has distinct artistic expressions, though it reflects influences from Bon, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Mongolian shamanism, and popular cults. The religion's ritual corpus, comprising some one thousand ceremonies, is contained in manuscripts filled with Dongba script—the only living pictographic language in the world. Examples of these manuscripts, as well as funeral scrolls, altar sticks, thangka paintings, and ritual objects reveal Naxi art as it was found in Lijiang before China's Revolution in 1949.