An artist displayed his hau dong lacquerware collection after two decades of hiding them.

Hanoi artist Tran Tuan Long, 50, unveiled two decades of lacquer paintings depicting the gods and mediums of Vietnam's Mother Goddess religion.

On March 8, the thin artist and his shaved head stood before a crowd surrounded by 26 paintings depicting mediums entranced in ceremonies meant to invite the religion's many dieties into their bodies. 

Before UNESCO recognized the rituals as an intangible cultural heritage three months ago, Long had quietly attended and recorded them in lacquer over the course of two decades.

Vietnam's government banned the tradition as superstition until 1986, but Long's debut exhibition is a testimony to the enduring stigma.

Tran Tuan Long

Long first stepped in the world of Goddesses while guiding a foreign friend through a temple in his hometown in 1995. At midnight, the pair witnessed a group of mediums quietly offering furtive calls to the Mother Goddess as police and farmers quietly slept.

“It opened a world of dance, music, singing, installation art and fashion for me,” Long said.

Three years later, he recorded his faded recollections of the experience on a wooden board. For the next 20 years, mediums in colorful costumes became the protagonists of Long's 26 lacquer paintings, each of which took a month to complete.

In the year 2000, Long submitted his surreptitious work to a national painting competition, hoping for official approval. The board rejected them in a preliminary round, he says, due to the “superstitious subject matter.”

He applied again five years later, to no avail.

Now standing in a hall filled with fellow artists, families and curious youngsters, Long spoke of his desire to showcase his paintings overseas. A Taiwanese firm had already made him an offer, he said.

“I'm lucky I couldn’t sell any of these before," he said. "Now I have a full collection to show the world."

Beside Long’s exhibition, for almost three months, UNESCO’s recent legitimacy has also paved the way for a photo book debut, a theatrical show and an academic lecture in the capital.

While the public has begun to regard the tradition without stigma, it remains unclear whether the subject could have broad appeal.

Long, who has never engaged in the rituals himself, smiled when asked about his faith:

“Why not?" he asked. "If I hadn't believed in the Goddesses, I never would have been able to paint these.”

“Saints” Exhibition by Tran Tuan Long is open from March 8-15, 2017 at Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hanoi.


Quynh Trang

By Quynh Trang